Review: Politics According to the Bible by Wayne Grudem

Posted on August 19, 2011 at 11:20 am,

Cover of Politics According to the Bible
Wayne Grudem is an academic theologian best known for his bestselling book Systematic Theology, which is an extensive theological reference book used by students, church leaders, and ordinary Christians. He has been hugely influential within Evangelical Christianity. Not just in the US, where he comes from, but across the world. So when he writes a book on politics, it has the potential to shape a lot of peoples’ viewpoints.

The book is 600 pages long, and covers a wide range of issues, so I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive review in this post, which will be a very general overview of the book. I’ll be coming back to many of the arguments Grudem makes over the next few months, though.

To start with, I would recommend this book to two groups of people. The first is Christians who are already trying to work out a Christian approach to political issues, and who are already reading a variety of perspectives – this is one more to add to the mix. The second is those who want to understand the thinking of America’s Religious Right, as this book serves as an excellent introduction to their political philosophy.

Now, onto the good bits. Chapters 1 to 4 look at the question of whether Christians should engage with politics, and gives an overview of some Biblical principles and aspects of a Christian worldview that should frame our political approach. Grudem believes that the correct approach should be what he calls “significant Christian influence on government”, but would be more accurately described as “significant Christian involvement in politics”. He argues that, whilst politics should never become the primary focus of Christianity, neither should Christians feel that we should stay out of it. Whilst I disagree with some of the emphases in his survey of Biblical values and worldview, and believe that he has missed some significant points in those chapters, the overviews are very helpful to frame a Christian approach to the subject.

The closing chapter (18) is also very good. In this chapter, Grudem goes over the Biblical belief that God is sovereign (in charge) of the overall direction of history, points out that there are currently trends for both the better and the worse, and paints a picture of what it might look like should Christianity in the West experience what church history calls revival (dumbed-down definition: large numbers of people becoming Christians), and – as a result – Christianity begins to have a much bigger impact on our society. Whilst I disagree with several aspects of the picture Grudem paints about its impact on politics, this chapter is also very helpful in building a Christian understanding of how to view politics and political involvement.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that I’m not that keen on the content of chapters 5 to 17, which is most of the book. Without getting into too much detail, there are several issues I have which apply to most of these chapters:

The Title

The biggest problem I have is actually with the title. The book simply doesn’t live up to it. The vast majority of Grudem’s arguments are made on the basis of logic, statistics, or non-biblical authority rather than Biblical principles. In the introduction, he says that he argues on some issues on the basis of clear, direct, and decisive teaching of the Bible, on other on the basis of broader principles, and on some from facts in the world. However, within the text of the book, the distinction simply doesn’t come across. In contrast to his Systematic Theology, Grudem leaves little room for disagreement amongst Christians on these issues, and – outside of the introduction – there’s no acknowledgement that a Christian can validly hold alternative views on a subject.

Now, in a book with any other title, I probably wouldn’t have a problem with this. If a book isn’t presenting itself as a definitive exploration of the teaching of the Bible, or a definitive summary of God’s view on politics then it can be as one-sided and non-biblical in its approach as it likes. If the book had simply added a subtitle along the lines of, say, “A Manifesto of the Religious Right” and the back cover blurb had been more open about its approach, then I would have held the book in much higher regard.

Partisanship

The second big problem is that the book is overly partisan. Because he is writing in a US context, Grudem compares his stances to both the Republican and the Democrat party. And agrees with the Republicans around 99% of the time (he says in the preface that he’s not happy that they don’t live up to their small government rhetoric) and the Democrats precisely 0% of the time. Grudem defends this position in chapter 17 by writing:

The policies favored by Democrats and Republicans today are so different that it is unlikely that anyone with a consistent worldview and a consistent view of the purpose of government will support Democratic policies about 50% of the time and Republican policies about 50% of the time.

Which pretty much sidesteps the objection. Of course nobody would expect you to be split 50-50 between the parties. However, given that those parties are, on a national scale, coalitions of 50 state parties, each of which are coalitions of differing interest groups, it seems less likely that anybody would disagree with either party on 100% of policy than that they have a 50-50 split. Grudem goes on to compare his book with Jim Wallis’ book God’s Politics, claiming that

[Wallace’s book is] an extended argument for supporting Democratic candidates and positions and opposing Republican ones.

Now, because my copy is currently on loan, I can’t re-read God’s Politics, but my memory of that book is that Wallis severely criticises both parties (the subtitle Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It accurately summarises that book.) Yes, Wallis’s book makes it clear where he sits, but he criticises his own political tribe just as harshly as he attacks the opposing one, and leaves you with the impression that Christians should feel free to work on both sides of the political divide.

Grudem’s book, on the other hand, attacks his own political tribe on just one issue that I noticed (and that’s basically an aside in the preface), and that’s merely for failing to live up to a value they keep talking about. Basically, Grudem leaves you with the impression that Christians can only really work within the Republican Party, or (for those of us outside the US) within some other party that shares similar core values. And for a Christian like me, who is actively involved in a political party that isn’t remotely in tune with that ideology, it feels somewhat galling to be told that my worldview isn’t in any way Biblical.

Arguing against the Bible

Whilst, most of the time, I can see how Grudem gets from the Bible to his political positions, there are a couple of occasions where he cites the Bible’s teaching on an issue, and then goes on to say completely the opposite. The most obvious examples are the issue of tax and immigration. On the first Grudem acknowledges that the Bible affirms the principle of taxation, before spending 23 pages arguing that every tax he can think of should either be reduced or abolished. On immigration, he notes the Bible’s teaching about welcoming foreigners and aliens before spending ten pages arguing for a hardline immigration policy. Yes, he does try to justify his take on both issues, but it definitely feels that he’s deliberately ignoring the Bible in favour of his political leanings.

