Is There No Neutral Public Square?

Review: 'How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age' by Jonathan Leeman


Criticizing the underpinnings of liberal democratic government is in vogue again. Populism is shaking some people’s faith in the wisdom of voters, and others, such as Patrick Deneen, argue outright that liberalism has failed. Some consider Evangelical Christians the big winners of 2016, but the ongoing debate about supporting President Donald Trump betrays their unease about the American system. From a reformed Protestant prospective, pastor and author Jonathan Leeman brings his own criticism to bear on the liberal order and ultimately concludes there's something there worth conserving.

In How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age, Leeman argues that the problems with the liberal order are largely the problems of all human institutions thanks to human nature. Original sin can bring down even the most laudable constitutional governments. Leeman sets out less of a policy program and more of a framework for engagement, but his framework is likely to shock some who marry their faith to a political ideology.

First and foremost, Leeman maintains that the nations rage against God, as Psalm 2 says, and that includes America. His Baptist beliefs preclude the possibility of a confessional state, and likewise he considers a "neutral public square" impossible. Our hearts are a battleground of competing gods, and therefore, our politics will be too. At first, this presupposition is likely to perturb some readers who champion the American political tradition. Don't we have principles of civil liberty in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all?

Leeman argues we should be grateful for the freedom afforded by the First Amendment but also recognize that competing gods will still intrude on our liberal order. Namely, he critiques the modern liberal understanding of separation of government and religion, which privileges secular ideas not tainted by "religion." Everyone argues on behalf of personal values, and secular progressives should not get to smuggle in their "gods" just because they don't belong to a formal religion.

Such acts of smuggling pervade our politics. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein can criticize a Catholic judicial nominee for the way "dogma lives loudly" within her, while not considering the fact of her own dogmas. Leeman calls for leveling the playing field and speaking honestly about why people hold the views they hold. Expecting religious beliefs to bend to cultural norms is a regular part of our political discourse, as shown by Sen. Bernie Sanders's confrontation with a nominee to the Office of Management and Budget who had said Islam is a false religion. Russell Vought's Christian orthodoxy was termed "Islamophobia" because Sanders felt he could smuggle the god of multiculturalism into a Senate hearing while Vought must be frisked for religious dogma.

Rather than railing against double standards, Leeman says Christians should prioritize the local church and their witness. That means the church should be an embassy rather than a lobbying organization—namely, it should represent heaven's values here on earth rather than the earthly interests of certain Christians. For engaging in the public square, he even has a nifty classification of four types of arguments to prove the justice of a particular position. There's the appeal to conscience (the Martin Luther approach), the appeal to natural law (the Martin Luther King Jr. approach), the appeal to statistics (the sociologist's approach), or, if all else fails, the Polycarp approach that appeals directly to biblical authority in the face of violence. Polycarp was a martyr, underscoring that this approach tends to be a last resort.

In one of the book's most historically perceptive passages, Leeman makes the unexpected point that some political establishments' fear of Christianity is not unwarranted. When the church has become firmly rooted, it has upended the political and social order—not through taking up arms and creating a theocracy, but by being a witness against the gods a society holds dear. In the book of Acts, those who crafted idols of Artemis in Ephesus began persecuting the Apostle Paul, and, according to certain logic, this made sense. Those who sold idols had something to lose as Christianity grew, and if it went too far, the government might even stop sponsoring Artemis worship. In politics, there are winners and losers.

Leeman cautions against turning the church into a bulwark of the culture war or a progressive "prophetic voice" calling for radical political change. The former neglects the church's witness while the latter assumes the church's political omni-competence in matters outside its jurisdiction. God gave the church the keys to the faith through his word, not the sword of government justice.

Since politics is mostly the realm of wisdom, not doctrine, Leeman grants a wide range of valid political positions where Scripture doesn't draw a clear line. He leaves some aspects of his political orientation visible, however. He explains that love of nation is natural and good, and he doesn't shy away from saying globally minded Christians should not dismiss it.

Ultimately, Leeman aims to improve Christian engagement with politics and depoliticize Christian identity. Americans increasingly argue that matters of identity—religion, gender, race—justify ever more strident political positions. But Leeman's principles simultaneously demand political engagement and restraint. The church is primarily about spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that focus on witness is reason to turn down the temperature of political debates. This countercultural view finds its basis in a different kind of equality than that of modern liberalism: equality under the authority of a creator.

Leeman acknowledges his own patriotism as an American in the book’s conclusion and points out reasons to be thankful for the government we are given. Liberalism as dogma may be anathema to the Christian worldview, but government structures are something to thank God for. Evangelicals with strong political opinions may want this book to justify their political ideology, but instead it prescribes a biblical remedy for severe division.

Paul Crookston

Paul Crookston   Email Paul | Full Bio | RSS
Paul Crookston is a media analyst with the Washington Free Beacon. He was previously a Collegiate Network fellow at National Review. A 2016 graduate of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., he served as the managing editor of the Tartan campus newspaper. He is originally from Tampa, Fla., but he still roots for Dad’s Ohio teams. His Twitter handle is @P_Crookston. He can be reached at

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