Leeman, Jonathan. How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age. Nashville: Nelson, 2018.
Leeman, a pastor and theologian with a degree in political science, is writing to help American Christians think biblically about politics. While he states up front that he is “not a political radical” or revolutionary, and while he values the political heritage that Americans have been bequeathed, he is concerned that American Christians often accept certain political principles because they are American without examining whether they are truly biblical.
Separation of Chruch and State?
For instance, many American Christians read Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:21, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” as if God’s things (“worship, faith, church, etc.”) belong in “the private domain” while the government’s things belong in the public domain. Leeman argues that Jesus’s words in Matthew 28 do not allow for this: “Jesus said he possesses all authority in heaven and on earth” (12). While Leeman affirms the separation of church and state (as two distinct institutions), he rejects “the separation of religion and politics.”
That is, Leeman rejects the old European model of Christendom in which church and state jointly ruled a nation. In Leeman’s view, this arrangement violated the unique spheres of authority that God gave church and state while bearing bad fruit (e.g., nominal Christianity, states that persecuted Christians in the name of Jesus).
But Leeman also rejects the model of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson in which the state rules over “outward things” and the church rules over personal, inward, religious matters. Leeman notes that people who hold such a view delude themselves into thinking that certain parts of life are not religious. For instance, the American values of “rights, equality, and freedom” may seem neutral. But when you ask: freedom to do what? rights to what? equality in what way? it becomes clear that religious viewpoints are smuggled in under these allegedly neutral terms. This, makes the fiction of a neutral public square damaging to the public good because it maintains a fiction.
When the non-Christian affirms his belief in the separation of church and state, he means separation of government from my church, not his own. He effectively says, ‘You can’t impose any of your beliefs and morals on me because they come from your church.’ Okay, but does that mean he cannot impose his idolatrous and non-Christian views on me? Ah, there’s the catch. He has no official church and no god with a name. And there’s no such thing as separation of idolatry and state. Too bad for me. Lucky for him. 
Thus the public square is not truly neutral: “What you really have is a square rigged against organized religion. Organized religions are kept out. Unnamed idols are let in” (34).
Leeman’s view is that the church and state should be largely separate institutions. God has given them two distinct jurisdictions. But all of life is religious. There is no neutrality.
What is at stake is found in the title of the book How the Nations Rage. While nations war among themselves, the greatest political rivalry is that of the nations conspiring against the Messiah. Leeman insightfully observes that “worship and rule belong together.” In a fallen world, rule is claimed by those who justify themselves as deserving the right to rule. Part of the challenge that Christians face is that the “politics of the new creation,” is currently present only in the church, which God by his Word and Spirit transforms hearts. And yet Christians are involved in the politics in this fallen world.
How Does the Bible Connect to Politics?
In order to navigate politics in a fallen world a right understanding of how the Bible relates to politics is needed. Leeman argues that “when it comes to thinking about politics, the Bible is less like a book of case law and more like a constitution. A constitution does not provide a country with the rules of daily life. It provides the rules for making the rules” (79). Leeman does not deny that the Bible makes some direct demands that should be translated into law. Law’s against murder come to mind. But in most cases, the Christian applying the Bible to the political realm is in need of wisdom. Leeman says that “wisdom is both the posture of fearing the Lord, as well as the skill of living in God’s created but fallen world in a way that yields justice, peace, and flourishing” (84; cf. Prov. 8:15-16). His point is that whereas there are some “straight-line issues” where the Bible can be directly applied (no murder means no abortion), most issues are “jagged line issues” where the Bible still applies, but not directly (e.g., health-care policy). Leeman argues that churches can bind people’s consciences on straight-line issues but should not do so with jagged line issues.
Why Do We Have Government?
Leeman then turns to the Bible’s teaching about the origin, purposes, and forms of government. He notes that the Bible’s view of the origin of government “sits uncomfortably with aspects of America’s liberal, democratic tradition.”
