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Faith in the Ballot Box
A Review of Public Faith in Action:
How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity
Aaron Morrison

“Vote your conscience.”

These words signified the closest Senator Ted Cruz came to endorsing presidential candidate Donald Trump at the contentious 2016 Republican National Convention. Cruz’s phrase sent another message: voting requires moral consideration. For Christians, this means applying their faith at the ballot box. With both presidential candidates rocked by scandals, the moral task of voting in this election seems particularly complicated.

Yale Divinity professors Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz offer practical guidance for Christians in their new book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. This short, accessible volume provides readers an opportunity to clarify their understanding of Christian values and how those values may be applied to current political issues.

bookcover Public Faith in Action functions as a “companion” (ix) to Volf’s 2011 A Public Faith, which cast a theological vision for “the place and the role of followers of Christ” in pluralistic societies. Supplementing this vision, Public Faith in Action explains more concretely what kind of “virtues and commitments” are needed for Christians to faithfully process political concerns. While the arguments of Public Faith in Action are not as fully articulated as those in A Public Faith, this book is written in a way that invites discussion among small groups of Christians serving in “many different places and situations” (xiii). In so doing, the authors provide an introduction to Christian political theology and praxis that is friendly to a  general audience.

Volf and McAnnally-Linz divide their book into three parts: “Commitments” (theological assumptions), “Convictions” (commitments applied to current political topics), and “Character” (virtues that aid Christian public engagement).

“Commitments” features a concise account of theological points made in A Public Faith. The authors set a strong, Christo-centric framework for Christian public engagement. Volf and McAnnally-Linz attest to how the Church throughout history either strengthened or damaged its witness depending on its relationship to governments. They urge Christians to remember the incarnational model of Christ and reject an ideal of expanding the kingdom of God by coercive methods.

In chapter two of “Commitments,” titled “Christ, The Spirit, and Flourishing,” the authors delineate human flourishing as the Church’s ultimate political goal. They identify three aspects of human flourishing: leading life well, life going well, and life feeling good. The authors chose these three aspects in order to “correspond roughly to three important strands… in the Western tradition” (13), namely Kant’s ethics of duty, Marx’s materialism, and contemporary pop culture’s emphasis on feeling good.

In the section’s last chapter, titled “Reading in Contexts,” the authors identify two contexts Christians must keep in mind for faithful public engagement: canonical context and contemporary context. Because of the great differences between the world of the Bible and the world of today, the authors call for a careful, communal reading of both contexts. As an example, they cite Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s use of the biblical narrative to address racial injustice.

The largest section of Public Faith in Action is “Convictions.” Volf and McAnnally-Linz organize each of its seventeen chapters around a contemporary issue, then cite a parallel in the Bible, and end with the authors’ summation of Christian stances on the subject and a list of discussion-type questions titled “Room for Debate.” These brief, clear chapters on topics dominating US life and political discourse (including education, marriage and family, borrowing and lending, health and sickness, migration, policing, and the environment) establish a baseline understanding of the issues at stake. By illuminating the nuances of the debates, the authors explain the need for Christians to reject a utilitarian calculus, especially in the chapters on economic matters.

In the chapter on marriage and family, the authors sketch out one of the most contentious culture war topics, same-sex marriage, by skillfully analyzing its legal and cultural implications. Volf and McAnnally-Linz show persuasively how supporters of traditional marriage can maintain a consistent, Christian worldview while also advocating for legal protection of same-sex marriage. The authors’ desire for a more gracious Christian political engagement comes across most plainly on this theme.

The “Character” section stands slightly apart from the two earlier sections, and addresses the virtues Christians need for faithful political witness. The authors share stories of notable individuals who illustrate these virtues. The story of Father Stanley Rother—a Catholic priest from Oklahoma whose  social justice work in a poor, rural part of Guatemala was cut short when he was killed by a death squad in 1981—stands out as a example of Christian courage that will stay with readers.

Volf and McAnnally-Linz draw heavily from scripture in making their arguments—a move evangelical readers will appreciate. The list of suggested resources at the end of each chapter is divided into “introductory” and “advanced” study, and the authors’ superb annotations and copious notes will encourage readers to research beyond the scope of this book.

In recent years, several other Christian authors have published books in a similar vein to Public Faith in Action. These include Darrell Bock (How Would Jesus Vote?: Do Your Political Views Really Align With The Bible?, 2016), Tony Evans (How Should Christians Vote?, 2012), and Wayne Grudem (Voting as a Christian, 2012).  Compared to those works, Volf and McAnnally-Linz’s volume leans more toward the evangelical left and expends more effort to persuade its readers to reject factionalism. Their desire to cultivate a spirit of civility and move the discourse forward makes for an edifying read, regardless of whether readers agree with their take.

The political realm is complex, and readers who finish Public Faith in Action might not feel more confident in their vote. But Volf and McAnnally-Linz enourage Christians to work toward a biblically rooted, common political good. Public Faith in Action’s durable message is not merely for individual Christians to vote their conscience, but, just as important, to first ground their conscience among the totality of believers: past, present, and future.

 

Aaron Morrison is a master of theological studies student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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