Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation
In an era of American politics in which Christian political engagement on both sides of the political divide is more often driven by one’s partisan loyalties than by one’s Christian values, this book challenges us to reconsider how we, as Christians, engage in political conversations. The premise undergirding this book (p. xvii) is that “Jesus has called his followers to love their neighbors.” As a result, Heie contends Christian love demands that, when engaging in political discussions with those with whom we may disagree politically, we provide them a “safe and welcoming space” to express their disagreement and then talk respectfully together about that disagreement (p.xvii).
For a number of years now, Harold Heie has been convening “respectful conversations about politics.” This book is an outgrowth of his latest endeavor (September 2017 to July 2018), when he hosted an electronic conversation addressing 10 pre-announced monthly discussion topics around the general theme of “Reforming Political Discourse.” (see http://www.respectfulconversation,net). For each topic addressed, Heie secured at least two Christians who held diametrically opposing political viewpoints on the topic to be discussed, and then encouraged them to engage each other politically on those topics. Overall, 66 conversations were posted, with Chapters 1-10 of the book consisting of Heie’s distillations of the postings from the 23 invited “conversation partners.” The intended result of this effort is that these ten chapters model “respectful political conversations” among Christians who have strong political disagreements.
In doing so, Heie seeks to show us a way forward out of the mire in which we presently find ourselves. Our current level of political polarization will only diminish when we begin to find common ground among ourselves. And, in order to find these areas of agreement, we will need to be encouraged to talk to one another and learn how to disagree before we can discern the bases that truly unite us.
Heie practices what he preaches, as Chapter 2 contains a distillation of an exchange between Heie and Greg Williams, a doctoral student at Duke University Divinity School who, at the time of writing, identified himself as an “anarcho-communist” (p. 51). That exchange centered on the topic “What does Christian Love Demand” when engaging in politics. Heie initially answered the question in terms of “humility, courage, and love,” while Williams did so in terms of seeking “to foster the flourishing of the poor, marginalized and oppressed people.” As Heie notes (p. 45), when one reads their initial responses to the question, the two responders may appear, at first glance, “to inhabit two different worlds” (p. 51). Nevertheless, in the course of their exchange, Heie comes to acknowledge that his “original view of the scope of politics (searching for the common good) was ‘wrong’ in being too narrow and that Greg’s broader view of politics ,,, was ‘right’” (p. 49). In the same way, despite their different perspectives, Heie examines eight areas of common agreement the two in fact share before he begins to discuss what he deems to be their two fundamental areas of disagreement.
Overall, the chapters cover four broad topics: (1) “How Christians and others should talk to one another about political issues,” (2) “The meaning of politics and the appropriate scope of political activity,” (3) “Selected public policy proposals that are hotly debated,” and (4) “How churches and Christian para-church organizations should proceed, or not proceed, relative to political activity.” The final chapter of the book seeks to present a “Way Forward” for those who seek to reform the current state of American politics, particularly for Christians who seek to apply Christian values to American politics.
Given its purposes, the book is written more for a general, than a “scholarly,” audience, but this is a strength, not a weakness, of the book. Certainly, as individual Christians, all of us can benefit from the book’s content when engaging in politics, as it models good conversation and spells out important elements for navigating terrains of political disagreement. But, in addition, the volume can also serve as excellent study material for adult education classes in churches and for courses on politics taught in Christian high schools and church-related colleges. Nevertheless, as the author recommends (p. xx), it would be wise for any group using the book first to engage with the material related of Part 1 of the volume (political discourse) before jumping into any discussion related to the more challenging topics covered in Parts 2-4 of the volume.