Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Book Review: Christians in the American Empire

Vincent D. Rougeau. Christians in the American Empire: Faith and Citizenship in the New World Order. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 233 pp. $29.95

This review appears with the permission of Stone-Campbell Journal. Visit Stone-Campbell Journal at http://www.stone-campbelljournal.com.

In this volume Vincent Rougeau, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, contends against academic and political voices seeking to align Roman Catholics in America with the Religious Right and the Republican Party. “During the 1990s,” he writes, “powerful new voices arose that actually began to make some headway with the argument that only one political party in the United States was consistent with a serious Catholic faith commitment.” (preface, viii) Insistence that “real” Catholics should make their political home with other faith-based conservatives, steadfastly supporting the Republican Party and the George W. Bush administration, was amplified in the aftermath of 9/11. Prominent among the spokespersons for this kind of Catholic-Conservative convergence, which Rougeau is compelled to oppose, are Richard John Neuhaus, the late editor of the journal First Things; George Weigel, senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and Michael Novak, an American Enterprise Institute scholar.

In arguing against the marriage of Catholic Christians and conservative politics, Rougeau articulates a critique of American conservatism he maintains is grounded in interconnected values or characteristics deeply-rooted in the American experience: individualism, free-market liberalism, libertarianism, and consumer-driven materialism. These are strongly at odds, he asserts, with Catholic theology and Catholic social teaching, which embraces a much more communitarian, public-regarding ethos. Indeed, the main foundations of Rougeau’s argument are laid by the end of chapter two, in which he explicates Catholic social teaching’s four “permanent” principles: human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. The remaining four chapters employ these four principles of Catholic social teaching to evaluate, in turn, issues of race (affirmative action), class (poverty and welfare), immigration policy, and global justice (America’s posture and conduct on the world stage). Rougeau’s analysis in each case leads to conclusions that are quite opposed to the positions demanded by the Religious Right.

Strengths of the book include: providing perceptive insights about the philosophical underpinnings of conservative political views in America; providing alternative and provocative ways of viewing important political questions; providing a primer on Catholic social teaching; and providing a stimulating example of an effort to engage political questions from a Christian faith perspective. Although not every reader will agree with Rougeau’s arguments and conclusions, these strengths are all good reasons why this book would be worthwhile for Christian readers, Catholic or not.

Catholic readers already inclined toward more liberal political views will be affirmed, encouraged, and intellectually armed by Rougeau’s thoughtful and articulate presentation of Christian faith and politics. Likewise, evangelical Christian readers bothered by assertions (and assumptions) that “real” Christians are by definition conservative Republicans will feel a sense of fellowship with Rougeau on this score as well as, perhaps, a newfound appreciation for Catholic social teaching. However, evangelicals may also wish that Rougeau had grounded his Christian perspective in Biblical texts as well as Catholic social teaching or, at least, that he had unpacked the exegetical bases of Catholic social teaching. While Rougeau states that “Catholic social teaching relies on biblical exegesis, tradition, and intellectual argument drawn from the global reach of Catholic Christianity,” (p. 59) he primarily quotes from papal documents in the last 120 years, particularly from Vatican II forward, without reference to any biblical exegetical grounding behind these pronouncements. Unfolding exegetical support for the Christian worldview presented may, arguably, have been beyond the author’s concept for the book. However, to speak effectively to a wider audience of American Christians, it would have been more compelling to do so.

In addition, many evangelical readers will recoil at being lumped together in general statements about “evangelicals and fundamentalists” as the twin pillars of the Religious Right. (pp. 5, 57) This in spite of Rougeau’s awareness that “In recent years a growing number of evangelical movements have aligned themselves with progressive political issues like environmental protection and global poverty . . .” (p. 28) Actually, evangelical academics like sociologist David Moberg, historian Richard Pierard, and political scientist Stephen Monsma have been engaging issues of Christian social concern, American civil religion, justice, and “structural sin,” all addressed herein by Rougeau, in their published work dating back to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Rougeau does show that he is aware of significant evangelical voices like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Ron Sider, but he apparently discounts them as peripheral compared to an evangelical core still dominated by the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council.

Finally, it is hard to imagine that conservative Catholics or evangelicals would be moved or persuaded by Rougeau’s presentation. Moreover, even sympathetic readers who might regard the Religious Right, conservative Republicans, and the Bush administration as targets well worthy of critique from a Christian perspective may wonder whether, in the end, Rougeau’s primary frame of reference is liberal politics (now justified and sanctified by Catholic social teaching) or his primary frame of reference is a Christian worldview that approaches a thoughtful analysis of contemporary political issues and American public policy. That, to be sure, is a question that all Christians who attempt to address faith and politics must continue to ask themselves with honesty and humility.

Review by Steven D. Edgington, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven D. Edgington is Professor of History at Hope International University.

The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.

1 comment:

Robin H said...

Interesting! I feel I've been given a primer on contemporary Christian political thought. Thanks!