By / Apr 4

Healthy engagement in the public square can feel like a fond memory of past decades, but we believe that Christians can still engage the public square today in ways that bring hope where it is desperately needed.

On the ERLC Podcast, our goal is to help you think biblically about today’s cultural issues. Today, we’re starting a new series on Christian political engagement.

Do you sense that American politics is in trouble? Are you frustrated by our inability, even as Christians, to dialogue and disagree across party lines and other differences? In 2019, the ERLC, the Fetzer Institute, and LifeWay Research conducted a study on civility in the public square. The study found that “the single most common adjective” evangelical leaders used to describe the current political discourse was “toxic.” Sadly, not much has changed over the last several years. 

At the ERLC, we feel the same tensions you feel. On the one hand, it’d be easy to throw up our hands and be done with politics altogether. On the other, we can be tempted to conform to the patterns of the world and adopt the same defensive posture in politics we see on social media and in the news. But, we, as Christians, believe there’s a better way and that Scripture guides us in our political engagement—maybe not in the specifics of voting on a certain policy, but certainly, in our speech, how we treat others, and the things we care about. 

Together, we want to be Southern Baptists who engage in politics and bring hope to the public square. On today’s episode, you’ll learn what this means from Brent Leatherwood, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He has extensive experience working in our nation’s capital and in Tennessee politics. He and his wife are committed members of their local church and have three children. 

By / Jul 1

In January 2012, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam took the dais in the Tennessee House of Representatives to present his annual State of the State Address. In this speech that provided both an update on the progress the state was making and a framework for the year ahead, Haslam issued a simple challenge to all the assembled leaders and citizens of the Volunteer State: Believe in better.

While that was the theme of that particular address, after reading Haslam’s new book Faithful Presence, I am convinced the motto is more than just a nifty bit of sloganeering. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is his challenge to any Christian seeking to engage the tumultuous world of American politics –– and boy is it tumultuous.

In the first few chapters, Haslam touches on several studies and highlights multiple instances that show the deteriorating state of our public square. Anyone who has paid attention to the events in the political space over the last six months will readily agree.

Distinctly Christian political service

It is once this initial groundwork is laid by Haslam that his book really starts to take off. As I was reading his diagnosis of the weighty matters before us, it became clear that he is looking at the political arena as a mission field –– one in dire need of genuine Christian servants. And before you jump to any conclusion that this sounds just like every other book lining the shelves offered by various prosperity gospel grifters, Haslam continually returns to themes of service and humility as the true antidotes to the outrage plaguing our political system. He writes, “Our motivation for walking into the public square should always reflect our call to serve, not our desire to win” before he cites James 3:17-18 as how a Christian should conduct themselves in public life.

After laying down this marker, Haslam is clear-eyed in that this runs counter to the current incentive structure in our politics. “That kind of wisdom might not lead to a lot of likes on your Facebook page. It is easily drowned out by the shouting voices on cable TV. It might not even feel as good as finally being able to unload our opinions we think the world so desperately needs to hear.” As I read that list, I could feel the wincing of the dozens of political consultants I have worked with. And, in my former role where I was able to help call attention to Gov. Haslam’s good work, I likely would have, too. But with the perspective that comes from being outside the day-to-day machinations of political life, I can say that Haslam is absolutely correct about what is needed from Christians.

Haslam does an excellent job peppering the book with stories from his time as a public servant. His remarks about working through the democratic system and decision points with various matters are very helpful for readers because he works through how his faith guided him. His experiences with Cyntoia Brown, a prisoner he issued a pardon to, are deeply moving.

Several parts of the book are quintessential Haslam. At one point, he revisits one of his favorite analogies when he compares government to fire. 

“Government matters, and good government can make a big difference. Conservatives have often thought of government as the problem, not the answer, in Ronald Reagan’s famous words. Liberals have too often thought that more money was the answer to most problems. My view is that government is like fire. Out of control, fire can cause a lot of damage. Under control, it can warm our rooms and cook our meals. All of us need government to work . . .” 

