Religion and Politics Book Recommendations

I apologize for the lackluster state of this blog in the past months. I’ve been struggling to figure out the proper words to say in a time like this. I certainly haven’t yet decided how to move forward with this space, but in the interim, I hope this recommendation list might be helpful to some people.

One of my favorite areas of theological research comes by way of exploring the various models for religiously-based political action. So, without wasting any more time, here’s a brief list of the works that I have found most helpful. These are all generally designed for the upper-level undergraduate or graduate student in theology or ethics, but I’ve also included some more accessible books by the same authors in parenthesis for those without as much of a theological background.


politics-of-god1. Politics of God by Kathryn Tanner (Prof. at Yale). Friends of mine will already know that I deeply cherish Tanner’s work, and this happens to be my favorite of her works (perhaps surprisingly!). It originally appeared in 1992, but to me, it remains her most underappreciated work. The theological vision within is extraordinarily powerful and nothing short of inspiring. Tanner plums the depths of Christian beliefs for their socio-political import to great success, demonstrating in the meantime their inherently radical character. This book will not provide you with a ready-made solution to any specific socio-political issue; rather, it will give you a nice framework for assessing any and all issues that may come up now or in the future. (link to purchase)

theology-of-public-life2. A Theology of Public Life by Charles Mathewes (or, his book The Republic of Grace as an intro). Charles Mathewes (Prof. at the University of Virginia) is definitely one of the best theological ethicists today, and this book is his fascinating contribution to the field. Deeply entrenched in the Augustinian tradition, Mathewes argues that the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love/charity) should be the center of theological reflection on Christian engagement in the public sphere. His account is compelling as a way forward that is distinctly Christian and refuses to give up hope. (link to purchase)

flourishing3. Flourishing by Miroslav Volf (or, his book A Public Faith as an intro). Miroslav Volf (Prof. at Yale) writes in a more accessible style, but don’t let that make you think it isn’t as hard hitting as the others. Flourishing takes up the issue of globalization, describing its inherently ambivalent character, and argues for the contribution that Christianity might be able to make for the common good. Christianity offers a vision of the good life that has the power to properly realign human life in the midst of our contemporary world marked by such profound change and disruption. Further, Volf makes a convincing case for religious tolerance, based on Christian theology, in face of the increased contact with religious difference that globalization fosters. In a time when the confrontation with difference has tended to skew towards nativism, nationalism, racism, and inequality, Volf’s contribution is sorely needed. I reviewed this book on here a while back. (link to purchase)

church state and civil society.jpg4. Church, State, and Civil Society by David Fergusson (Prof. at the University of Edinburgh). David Fergusson’s book deals largely with the issue of the Church’s proper relation to the state. He recounts how much of the history of Christian political thinking took place within societies akin to a “Christendom” that are clearly outdated for the present. In marking out the Church’s role in public life today, Fergusson makes a theological case for toleration and explores the contributions of the Barmen Declaration and Vatican II traditions for Christian political thinking. He ultimately argues that separation of Church and State is a good policy for the well-being of both the Church and the state, ultimately allowing the Church to have a more authentic, faithful voice. Fergusson’s writing style is very clear, and he does a masterful job of explaining what is at stake in the debates. (link to purchase)


In addition to these more abstract texts, in that they function on the level of theological framework, here are a few topical recommendations that I’ve found most helpful.

Economics:

  1. Economy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner. In this text, Tanner explores how the Christian story might be put in economic terms (e.g. the circulation of grace vs. money), and through this, demonstrates that the basic structure of the Christian story could have quite radical effects on the organization of our economic life. She has updated this version in here recent Gifford Lectures (which I analyzed in depth here) to reflect the shift to finance-dominated capitalism in the 2000s.
  2. The Making of the Indebted Man or Governing by Debt by Maurizio Lazzarato. An Italian social theorist, Lazzarato is at first difficult to understand but this stems mainly from a difference in writing style and his own invention of certain concepts. Nonetheless, there is no one better equipped to explore the condition of indebtedness that is now perhaps the most widespread existential condition in the developed world. He shows debt’s effect on persons’ self-understanding of themselves and the actions that it fosters. I’ve been able to think about sin and redemption using Lazzarato as a chief exponent of the economic condition we find ourselves in today.
  3. No Rising Tide by Joerg Rieger. As a (generally) liberation theologian, Rieger (Prof. at Vanderbilt) takes on the Great Recession and argues that Christians have deeply entrenched reasons to advocate for a more equitable economic arrangement.

Here are a few political philosophy books that have helped me gain a framework for assessing current institutional arrangements from the standpoint of justice. These aren’t theological works, but they should at least be on the radar of Christians reflecting on political theology.

  1. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Originally appearing in 1971, this book has long been recognized as the most important work of political philosophy of the 20th century. It is still the starting point for any discussion of justice. In the book, Rawls argues for a vision of social contract theory that defines justice as fairness. Further, Rawls argues that anything less than maximizing the prospects of the least well-off group of people is unjust. The book is quite large, and the writing dry, but key sections of this book are simply indispensable.
  2. Social Justice in the Liberal State by Bruce Ackerman (He is less well-known to the general public but extremely influential in political philosophy and legal theory). While Ackerman might get a bad reputation to some for being a classical liberal, his vision of justice is strikingly powerful. He takes aim at every single possible relation of power and examines it on the basis of neutrality (that is, by what right is power exercised in each case?). The result is a means to assess every relationship, both institutional and personal, on the basis of a radical equality marked by neutral reasoning – an illuminating tool to put in the Christian’s toolkit.
  3. Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Marion Young. Young, the paradigmatic Feminist political philosopher (and Prof. at the University of Chicago) of our time explores the dynamics of oppression in this work. Arguing that structural oppression is much more widespread than one might have imagined, her work may seem to result in an unending pessimism. However, Christians might find resources in her identification of oppression by connecting it to our concept of sin and thereby fueling our own actions partnering with God in the work of redemption.

Sociology:

  1. God’s Century by Toft, Philpott, and Shah. This book by multiple authors tackles the secularization thesis (the argument that the world is becoming increasingly secularized, leading to the ultimate decline and perhaps eradication of religion) by showing the resurgence of religion as a political force throughout the world. It’s a very helpful resource for understanding the global dynamic of politically-assertive religion and the prospects for the 21st century.
  2. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. This originally ground-breaking work is still a must-read for those thinking about the impact religious beliefs have on economic and social life. Weber’s study from the early 1900s explored the role Reformed Christianity played in the development of capitalism. While controversial today, a familiarity with this work is a prerequisite for critical thinking about the import of Christian beliefs.
  3. The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse. A New York Times reporter, Greenhouse charts the history of the worker in the United States from the late 20th century to the present. He examines the various dynamics that have increasingly exerted pressure on the worker leading to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today. This is an incredible overview of the ways in which the everyday worker has been affected by broad changes in management and economic policy in the past few decades.

I hope you find some of these helpful. Happy Reading!

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