Our liberal, democratic tradition teaches that “governments derive their powers … ‘from the consent of the governed'” (101). This is the social contract view. On this view people lived in a pre-political state until they consented to form a government. Since the government provided a framework for life rather than something that regulated all of life, the formation of government created public aspects for everyone’s life while leaving a substantial portion of life private. The “source of the government’s moral authority … depends on our consent.” On this view, religion is considered a private matter, rather than a public one.
Leeman notes that the Bible’s view of government has no room for a “pre-political” state because everyone is “always under God’s rule.” When people form a social contract, they ought to do so under the rule of God since, according to the Bible “a government’s authority comes from God” (Rom. 13:1, 2, 4; John 19:11). “Our governments, after all, are simply a way of working out in time and space the rules that God has provided” (105).
Leeman’s discussion of the biblical purposes for government begins with Genesis 9. God requires “a reckoning for the life of man” in Genesis 9. From this, Leeman concludes that the first purpose of government is “To Render Judgment for the Sake of Justice.” Other biblical texts that support this purpose include 1 Kings 3:28; Proverbs 20:8; Romans 13:3-4. The second purpose of government also Leeman also derives initially from Genesis 9: “The authority that God gave to shed blood for blood (vv. 5-6) facilitates the larger enterprise of filling the earth and ruling over it (vv. 1 and 7)” (112). Thus the second purpose for government is “To Build Platforms of Peace, Order, and Flourishing.” See also Prov. 29:4; 16:12, 15; Joseph’s preparation for famine in Egypt and Mosaic regulations that provide for the poor. From 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Leeman discerns a third purpose for government: To Set the Stage for Redemption.” A good government “clears a way for the people of God to do their work of calling the nations to God.”
This last purpose of government raises the issue of religious freedom. Leeman supports the view that governments should tolerate false worship because Scripture authorizes no government, except Old Testament Israel, to punish people for false worship. Leeman points out that this argument is not based on the freedom of the conscience (though that is a “fruit” of the argument) but on the authorization that God gives to government. Second, Leeman argues that “governments possess no authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom, and no ability to coerce true worship” (122).
With all this in view, what is the best form of government? Americans may be tempted to answer, “democracy.” But Leeman observes that a democracy only functions well when “the right kind of political culture must be in place.” He observes, “There must be a strong tradition of respecting the rule of law. Citizens must prize honesty and eschew bribes. They must trust one another to keep their contracts. They must know how to negotiate, persuade, compromise, and lose votes, yet still submit to the system. Apart from these kinds of public and private virtues, democracy has a much harder time working” (122). The Bible itself provides “no abstract ideal form of government.” Instead, a good government is any government that fulfills the three biblical purposes for government noted above.
The Chruch and Politcs
Leeman then turns from the role of the government to the role of the church. He emphatically denies the path of arguing that the church focuses on spiritual matters while the government focuses on political matters. Instead, he asserts, “Every week that a preacher stands up to preach he makes a political speech. He teaches the congregation “to observe all” that the King with all authority in heaven and on earth has commanded (Matt. 28:20)” (131-32). On the other hand, Leeman is skeptical of making the church into a lobbying organization. He notes that it is beyond the church’s mission and competency to formulate public policy. “Therefore, churches should ordinarily not seek to influence government policy directly. … It risks misidentifying Jesus’ name with human wisdom. It risks abusing the consciences of church members. And it risks undermining Christian freedom and unity” (145). He observes, “I have watched churches unite their names and therefore the name of Jesus to a Supreme Court nominee, to presidential candidates, and to legislation in Congress. And nearly every time I want to ask, ‘Are you sure? Do you really want to stake the reputation of Jesus and the gospel to that nominee or candidate or reform?'”(148).
Leeman acknowledges there are certain issues that are so clear that the church can speak directly to them. In fact, he notes that “churches can sin and prove faithless by not speaking up in matters of government policy when they should” (147). But the church has to be able to discern the difference between what it can bind consciences on and what a Christian, working in a sphere outside the church, might conclude as he brings policy expertise together with a biblically-shaped worldview.