And he relays several self-effacing stories that show he can laugh at himself. His interaction with President Obama in Memphis is a heart-warming classic.

Ultimately, though, this is a serious and thought-provoking read. To quote the fictional president, Josiah Bartlet, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is exactly what Haslam asks of his readers: Be present, and be Christ-like. In a world where so many choose to lob some of the harshest personal attacks from the safety of anonymous social media accounts, this is truly a countercultural call to action. “I share (my story) not as a plea for everyone to run for office but for all of us to see politics as a vocation, a place where, despite all of its messiness, God has used and will use faithful people,” he writes. 

Gratitude for all Haslam has experienced from his time in the public square emanates from every chapter in this book. As a citizen he once served in this state’s highest office, I, too, am grateful for his leadership. For eight years as governor, he exhibited a faithful presence because he believed in a better way. In effect, he practiced what he preached –– a novel approach these days. While I wish he would run for office again, at a minimum, I hope his words here will inspire a generation to follow in his footsteps, seeking the welfare of the city where the Lord has sent them (Jer. 29:7).

By / Jun 2

Jeb Bush, the son of and brother of two American presidents, has his sights set on addressing the issue of education reform head-on through his Education Foundation, ExcelinEd, which he formed to improve education standards. His journey in the education field started with his experience in politics. “When I started running for office, I would tour the state and hear that the number one problem that people had was education training,” Bush said. This issue drove him to want to know more about the education system in the state of Florida, which hovers consistently at the bottom of the state education ratings. Bush also credits touring 250 Florida schools as a gateway to his understanding the enormity of the problem. 

Stepping into the education arena became a spiritual calling, as well. “God has given every child the ability to learn. Yes, they learn in different ways. But what we ought to say is that because this is a gift from God, we should organize ourselves around that to reach kids.” He granted a rare interview to the ERLC about his latest work. 

Why have you decided to address the issue of education? 

When I started running for political office, I would always ask questions about what the top priorities were. In the state of Florida, in 1987-88, every county, every economic development group that I spoke with would say education and training were the number one issues. So my first passion was really how we take a pretty poor education system at the time in Florida and make sure that we have a phenomenal business climate where people can rise up, businesses can invest, and people can flourish. I was convinced at the time that school choice had to be an element of that.

I created Floridians for School Choice, the group that advocated for vouchers. We brought Polly Williams, an African American, very liberal state senator from Wisconsin to promote the idea of what she did in Milwaukee. The first voucher program was in Milwaukee. As a candidate in ‘94, and certainly in ‘98, when I went to visit 250 schools, I learned so much. My views didn’t change, but I learned how to advocate these pretty provocative ideas in a way that wasn’t threatening. I put a human context around it. Then I got to be governor, and I got to implement the things that I said I wanted to do. It was a joy of a lifetime.

After I left politics, it was through the Foundation for Excellence in Education that I continued to be involved with an incredible team of 55 to 60 people. We work in 40 states, and we advocate meaningful reform, empowering parents to make choices for their kids rather than systems and bureaucracies; high expectations; real accountability; ending social promotion in third grade; early childhood literacy; and trying to change high schools so that kids graduate college and/or career ready. 

Is this a spiritual calling for you?

It’s at the heart of my spiritual beliefs. You start with the premise that God has given every child the ability to learn. They learn in different ways. Not every kid learns at the same speed or can reach the same levels of aptitude, but this is a God-given gift that every child gets. So, rather than excuse why kids can’t learn, we ought to say this is the gift from God. We also need to organize ourselves around these kids in a different way to ensure that they reach their God-given abilities. That doesn’t sound too crazy to me. Basically what else is there to be doing in life?

It’s been a great passion of mine, but it’s also been a great frustration because we haven’t moved the needle as fast as we should. The world’s moving at a faster pace than it was in 2000. It’s moving at warp speed right now. And all this disruption, culturally, economically, socially, and politically, requires young people to have a foundation from which they can thrive. And right now, too many kids don’t have that.

