How should Christians in a representative republic steward their influence, their resources, and their vote? How should Christians think about the great challenges in our communities, our country, and our world? How should we process the news stories that scroll across our social media timelines?
Providing Christians with an accessible, actionable ethics primer is the goal of Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, written by Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf and associate research scholar Ryan McAnnally-Linz. The book follows in the tradition of Volf’s career of public theology and flows out of his role as director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
Public Life Is For All
At the outset, engaged evangelicals will appreciate the authors’ robust case for a sturdy public witness:
Public life isn’t just for politicians or celebrities. Each and every one of us lives a public life because every life has a public dimension running through it. Every life contributes, however faintly, to public life writ large: governments, economics, educational institutions, media, and the like. So it’s not that anyone and everyone can engage in public life; we all inescapably do so.
Readers at all levels will also appreciate the book’s accessibility. Though the authors are academics, they communicate at a level most lay Christians would understand. This kind of clarity isn’t just difficult to execute; it’s also rare.
Public Faith in Action is divided into three sections: commitments, convictions, and character. The first lays a good foundational grid for Christian engagement: the kingdom of God with Christ as the center. In presenting a robust vision of human flourishing (11–16), they take pains to caution against the common temptation to apply Jesus in a hackneyed way to cultural debates, urging Christians to understand the differences between the first-century Palestine of Jesus’s day and contemporary life in Western societies (17–27).
In refreshing contrast to the often generic civil religions offered by both the left and the right, the authors ground their ethics in the reality of Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and call for a kingdom-shaped engagement. This is the right place to begin a discussion of specific cultural issues.
Specific Issues, Missing Questions
In the heart of Public Faith in Action, the authors dive into a series of controversial political issues. In most cases, they model thoughtful interaction with Scripture. For instance, the chapters on wealth, poverty, education, and lending are excellent. I was deeply convicted by the category of “positional goods” (79) as unnecessary luxuries owned simply for status.
Some issues are addressed in a way that fails to ask key questions. When discussing creation care, for instance, the authors dismiss the effect of extreme environmental measures on third-world poverty (44–45). In a mostly good chapter on education, they fail to question the stranglehold of powerful unions on bipartisan attempts at reform. And in a chapter that addresses just war theory, they don’t engage Romans 13’s granting of the sword. There are other minor concerns as well, such as their failure, in an otherwise excellent chapter on poverty, to discuss how markets have lifted more people out of despair than has any other economic system.
Perhaps the best chapters in the book deal with issues of life and human dignity. Though they unwisely question the efficacy of pro-life legislation, the authors make a strong case for the sanctity of human life, from womb to tomb. Moreover, the chapters on the end of life and on aging are worth reading. This is perhaps the best contemporary lay treatment on euthanasia and death with dignity published anywhere.
Misplaced Moral Certainty
The most disappointing section of Public Faith in Action, however, is the chapter on marriage and family. Given their earnest advocacy for human flourishing, it’s puzzling why the authors fail to recognize the socioeconomic data the affirms what the Scriptures teach: complementarity and marriage are vital for a nation’s long-term flourishing. What’s even more troubling is the authors’ hermeneutical approach to marriage in Scripture, presenting it as an evolving institution (88) rather than a ongoing picture of Christ and his church, from Genesis to Revelation.
They try to distinguish between the “legal” question and the “ecclesial” question, urging Christians to advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage while urging church bodies to solve the question of same-sex marriage in a way that ensures “minimum possible rending of the body.” This approach to a cardinal institution of the Christian faith should be most distressing to faithful Christians. Space doesn’t permit, but this section on marriage and family deserves its own review and rebuttal.
Here the authors abandon their own appeal to a Christ-centered Christian ethic in favor of a popular consensus. They also abandon the moral certitude that so informs specific policies on other matters like policing, education, and environmentalism—issues where there is far less certainty from Scripture—and apply moral relativism. This is a frustrating feature of Public Faith in Action. The authors apply Scripture with moral certainty on specific policy matters and yet abandon moral certainty on matters like marriage and even the efficacy of pro-life legislation.
For this reason I offer important caveats when commending this book. It should be in your library as a helpful reference on important issues but shouldn’t be seen as the go-to textbook for Christian ethics.