Timothy Sherratt, a long-time contributor to the Center for Public Justice, has recently published a book dealing with a Christian approach to politics: Power Made Perfect? (Wipf and Stock, 2016). He kindly agreed to be interviewed.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview Tim, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in North Devon the younger son of parents who were teachers. I made a faith commitment as an undergraduate at Oxford in 1973, and came to graduate school in the U.S. a few years later, completing a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Kentucky. After sojourns in Arizona and New York, I accepted a position teaching American politics and constitutional law at Gordon College in Massachusetts in 1989 and have remained there to the present. Gordon is a Christian college in the evangelical tradition. My wife and I have four children and three grandchildren.
Who (or what) are the major influences on you?
I think you may mean major influences on my life, rather than on the book, so let me split the difference and try to give you a sampling of both.
- In my family, Christian morality was taken for granted as simply part of reality but Christian theology was not very prominent—and somehow that combination gave me the space to take God for granted, too, without getting bogged down in doctrinal disputes or to fake a relationship with God out of a desire to please. One way or another, I’ve always been grateful for both what was emphasized and what wasn’t. Add to this combination, rural North Devon in the 50s/60s, kind and indulgent neighbors on the farms surrounding us who let me wander around wherever I wanted to, and never complained when I got under their feet—blessings, pure and simple.
- The Book of Common Prayer. Surely, the Church of England’s gift to the world. Its influence settled into my life through my good memory that has since boarding school years allowed words and phrases to become part of my mental and religious furniture, to equip and to encourage. When I came to faith, I was probably something of an Anglican Evangelical. Over time, noun and adjective may have reversed themselves! I owe a huge debt to evangelicalism for bringing the Faith to life and to the Book of Common Prayer for helping me try to live out the Faith as a member of the Body of Christ.
- The Center for Public Justice, a Christian think-tank in Washington, under its founding president, Jim Skillen, was formative as I was trying to make sense of Christian faith in relation to politics. I have written for the Center since 2003 and that exercise helped prepare the ground for Power Made Perfect?
- I’ve already made reference to the early (but appreciated) deficit in Christian theology, but I like to read good theology, clearly articulated and well written. N.T. Wright has been a major influence in that regard that I’m happy to acknowledge. (But how does he manage to write so many books?!)
- My wife and my children are influences on a non-computable scale, I suspect!
How did your interest in politics start?
I can’t remember not being interested. My family listened to regular BBC news bulletins so the national and international political scene made its way into my consciousness early on—but with very little understanding on my part, I’m sure. My father professed an enthusiasm for the Liberals at one point—Jeremy Thorpe was MP for North Devon in the 1960s and I recall the yellow jacket of Jo Grimond’s The Liberal Challenge on the bookshelf. (But I don’t remember reading it myself!) By my teens, American history and politics held a stronger fascination. A few years later, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign coincided with my coming to faith so I was intrigued by the question of what difference it made that Carter professed his faith so openly—was there a “Christian politics?” A year or so into his presidency, I wrote an article about him and sent it to the Church Times, which, to my great surprise, published it. By this time, I was beginning to pursue the possibility of coming to the U.S. to go to graduate school, which I did in 1978. That’s only an outline but those were important influences.
Your recent book Power Made Perfect? has been recently published, could you tell us a little about it?
I wrote the book with two readerships in mind: the Christian students I teach and have taught for many years, and that (hopefully not imaginary) “intelligent lay Christian” readership that worships, works, serves and, though often frustrated by politics, is still prepared to ask good questions.
What I try to do in the book is to consider how Christians have “done” politics and to acknowledge major traditions of Christian reflection on politics. Before theory, so to speak, I wanted look at practice. So the first two chapters examine the Religious Right in the United States and the Christian Democratic Union in Germany—not because these are paragons but because they’re seasoned examples of has occurred, for better or worse, and we can lean much from both. It helps that the two took different paths to political engagement, that the one reflects evangelical protestant influence and the other largely Roman Catholic influence, and so on.
From there I introduce the major conviction that prompted me to write: Christian political thinking needs to pay more attention to a central biblical paradox, namely that in surrendering to the Roman authorities who then executed him, Jesus was in fact exercising true power, what I, following St. Paul, call the “power made perfect” (in weakness). A host of questions follow this: what are the implications of trying to orient Christians’ and by extension everyone’s political engagement to true power? What can this look like? Does it simply place politics under judgment or are there ways to put it into practice? How should we conduct ourselves from the perspective of Christ, the risen King?
