A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends

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David P. Gushee
  • Louisville,KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , August
     2016.
     128 pages.
     $15.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262686.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his newest book, David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, is seeking to address a particular group of American citizens—anxious, presumably conservative, Christians—about how to understand the United States’ current situation and their place in it. As an ethicist, Gushee works through a broad list of concerns that face many Christians—asking throughout “What is an anxious Christian to do?”—and offering helpful and pragmatic insight despite the quagmire that our politics appears to be in.

Gushee spends the first few chapters interrogating the presumed sources of anxiety and division that have come to characterize the American polity. Speaking plainly, he describes an earlier version of the United States as dominated by a “culturally established” Protestantism, one that has since become more secular, diverse, and pluralistic. This loss of cultural domination, from Gushee’s point of view, is a legitimate concern. In avoiding the fatalism of a lost cause or a quietist interpretation that would relinquish the cultural and social institutions—especially the government—to these other influences, Gushee leans into this situation, encouraging his readers to continue finding ways to influence the world around them in new “winsome, appealing ways” (16), even if they must recognize that the US will never return to the cultural Christianity for which they yearn.

Gushee delivers small and eminently approachable chapters, self-described as a letter, that eschews all pretense of a work of academia but instead appears as a tool to encourage the critical engine of America’s Christian public. His chapters range from broad topics, such as “Democracy” and “Character,” to specific questions of policy, like “Guns” and “Executions.” Gushee exemplifies fair mindedness with precision in each chapter, attempting to give reasonable articulation to the concerns of the many parties involved in each topic, not just conservative Christians. This attempt to transverse the partisan and sectarian divide is the real strength of this book. Gushee appeals to a wide audience in doing so, giving a voice to both conservative and liberal readers—and all those in between—as well as encouraging reasonable, constructive dialogue between them.

However, in attempting to cut through a partisan divide, Gushee at times fails to include concerns of those outside of the traditional, white Protestant community. For instance, in his commentary on the Supreme Court, he articulates some concern that, for the first time, there is no Protestant Supreme Court Justice. This might be the first opportunity for anxious Christians to consider how it must feel for Muslims, Hindus, LGBT, or other minorities who have lacked representation on the Court. And it’s exactly this kind of omission that gives way to the naïve telling of US history that fails to acknowledge the damage Christian cultural hegemony might have inflicted, or at least supported, since the beginning of the country.

Early in the book, Gushee dismisses the idea that “any nation that sanctioned slavery” deserves to be called Christian (11).  But US slavery is historical fact; a culturally Christian nation willingly instituted and defended chattel slavery. Later, he discusses this dark time in American history as a time of “contradiction” between the gospel and social fact—the start of a period of blindness for American Christians that allowed white racism to become a deep part of our culture and history. It’s this kind of naivety that forgets the robust defense of slavery which Christian leaders provided, and at times, promoted as part of the white man’s burden. Anxiety is a concern, yes. But in attempting to mollify and reassure the anxious, it seems—to me—counterproductive to do so at the expense of forgetting the reasons Christian cultural domination has waned over time: the public rejected a cultural Christianity—as lived by our ancestors and contemporaries—that perpetrated some of our nation’s worst sins and has discriminated against our nation’s minorities, including Catholics, black Americans, LGBT, and now Muslims.

Despite this innocent reading of history, Gushee does actively work against the influence that history has imprinted on our country and on the American Christian community. He encourages his readers to consider the privilege Christians, especially white Christians, have experienced, and still do. He encourages active listening and reflection on the positions and perspectives of minorities in this country. As well, the analysis he provides repeatedly impels the reader to consider institutional and systemic injustice, moving beyond an overly simplistic social critique based solely on individual choice, whether from the privileged or underprivileged.

In an age of “echo chambers” and “ideological bubbles,” Gushee’s work is a valuable step in the right direction. This book aims to cut through the simplistic—and often partisan—social analysis about our “culture wars” and approach difficult and deeply impassioned subjects with precision and humility. Fair-minded individuals on either side of the ideological spectrum will find this book helpful in, at the very least, attempting to understand the perspectives of those who are not like themselves. But, hopefully, this book will go even further in repairing the strained relationship between a growing secular culture and the Christian community in this country.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas Greene is a Ph.D. student in religion, ethics and philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
February 20, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. A foremost expert in the field of Christian ethics, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, Changing Our Mind, and Evangelical Ethics. A regular blogger for Religion News Service, Gushee was recently elected to Vice President of the American Academy of Religion and to President of the Society of Christian Ethics.

Keywords: 

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