Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014.
Several of Greg Forster’s previous books, Starting with Locke and The Contested Public Square, have been among the best I’ve read on the topic of government and Christianity’s relation to government. In my opinion Joy for the World does not rise to the level of The Contested Public Square , but it is still well worth reading. It is targeted to a broader audience, but it is seeking to answer the “where do we go from here?” question that remained unanswered by The Contested Public Square.
Forster thinks that if Christians are going to rebuild their influence in American society, they need to have an understanding of Christianity’s role in America and of the nature of society. These two issues are the focus of part one of Joy for the World. Forster believes that Christians tell themselves faulty stories about their past influence. These faulty stories have led to faulty strategies, which have led to the loss of Christian influence.
Forster summarizes three faulty stories. There is the “Christian founding” story. In this story, the United States was founded as “a new model of society more in line with Christian teaching than any before.” Sadly, the Christian foundations of the nation were undermined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through unbelieving science and philosophy. As a result secularism threatens Christian America. The second story is the “secular founding” story, which places anti-Christian Enlightenment ideals at the center of the American founding and Christianity at the margins. According to this view ideas opposed to Christianity were “dressed up in a cloak of theological language” to gain the support of American Christians. Now, however, opposition to Christianity no longer needs to be cloaked. This is good because Christians are no longer deceived by American civil religion, but it is bad because of increased hostility to Christianity. The third story is the “it doesn’t matter” story. In this account, the role of the church is evangelism. The church is not going to try to influence the culture; rather, the church will seek to harness the culture to spread the gospel.
Forster raises concerns about all three of these stories. He is concerned that the “it doesn’t matter” approach will lead the church to conform to the culture in the false hope that cultural conformity will increase evangelistic opportunity. He thinks the other two stories both get somethings right: the reality that both Christian and Enlightenment ideas influenced the American founding. But both stories also get some things quite wrong. The “Christian founding” story does not fully account for the rationalism of the leading founders. The “secular founding” story does not account for the Christian influence on the founder’s view of man as both dignified and fallen. Forster argues that this is a Christian idea that preserved the United States from the disasters experienced by political systems built only on Enlightenment principles. Forster’s takeaway: “The American social order was never either clearly pro-Christian or clearly anti-Christian. Ross Douthat has described America as a civilization driven not by Christian orthodoxy nor by heresy, but by a perpetual social tension between the two.” Forster holds that the reason for this tension lies in the departure of Americans from a state church system to one which allows for freedom of religion. Forster praises freedom of religion, but he also notes some complications that arise. Such a system “does not enforce religion, but it requires religion” so that the society can cohere through shared moral foundations.
These shared moral foundations were provided by a general Protestant consensus throughout the nineteenth century, but by the 1920s it was clear that, from the infection of modernism within the churches, that “Protestant consensus” no longer existed because no consensus existed among Protestant churches any longer. As the unraveling of the nation’s moral consensus became apparent, evangelicals attempted to stem the tide. Forster holds that evangelicals did much good in slowing, or in some cases halting, “the rising tide of moral disorder.” However, some of the strategies employed, though enjoying short-term success, have harmed longer-term efforts. Forster ties the faulty strategies to the faulty stories of American history. Those who believed the first story tried to gain for evangelicalism the place of Protestant moral consensus around which the nation should cohere. Forster notes, “Evangelicalism could rightly claim to be the doctrinal heir of the historic Protestant churches, but it had no standing to claim their cultural or historical place.” In trying to reclaim that place, they bred resentment among Americans who thought that evangelicals were attempting to impose an illegitimate conquest on the nation. Christians who believed the second story, Forster says, withdrew culturally. Forster critiques this approach, noting that if Christianity has no place in the culture evangelism becomes more difficult because people end up thinking in categories quite outside those necessary for understanding the Christian message. Forster fears that the failures of these two approaches have led to a rise in a “cultural accommodation” approach for many evangelical churches. Forster wants to maintain Christian distinctiveness, robust evangelism, and cultural influence. On this latter point, he says, “We can’t force a religious society upon our neighbors; we must persuade them to want a religious society. People who don’t share our beliefs and our churches must nonetheless have their own intrinsic reasons to view our beliefs and churches as socially beneficial.”
