Published by Eerdmans on March 2, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Politics
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Where do Christians fit in a two-party political system?
The partisan divide that is rending the nation is now tearing apart American churches. On one side are Christian Right activists and other conservatives who believe that a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate is a vote for abortion, sexual immorality, gender confusion, and the loss of religious liberty for Christians. On the other side are politically progressive Christians who are considering leaving the institutional church because of white evangelicalism’s alliance with a Republican Party that they believe is racist, hateful toward immigrants, scornful of the poor, and directly opposed to the principles that Jesus taught. Even while sharing the same pew, these two sides often see the views of the other as hopelessly wrongheaded—even evil. Is there a way to transcend this deep-seated division?
The Politics of the Cross draws on history, policy analysis, and biblically grounded theology to show how Christians can protect the unborn, advocate for traditional marriage, promote racial justice, care for the poor, and, above all, honor the gospel by adopting a cross-centered ethic instead of the idolatrous politics of power, fear, or partisanship. As Daniel K. Williams illustrates, both the Republican and Democratic parties are rooted in Christian principles, but both have distorted those principles and mixed them with assumptions that are antithetical to biblical truth. Williams explains how Christians can renounce partisanship and pursue policies that show love for our neighbors to achieve a biblical vision of justice.
Nuanced, detailed, and even-handed, The Politics of the Cross tackles the thorny issues that divide Christians politically and offers a path forward with innovative, biblically minded political approaches that might surprise Christians on both the left and the right.
Growing up, I don’t think I was never explicitly told that Republicans were Christians and Democrats weren’t, but that was certainly the impression I received as a child of the 1990s. It was something I carried with me until much later in life. The cracks began to appear first when I came of age and seriously had to think about for whom to vote and what values I held civically. The cracks continued when I saw how Republicans often treated those in the other party, even if I thought Republican ideals were better. I moved to understanding how one could be a faithful Christian and a Democrat. And then came Donald Trump. And the political party I had aligned with—and almost the brand of Christianity I had grown up with—evicted me.
In The Politics of the Cross, historian Daniel Williams surveys Christianity from both parties and gives readers a faithful alternative to partisanship meant to help believers forge a new identity as part of an alternate Kingdom that stands apart from the American empire. With clarity and precision, Williams recounts how both modern parties had their founding on Christian principles and posits that both parties have twisted and distorted those principles for their own purposes.
Republicans and Democrats
The first two chapters alone could—and probably should—be standalone books in their own right. Chapter one discusses the Protestant moralism of the Republican Party. The chapter begins with this sentence: If ever there was a political party dedicated to social justice, the Republican Party should have been it. Williams begins with the party’s founding to combat slavery and quickly works through the Protestant influence that has run through the party’s history. He paints a picture of 20th century Republicanism as being quite reflective of mainline Protestantism of the time, wryly noting that the Episcopal Church was considered to be “the Republican Party at prayer.” Today, that same denomination is painted as “liberal” and, according to a Pew Forum poll from 2014, leans Democrat.
Williams continues to trace the party’s history as it becomes aligned with evangelicalism and brings it into the modern age. With precision and nuance, he describes how the Christian Right gained control of the Republican Party with the goal of revitalizing America’s moral decay—seen as beginning in the 1960s. His historian’s voice is always careful, factual, and conscientious, providing eye-opening context for how the party became what has become.
The next chapter is devoted to the secularized liberal Protestantism of the Democratic Party and Williams goes through the same paces, providing a summarized but extensive history of the party and its political and religious shifts across the 19th and 20th centuries. He chronicles that rise of the “social gospel” in the late 1800s and adherents’ goals in using their faith to change social policy. He writes of how the 1912 Democratic candidate for President—Woodrow Wilson—was the son of a pastor whose personal faith drove political reform. As President, Wilson would abolish child labor, regulate monopolies, regulate banking, place restrictions on workday length, and advocate for international relations based on the equality of all humanity.
Moving into the 1960s, the Democratic Party begin to skew younger and more distanced from religious observances. Williams spends significant time on the influence of the Black church and other minority groups in Democratic politics, offering a marked contrast with a Republican Party that was founded on anti-slavery goals. He brings it all into the modern age with a discussion of LGBTQ+ issues and concludes with: If Christians vote Democratic, it will not be because of the party’s celebration of sinful values, but rather because Christians recognize that in a world of imperfect political choices, the party’s policies offer the best opportunity to protect the human dignity of the poor and the marginalized and to show love for their neighbor.
There are some hints in that sentence where Williams’ beliefs lie theologically. He is Reformed and conservative, thus in most instances would be a poster child for the Republican Party. Williams’ critiques of the GOP tend to be more in the realm of the theological—such as policies that harm the poor or the immigrant. His critiques of the Democratic party tend more to what he perceives as an allowance of sinful practices. Yet while that personal conviction and background comes through, Williams remains fully committed to a fair and nuanced understanding of both parties.
The chapters that follow cover four major policy differences between the two parties: abortion, marriage and sexuality, race, and wealth/poverty. Williams views this chapters as a historian, delineating the historical positions of each party, tracing their change, and providing perspective and context for the modern argument. It’s in these chapters that Williams’ theological views come through more explicitly, as he refers to homosexual behavior as “a sinful philosophy.” That may scare off more progressively minded Christians or seekers as they (in my opinion, rightfully) react to such a bold and unnuanced claim. I would have much preferred if Williams would have suggested that faithful Christians can have different viewpoints and that, politically, one must be more inclusive (as one is governing a multi-faith, multi-cultural entity) than one can be theologically.
While The Politics of the Cross is subtitled “A Christian alternative to partisanship,” I think it’s important to note that Williams isn’t offering a third-way solution to every problem. The alternative to partisanship is to be intellectually honest, inclusive, and understanding. Even though I think Williams comes up short sometimes on that, even though I have disagreements with some of his conclusions, it’s so refreshing to see someone whose theological beliefs trend Reformed and conservative acknowledge that you can be a Democrat and a Christian and that Republican policies have been damning to the poor and the immigrant.
This is a book to grapple with. I think it’s aimed more at conservative evangelicals than liberal evangelicals or maintain Protestants, but everyone will gain perspective from the history of the book. Your mileage may vary when it comes to how Williams envisions where the two parties have failed and what Christians must do to move forward. What’s important is that The Politics of the Cross is fair and honest, written from a historian’s perspective, and actually seeks dialogue and discussion. We need more books like this.