When you were governor of Florida, how did you see change take place? 

When I became governor, we increased our graduation rate every year. I think it’s at 85% right now. Now, I think we need to raise the bar. I think we need to constantly be pushing the system to assure more and more kids are college and/or career ready. But, we’ve had big progress because we’ve had higher expectations for our children, and we’ve empowered parents in Florida . . . . My attitude is: let’s focus on children and students. We need to empower parents to give them the information they need to make informed decisions and have high expectations for every school. They are respected whether they’re a traditional public school, a charter school, a private school, or a parochial school. With high expectations for every kid, you’re going to get a better result. 

How has COVID-19 disrupted the education system, and what advice would you give to leaders? 

In March, we were all sent home. If you’re living in poverty and couldn’t afford the $40-per-month for broadband or one of the service providers for high-speed broadband, you’re out of luck. If you didn’t have a device to be able to learn on, you’re out of luck. And so we’ve been advising governors to direct some of this discretionary money toward dealing with this digital divide issue. It is ridiculous that we have a digital divide in this country. We are the most advanced country in the world technologically. I read somewhere that 400,000 teachers didn’t have access to high-speed broadband. How could they teach if they’re at home? So, that’s one thing. 

The second thing I’d say is, as is the case with every policy in my mind, at least we should have a bias toward action — not a bias toward sitting in the fetal position saying, “This is overwhelming, and we can’t do anything about it.” A bias toward action means we should do everything possible to to open our schools and to keep them open in a safe way. So, I’m proud of the fact that Florida led the way in getting schools back open. Because we have big school districts, our governor, education commissioner, and most of the superintendents had a bias toward action. They were the first of the big school districts to act. They were the first to open, and they’ve not closed. And the fact is that we haven’t had a huge outbreak of COVID in our schools.

The learning gaps that started in the spring semester of last year . . . [are] going to hit low-income kids the hardest, and those gaps will grow. There should be a bias toward action, particularly for low-income communities, to make sure that they have access to the same quality education that more affluent families have right now in our country. 

You have an influential last name. What if somebody’s last name is not Bush? What advice would you give them about getting involved? 

We’re a bottom-up country. The best ideas come from the bottom-up, and the best advocacy comes from the bottom-up. And the best means by which you can make a difference is from the bottom-up. So first and foremost, if you’re a parent, get involved in your school. If you have school choice programs that are in your state that are under attack, protect them, defend them, and advocate for them. 

I’m a huge advocate of local involvement — community involvement — to be able to make a difference in changing policy. If you notice, politicians do listen to people when they come and say, “Don’t take this away from me.” So, my advice is to be involved in your child’s education. If you don’t have children, be involved in the school. Be a mentor in religious institutions that have been fortified because they’re receiving this kind of support.

What advice would you give to President Biden? 

I do what I’ve done with every president which is pray for their judgment, their discernment, and their health, because when presidents succeed, we all succeed. And I think that’s the first thing we ought to do — to encourage our president. Pray for him, and pray for public leaders, whether we agree with their policies or not. That’s a noble tradition in our country. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness. 

The second thing I’d say is I’d bet that the top-down approach doesn’t work . . . . There are lots of things that could happen, but if the mindset is we’re smarter than you and we don’t trust you, we’re going to get ugly results. And so my hope is that the president will trust the decisions made at the local level more than what typically happens from D.C., and try to envision what the world will look like in 2030, not what the world looked like in 1980.

Do you miss politics? 

That’s a great question. I don’t want to sound like a politician cause I’m not, but the answer is yes and no. I miss the challenges, particularly in emergencies. I miss being able to serve when people really need the help of the government. I don’t miss the politics of politics, which is dangerously poisonous right now. 