Forster then turns to the nature of society. He finds in the creation of Adam and Eve the twin truths of “the intrinsic dignity of every individual and the social nature of humanity.” The Bible thus establishes the reality that humans live in society. It does not, however, prescribe particular societal forms. In fact, Forster says, God “wants not just people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, but people of every tongue, tribe, and nation.” Christians can and should live within their cultures as people of those cultures. And yet, because of the Fall and its effects on all cultures, the Christian cannot simply conform to any culture. One area of American culture that Forster indicates needs to be challenged is “individualism.” He praises individualism over against collectivism, but he also notes that the idolization of the “sovereign self” lies at the bottom defenses of abortion, divorce, modern sexuality, and even distortions of the work ethic. Forster observes, “One of the great dangers of our time is the illusion that moral obligations are somehow weaker if they’re not chosen. . . . The whole point about obligations is that you have to do things that aren’t intrinsically attractive to you. You have to discipline yourself for actions that cut against your desires.” Forster’s bottom line is that Christians influence society precisely by living as people in society and allowing a Christian view of society leaven whatever sphere of influence they have.
The next two parts of the book examine how the church can and should influence the culture. Part two looks at the role of the institutional church and part three looks at the role of the church as an organism. Forster makes the institution/organism distinction to protect the mission and distinctiveness of the church as institution while still promoting the involvement of Christians as Christians in society. Forster models his discussion of the institutional church on the “threefold office of Christ—Prophet, Priest, and King.” He argues that each of these three offices represent an emphasis that the church needs. The office of the prophet relates to “doctrine,” the office of priest to “devotion,” and the office of king to “stewardship.” In the chapter on doctrine, Forster argues that belief in the Bible’s inerrancy and authority is absolutely foundational. On this foundation preaching that teaches in detail what the text of Scripture actually says is absolutely necessary. Expositional preaching is not enough however, for the pastor must show the congregation how the text of Scripture applies to their daily lives. In his chapter on devotion Forster makes the case that doctrine is not enough. The goal of Christianity is not to produce people who think rightly and act morally. The goal of Christianity is to liberate people from sin so that they become transformed worshippers of God. This kind of community should stand out as a beacon in the world. In the chapter on stewardship Forster argues that the Christian doctrine of sanctification means that the transformation in the heart must work out in the transformation of the life. The institutional church plays an important role in discipling the people of God. Forster argues that this discipleship ought not focus only on the life of the individual as individual. Since we live in community and work in various vocations, discipleship should extend to these areas as well.
In the final part of the book, Forster looks at the organic church: Christian life in the civilizational spheres. Forster begins with some insightful thoughts about social structures. He notes, in the first place, that these structures are not infinitely malleable. In order to work they must be rooted in our natures and in the way God designed the world to work. On the other hand social structures are not static. Humans can change, improve, or disrupt them. With this foundation in place Forster looks at the following topics: “Sex and Family,” “Work and the Economy,” and “Citizenship and Community.”
Forster begins with sex and family because of their importance: “The most basic building blocks of society—above all, family, but much else as well—arise from our sexual desires. Because our sexual desires affect us so profoundly, their disorderliness is all the more destructive. . . . So it makes sense that sex is a key issue for public witness. If Christianity doesn’t have something to say about sex and family in contemporary America, Christianity doesn’t really have much to say about contemporary America, period.” Forster’s main point is that sexual desires are not merely bodily needs. Spiritual realities underlie these desires, and the sins regarding sexuality are pointers to deeper spiritual problems. Positively, “marriage is a structure designed to recognize that sex creates [a permanent metaphysical] union and to manage its consequences.” This is why “marriage breaks down when we treat it merely as a vehicle for romantic love, or even childrearing.” Forster then moves on for a probing discussion of the importance of the family to the health of a society.