These questions take me to traditions of Christian thought that help us do so: the Catholic and neo-Calvinist traditions that urge us to derive normative principles from the moral law that accompanies the physical creation; the tradition of Christian piety (often rendered as an apolitical tradition) that calls us to please God, to cooperate with Him; and the prudential tradition with its origins in the Lutheran reformation that explores the balancing act of living by biblical principles in a fallen world. I take these traditions as providing a kind of composite response to the question of how to conduct responsible Christian political engagement.
I then turn to several sets of political issues especially significant in American politics—education and immigration policy, abortion and same-sex marriage, and last, foreign policy under globalization, and the prospects for reform of the electoral system.
The final chapter complements the chapter that introduces the “power made perfect” theme, urging readers to “Be the Church!” Here my concerns are with declining church attendance and also with the vital role of the church in helping believers remain focused on the good news that Jesus Christ is risen, so that they may take this hope into all walks of life, including political engagement. Only the churches, I contend, can properly articulate the problem of evil, set aside grandiose, idolatrous hopes for political action, learn an appropriate humility grounded in Christian Hope, and persist in obedient service even when confronted by daunting social or political issues.
And I close by arguing that a Christian politics for this century will “depend more on the cultivation of the faith and rather less on the forms that political expression takes” (p.123). So another way to sum up is to say that Christian political engagement should take its bearings from the Hope of the resurrection of Jesus. This may not making deciding what to do easy, but it is the place to start from.
What was the highlight in writing the book?
I think it was seeing it start to come together, and the accompanying certainty that it was going to see the light of day. I really did have that from quite early on. Now some wonderful things happened, too, including some excellent copy-editing help, and meeting John Topliff at my daughter’s wedding of all places. John’s a book agent and he found me my publisher. I’m very grateful to everyone who helped me.
It’s not the first book on a Christian approach to politics you have published. In what ways have your thoughts developed since the publication of Saints as Citizens?
I have a real fondness for short articles, in the 600-800 word range, and much of my work from about 2003 to 2013 was writing those for the Center for Public Justice, a Christian think-tank in Washington (www.cpjustice.org). They force you to be clear and not to waste words. But I had felt that it was time to try to write a second (mature?) version of Saints as Citizens. I actually started out by re-reading it and attempting a revision, but soon set it aside so that I could organize Power Made Perfect? in the way I’ve described to you. The way my thinking has developed could best be described by saying it’s tried to take more into account than the first book did. When we wrote Saints as Citizens I was especially impressed by the possibilities of the neo-Calvinist political perspective in the work of Abraham Kuyper, and his contribution to what would become the (mainly European) tradition of Christian Democracy. That’s the direction that book tried to lead its readers.
Power Made Perfect? is much more conscious of Roman Catholic social teaching, in effect, the senior partner of Christian Democracy’s development, and I’m no less impressed by the potential in Christian Democracy than I was back then. But it’s also less about presenting Christian Democracy as the “best” approach and tries to hold all the traditions of Christian political reflection, Christian pluralist, pietistic, prudential, to the “power made perfect” standard, and the good news it embodies. N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and How God Became King played a valuable role in crystallizing my thoughts—though I do wish Wright had written a further chapter in the latter working out more of the implications! His political leaders tend to collapse into an authoritarian Caesar, I think, but the power made perfect has just as profound implications for democrats as dictators. But those books helped me a lot, no question.
In the book you make mention of Abraham Kuyper, what do you see as the important lessons for today from Kuyper’s approach?
I was introduced to the Kuyper tradition around the time I began teaching at Gordon College. Let me just mention two lessons: in terms of Christian thinking about politics and government, Kuyper is perhaps best known for the concept of “sphere sovereignty,” which among other things is a way of placing government within the wider context of society. In doing we can distinguish the tasks that fall to government from those that are the responsibility of other social bodies, from families to commercial enterprises and more. In fact, a major role of government is to try to create conditions under which those other bodies are able to do what they are fitted for. Elusive as it can be to put this into practice, here is a comprehensive vision of justice “under God,” as it were, one that acknowledges the sovereign Creator’s care for every area of life.
The political tradition in the United States is especially concerned with the reach of government—Americans value individual liberty and self-government —but sphere sovereignty insists that government has clear God-given responsibilities to pursue justice. There are limits to limited government! Kuyper’s approach is practical, biblical, and most useful for thinking well about the scope and limits of government in society.