I’m totally blessed in life. I have five grandchildren, all close to perfection, as you can imagine. My wife and I are about ready to celebrate our 47th year of marriage. Wow. My reform education foundation is flourishing. My business is flourishing. My health is great. I don’t miss politics. I worry about our country a lot. And I hope our politics do change for the better — where we’re more loving, more conciliatory, and don’t think people who disagree with us are our enemies. 

By / Feb 11

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World by noted scholar David VanDrunen (Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago and the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California). The majority of VanDrunen’s work focuses on natural law and the two kingdoms’ doctrine, rooting both in his conception of the divine administration of common grace through the Noahic covenant. For VanDrunen, the Noahic covenant is essential for his project, and that shows in this book as well.  He argues the Noahic covenant is “foundational for understanding the revelation of God’s will in the natural law, the character of Christian’s pilgrimage in the present age, and the nature of God’s common rule” (20-21).

In Part 1 of Politics after Christendom, VanDrunen expands on much of his already published work on grounding political and public life in the Noahic covenant as he seeks to show how God has “ordained civil government—as the ruling authority of political communities—to be legitimate, but provisional, and to be common, but accountable” (25). Governments are legitimate because God has given them authority to do their work, but they are provisional since they are set in place for a limited time and purpose.  Governments are common to all, but they should be morally accountable for administering justice on behalf of those within their authority. These concepts of government as established by God and morally accountable to those under their authority set the parameters for Van Drunen’s political theology.

Part 2 focuses more on the practical outworking that comes from rooting political theology in the Noahic covenant. VanDrunen’s main effort in Part 2 shows how the Noahic covenant is needed to shape how Christians reflect on significant issues of legal and political theory. He does so by dealing with topics such as religious liberty, family and commerce, justice, and customs and laws. Part 2 does not seek to offer a comprehensive Christian political theory of these issues but offers a framework for thinking on today’s crucial contemporary political issues. Additionally, VanDrunen is careful in this section to posit what political and public life ought to look like for the human race in general and not precisely just for Christians.  He writes as a Christian and as a citizen and recognizes that the truthfulness of Scripture offers much truth for the world, regardless of whether one is Christian. VanDrunen argues that society should be pluralistic so that all of the basic Noahic institutions of family life and justice are available to all.  In this way, VanDrunen makes a solid case for his political theory framework grounded in natural law and Scripture.

VanDrunen takes great care in crafting his arguments, even if he is building on much of his previously published work, particularly Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought and Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law. However, this book strengthens the theoretical foundation of his earlier works by exploring in a more detailed manner the practical applications of his political framework. It makes a powerful argument for why Christians need to be actively engaged in politics even as they seek to be faithful to Christ in a changing cultural landscape. While the book is dense, written more for academics than laypeople, he effectively introduces his arguments by giving a few sentences summarizing his main points. This makes the book accessible to all who are willing to engage and wrestle with the text.

While VanDrunen understands Christians will always desire a government that closely adheres to the ethics of Scripture, he also understands that this will not often be the case this side of heaven. Instead, VanDrunen’s framework offers Christians a standard that is intelligible to all, regardless of their faith, because of its grounding in natural law, that provides a coherent approach to government, even in a fallen world, drawing on God’s establishment of government for the common good of society. 

VanDrunen makes a strong case for how the Noahic covenant might apply to contemporary political issues, though he may read more into the covenant than is explicit in the text (a point that VanDrunen admits). The Noahic covenant does not explicitly deal with many of the issues that VanDrunen applies it to in Part 2. In these instances, VanDrunen’s commitment to the principles of classical liberalism, drawing on the foundations of Locke and others, are placed into the text rather than allowing it to speak for itself. Though these principles are not inconsistent with the teachings of scripture, this is more a case of VanDrunen finding direct answers to modern questions that were not the main concern of the author and original audience.

Nevertheless, this book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to deal with political issues biblically. While one does not need to accept all of what VanDrunen is proposing in this volume, Christians, evangelicals particularly, will find here an excellent introduction to political theology and how the Scriptures and natural law apply to our current political situation.