Strawman Arguments

Although, in this book, Grudem rarely engages with the arguments of other viewpoints – either from church history, or from contemporary Christians – when he does he has a tendency to paint strawman caricatures of their views. For example, he conflates pacifism with an anti-government stance and environmentalism with the most extreme environmentalists he can find. The anti-people philosophy he cites as “radical environmentalism” is something that I have never encountered even once within the environmental movement, and I’ve been involved on-and-off with environmentalist groups since the mid 1990s. In fact, the opposite is the case – many people get into environmental issues precisely because of the impact of those issues on the lives of the most vulnerable in society. Of course, this means that I’m automatically sceptical about how accurately he portrays the views of groups I know less well.

Poor use of statistics

Grudem makes extensive use of statistics to try to prove his position. However, in doing so he frequently makes extremely poor use of them. Sometimes the statistics are utterly irrelevant (perhaps the most bizarre is citing the number of journalists who believe that “it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral” as proof of political bias in the media – as if atheists are all lefties). Sometimes, they are presented without the context that might prove them to be relevant (arguing in favour of the death penalty, he cites a correlation between a particular rise in executions and a decrease in murders without asking whether this actually proves that one caused the other).

Also, even on the most contentious claims Grudem never mentions statistics that go against his argument (in the case of the death penalty, the fact that US states without it have lower murder rates than those that do), which gives a misleading impression of how much room there is to disagree on an issue. Now, I don’t believe that Grudem is trying to be disingenuous here. Instead, I get the impression that he isn’t much of a statistician (there is, after all, very little statistics involved in the study of theology), and that he isn’t aware of many of the statistics that show the other side of the argument (see, particularly, the chapters on the economy and the environment).

Writing outside his field of expertise

Finally, a lot of the time, I get the impression that Grudem is writing well outside his field of expertise – much like Richard Dawkins trying to deal with questions of theology, the writing often comes across as being poorly informed. When, for example, he describes the policies of the US Democrat Party as “far left”, I doubt that anybody familiar with any variation of European politics could take him seriously.

And there are definitely signs that Grudem hasn’t done his homework on many of the issues. Calling Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a “military Dictator” (he was democratically elected twice at the time of writing), and uncritical acceptance of climate change denial arguments give the impression that Grudem hasn’t done much in the way of basic research into many of the issues he deals with. There are many occasions where he comes across as politically uninformed and/or naive. Which means that his arguments frequently look very weak for those of us familiar with the other side of the issue.

Overall, whilst there are some very good bits in the book, I find the way it is written to be generally unhelpful. However, because these 600 pages provide a great jumping-off point to discuss a wide variety of political issues, I’ll be blogging my way through the book, and interacting with Grudem’s arguments, for the next few months. I hope to post on this series three times a week. If I don’t, it’s not because I’ve lost interest, it’s that real life is getting in the way.g

5 Comments

  1. Posted August 22, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I haven’t yet bought Wayne Grudem’s book, suspecting that it wouldn’t be the most balanced treatment of the subject, but I’ll be reading your posts with interest. (I’ve got “God and Government” ed. Spencer & Chaplin, and “Jesus and Politics” by Alan Storkey on the book shelf waiting to be read first…)

  2. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this summary. A friend asked me about this book recently and this quick review has given me an excellent orientation. Have you discussed Grudem’s views on climate at more length elsewhere?

  3. Stephen Gray
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Byron,

    I’m going through the book in depth in this series, and haven’t yet reached the bit about climate, which I will discuss in considerable depth. Sorry I can’t tell you precisely when I’ll cover it, as I’m going through in order, and haven’t yet worked out how many posts I’ll take going through the sections on marriage, family, and economics which precede it. The economics chapter in particular is likely to take some time to go through.

    But to briefly summarise, he thinks that the Earth is designed to handle anything we can throw at it (it’s a handwave argument that’s vaguely based on the Bible), and then cites the same kind of “scientific” arguments that you can find on a typical climate denialist website. He gets a lot of his statistics from the book The Sceptical Environmentalist (which argues that climate change is happening, is caused by humans, but that it’s cheaper to adapt to it than to try to stop it), which has come in for heavy criticism for misusing statistics.

  4. son
    Posted September 15, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    umm…i have teachers and friends that were exiled from the country when chavez ascended to power simply because they were americans (he thought new tribes mission was in the country for something illegal and improper). He’s the definition of a dictator. Democratic elections aren’t democratic when you’re pressured to vote for the same guy.

  5. Stephen Gray
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Son,

    Deporting foreign nationals (where the nation in question is hostile to your regime) doesn’t make you a dictator. And if pressure to vote for the same guy is undemocratic, then that rules out pretty much any regime that allows its leader to serve two or more terms. Is the USA not a democracy because many Americans during the 2004 election campaign were saying that criticism of the President whilst the nation is at war is somewhere between unpatriotic and treasonous?

    There, of course, are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Chavez’s regime, but being a dictatorship isn’t one of them. At worst, Chavez is an authoritarian. Venezuela is a functioning democracy (and arguably more so than at any point in its past) and Chavez’s regime is not in power by force of arms. Chavez himself clearly has very widespread popular support and the election results reflect that.

    And, because a little investigation into the issue reveals that Grudem was clearly incorrect when he called Chavez a military dictator, it gives the impression that Grudem is writing outside his field of expertise. I could give other examples, but that’s one that just happened to stick in the mind.

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