The Christian and Politics
The limitations that Leeman places on the involvement of the church as an institution do not apply to general Christian involvement in politics. In fact, Leeman argues that disengagement from civic life is wrong, as is capitulation, “positively endorsing the world and its ways.” Leeman cautions, “Be leery of being too captivated by any political worldview” (181). Neither the right or the left provide the Christian with a biblical worldview. For the Christian to simply embrace the zeitgeist of either side or either party will result in conformity to the world in some areas of life. A third wrong path is to be worldly in the way the Christian acts politically. “There is a way of engaging that’s right on the substance but wrong on the strategy or tone” (164).
Leeman also notes various strategies for Christian engagement in the political realm. The first approach is to find some common ground in the way the argument is made. For instance, Leeman observes that when the Affordable Care Act required employers to provide insurance coverage that included abortion, Christians objected to this requirement (and prevailed in court) on religious freedom grounds. Leeman notes that he agrees with the religious freedom argument, but he observes: “Religious freedom isn’t the real issue. It’s a backup issue. The real issue, for a Christian, is murder. We don’t want the state to require us to fund something we believe is murder” (183). A second approach is to appeal to natural law. This was attempted in the debate over the redefinition of marriage. A third way of engagement Leeman calls the “sociologists approach.” For instance, a Christian defending policies that support two-parent homes or opposing policies that undermine two-parent homes could point to studies showing that children do better in two-parent homes.
Leeman does not object to Christians deploying any of these approaches when appropriate. But he does issue a warning about these ways of making a political argument. “All three lack the force of conviction because the very thing they are good at—finding common ground—affirms our modern intuitions that all authority and moral legitimacy rests in every individual’s consent. Unless I can be convinced something is true on my terms, it must not be true. And so you owe it to me to convince me on my terms. Ironically, the very attempt to persuade risks hardening people in the deeper certainty that they are right” (184).
This objection runs up against the way Americans tend to think about the public square. Leeman observes that John Rawls argued that “we are morally obligated to only bring arguments that everyone can understand on his or her own terms” (186). Leeman calls this view “a Trojan horse for small-g god idolatry.” Governments do not make laws only about matters for which there is consensus. When there is no consensus, on whose terms is the decision made. Leeman argues that it is better to observe that everyone’s god is attempting to set the terms of the debate. There is no religiously neutral public square or religiously neutral public argument.
Leeman’s final chapter addresses the issue of justice. The primary responsibility of government is to ensure justice, and Americans have a particular viewpoint on justice. “Together Jefferson’s Declaration and Lincoln’s Address present America’s mission statement on justice: we are a people dedicated to the principles of equality, freedom, and natural rights” (204).
Leeman is skeptical that this view of justice works. Just as there is no religiously neutral public argument, so there is no religiously neutral approach to justice: “Pick your God or gods; out will come your views on justice. Pick your conception of justice; out will come your views on equality, freedom, and rights” (206). Leeman’s point is that equality, freedom, and rights are themselves empty concepts that will be filled with different content depending on one’s worldview.
Leeman also challenges the more recent views of identity politics. He notes such approaches deny the Bible’s teaching about our “common humanity” and speak as if both truth and morality are social constructs of different groups. Instead of bringing about justice, identity politics, pits groups against each other so that they cannot even communicate with each other, much less work together as citizens. In contrast, Leeman says “The Christian path affirms both our common humanity and our created differences. It requires color-blindness with respect to our oneness in Adam and (if believers) in Christ (Gal. 3:28). It requires color-consciousness with respect to our different experiences, histories, and cultural traditions, as well as the unique ways different people can glorify God (1 Cor. 12:13–14; Rev. 7:9)” (221).
Good books on Christians and politics are difficult to find. Often Christians are tempted to baptize current political philosophies (whether from the left or right) rather than testing these philosophies against Scripture. Leeman does an admirable job of letting the Bible challenge our customary ways of thinking. This is probably the best brief book on politics that I’ve read.