In his chapter on work and the economy Forster argues that work is dignified when it enables people to “make the world a better place.” When we recognize that our work is about relationships with other people, then we can work to serve others. This means that there are certain kinds of work that we might not think of as unchristian, but which in reality are. For instance: “I once heard an ethics professor challenge the little vending machines that stores and restaurants keep in front, selling worthless trinkets for fifty cents or a dollar apiece. The trinkets won’t entertain the kids who buy them for long; the machines are really just there to prompt kids to demand their parents buy them something. In effect, the machines are there to create discord in families so the owners of the vending machines can blackmail parents.” On the other hand, Forster argues that there are many kinds of work that are looked down upon, but which actually are dignified because they are essential to making the world a better place. Forster also discusses matters like the goodness of making high quality products and the goodness of making “good enough” products that raise the standard of living of the poor. In discussing the economy, he looks at American labor law, at the role of markets, and at the regulation of markets.
The final chapter has to do with Christian involvement in politics. Here Forster argues for several distinctions. He makes the case that not all of life should be political life. There should be certain areas of life where we function as neighbors and in which politics is not used to enforce neighborliness. He is concerned that the politicization of everything will damage other important institutions in society. Forster also wants to distinguish between “theological justice” and “natural justice.” The former Christians should seek to further by persuasion. The latter should be something that Christians should press for politically. Forster’s hope is that this approach will allow for moral consensus that won’t be perceived as imposing Christianity on our neighbors.
In his conclusion, Forster examines the virtue of prudence. He exhorts his readers to discern not only where they want to go but what they can plausibly do to get there. They may want to go from A to Z, but they can only plausibly get their neighbors to come with them to G. So, Forster says, let’s try to bring them to G. Some radical cultural changes seem to happen overnight, but, Forster observes, these changes were actually the result of many small steps over a long period. Forster thinks Christians can learn from this.
Forster’s book has many strengths. Too many books on Christians in the public square neglect the role of the institutional church. Forster gives it a full third of the book. Others might assume that the institutional church should play an active role in political and societal issues, but Forster rightly recognizes that the institutional church has its own distinct mission. Another strength is Forster’s grasp of American religious history as his discernment regarding the stories that American Christians tell themselves about that history. Finally, I found Forster’s mediations of the sexual relations, marriage, work, and the economy full of insight.
The book has some weaknesses as well. I’m not yet convinced that the three offices of Christ really serve as a model for church life, though I am starting to see this idea in several places (due, I think, to the influence of Tim Keller). This is a minor complaint, however, because what Forster actually discusses in those chapters are the roles of doctrine, devotion, and sanctification. The cheif weakness of the book, in my view, is Forster’s reliance on John Locke’s politics of moral consensus. At the conclusion of his The Contested Public Square Forster wrote:
All paths now lead to danger. If we wish to preserve religious freedom, we must somehow find a way to build social consensus around the moral laws that politics requires without going back to dependence upon a shared religion. Locke’s confidence that this would happen simply on its own has proved to be misplaced. Tocqueville gave us what is probably the most penetrating analysis of the problem, and in the end he did not even pretend to offer a clear solution. To the contrary, he warned us that all of the tools available for preserving the moral foundations of democracy can easily become subverted and end up undermining those foundations instead. All of the great defenders of religious freedom since Tocqueville have joined him in confessing that its preservation in the face of this challenge is uncertain. But what is the alternative. Even if we were inclined to declare the experiment in religious freedom a failure, how would that help us? Attempting to restore a shared community religion as the basis of government policy would only deepen our divisions and exacerbate our conflicts. And if the entanglements of worldly and otherworldly powers caused unthinkable slaughter between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, what would it do now, when our societies are even more radically divided over religion? I do not know the answer to this crisis.
Perhaps the best answer is the one given in Joy for the World: live the Christian life joyfully before your neighbors and attempt to strengthen their acceptance of natural law. I certainly agree that Christians should act prudently and seek to advance righteousness in their limited sphere as they are able. Nonetheless, I remain doubtful that the kind of moral consensus that was possible in Locke’s day is possible today without the pervasive Christian influence on thought and culture that existed then.