Many, particularly in the UK, are suspicious of a Christian political party. Do you think a Christian political party is a viable option?
There’s nothing wrong with a Christian political party, but neither the ways Christianity expresses itself in the UK nor the electoral system seem likely to encourage the formation of such a party.
Britain’s mix of parties has come about for reasons of regional politics—one thinks of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, the distinct politics of Northern Ireland, etc.—but the electoral system of single-seat constituencies is much friendlier to a two-party system. So ideologically grounded or religiously grounded parties have not taken off.
The successful Christian parties have understood that their purpose is to govern (rather than to evangelize) and that government is a this-worldly activity that should be guided as much as possible by a biblical view of human beings, their needs and their destiny. Government is service. Government is stewardship. Government is responsible for national defense and criminal justice.
Some Christian traditions are better situated to embrace these responsibilities than are others. The Roman Catholic social and political teachings are a good example of an engaged, theologically developed tradition—in many respects quite like the Kuyper tradition—and it’s no surprise that both have underwritten effective political organization and engagement.
So, with those traditions relatively weaker in Britain than in continental Europe, and with the complicating factor of the Established Church, Christian political engagement has been similarly complicated. So rather than a straight answer, I hope I’ve at least offered a context for trying to reach one!
What role – if any – do you see the local church having in politics?
In the book, my hope for the churches is that they can nurture Christian understanding of the proper ends of politics. With reference to the unhelpful rhetoric of American party politics in recent years—even before the emergence of Donald Trump—I stress how important it is that government in a fallen world is not about ultimate matters, ultimate solutions, but about trying to approach public justice.
Of course, members of churches should debate these things, not merely accept some official view. Above all, they should make the case to one another that there is a place for political engagement and no good case for simply avoiding all mention of politics—perhaps more of an American than a British failing? After all, Christians are equipped in a unique way: we hold by faith the hope of eternal life, of society made new, relationships healed and restored and Christ fully acknowledged as King. From the perspective of that hope the mundane tasks of governing and the privileges of democracy are set in context and lent their importance, for we are God’s stewards of creation, made in His image.
If we rehearse this good news in our churches through, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and service, then our churches will be doing their work well, equipping us for the tasks God calls us to do in whatever professional, familial, charitable fields we work in—including seeking and holding political office. None of this work can ever be simply “secular” to believers if the local church is doing what it should, again, politics and government included.
What advice would you have for Christian who wants to get involved in politics?
I see some of the students I teach getting involved most fruitfully when they volunteer in election campaigns. Those are fast-moving classrooms where the volunteer can get a lot of experience in a short space of time and see this aspect of politics up close—sometimes a more sobering experience than they expect.
As a British citizen, I’ve always been envious of the openness of American society and the hospitality American organizations from private businesses to government offices, non-profits, interest groups and political campaigns extend to interns. Of course, in the university context, the intern comes back, takes a course, and writes papers integrating experience from the internship with insights from political science. Not everyone can put things together in such an organized fashion, let alone in a context explicitly committed to asking questions about the implications for Christian perspective, etc. But approximating that approach is the best way for the student to test the waters of a political interest.
What books have you recently being reading?
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry, my favorite American writer, perhaps. He’s one of those writers who, though his characters don’t stray far from their rural Kentucky community, manage to illuminate everything that matters.
Pope Francis, by Paul Vallely, whom I met earlier this year (Vallely, that is)—I found this to be a quite extraordinary work, so comprehensively researched to reveal Francis in three dimensions. A real page-turner.
Second Royal Gloucestershire Hussars: Libya-Egypt 1941-42, by Stuart Pitman. My late father began his teaching career in Gloucestershire in the late 1930s, joined up, and fought in this campaign.
The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson. I purchased it at Heathrow to read in the plane on a trip home from the UK. Inimitable Bryson, with that mix of the insightful and the irreverent that is his version of loving the place—and, I would assert, you could find Brexit between the lines of this book (or at least rendered perfectly understandable)!
And finally, in true desert-Island-discs style: If you were on a desert island what two luxuries would you take with you?
If I may assume that the Bible and Shakespeare are in place, I’d like to make my desert island sufficiently fertile with enough rainfall to make gardening worthwhile: then seeds and garden tools would be luxury enough as one of the above.
The other? High-quality binoculars for birding. (I’m far from expert in the “twitching” department, but it’s been a source of joy for many years.)