Some of the bestselling books about Christians and politics in recent years have espoused skepticism about the liberal project. In 2018, it was Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism. The year before, it was Rod Dreher’s book calling Christians to focus on building intentional communities that could serve as enclaves from the liberal state. The Christian right (and left) has increasingly felt that they should no longer be constrained by liberal assumptions. It was somewhat surprising then to read a recently published book that makes a biblical case for a neutral state rather than one devoted to a conception of the good, and that approvingly cites Milton Friedman and John Locke while criticizing Oliver O’Donovan and Thomas Aquinas.
In Politics after Christendom, David Van Drunen’s thesis is simple: the Noahic covenant of Genesis 8 and 9, unlike the other covenants identified by Reformed theology, is distinct because it is the only covenant that does not bestow salvation. The covenant applies universally, between God and “every living creature of all flesh.” Most importantly, the covenant is preservative, dealing with the essentials of political community such as reproduction, sustenance, and the administration of justice.
From here, Van Drunen draws multiple inferences. He argues that governments derive their authority from the Noahic covenant, and that this narrow scriptural basis limits the legitimate actions that governments may take. The common (rather than holy) nature of the covenant implies that political communities should be open rather than exclusive, which in turn implies that they should be comfortable with pluralism and only a modest public vision of the common good. The covenant’s command to reproduce and fill the earth suggests a need for technological advancement and commerce. All of these inferences, according to Van Drunen, suggest a compatibility with limited government.
Many of Van Drunen’s chapters are worthwhile overviews of the various intersections of theology and public life. His chapter on natural law, for instance, is a particularly well-crafted reminder that natural law is about living well and practicing wisdom rather than being intellectually sophisticated. Unfortunately, however, much of the book leaves the reader reminded of why post-liberal and illiberal critiques of the current order are so compelling to many Christians. Where Van Drunen’s arguments fall flat is often where postliberal arguments are at their strongest. Van Drunen defends the free market, for instance, by writing, “A market economy rewards the tolerant.” That seems difficult to take seriously in 2020, a year that thus far has been defined by a highly intolerant manifestation of woke capital. He also critiques Christian thinkers like Wendell Berry who have been critical of unrestrained markets. But many of the points he cites in favor of the market economy are the very things that have made Christians uneasy about their effects. That “market societies have ceased to honor the heroic and chivalrous” and (perhaps most surprisingly) that “birth rates tend to drop dramatically with market development” are supposedly positives we should be celebrating. These arguments make hardly obvious assumptions. For instance, are the Amish and Mennonites, who have five to six children on average (and whose communities are consistently growing), doing more or less to fulfill the Noahic covenant than evangelicals who have an average of two children and a Netflix account?
A further weakness in Van Drunen’s project is one that is not entirely his fault. The political thought of the continental Reformed tradition is somewhat alien to the Anglo-American world. In many ways, it is just as alien as the Catholic political tradition. In the English-speaking world, conservatism derives from the stodgy institutional consciousness of Anglicanism, while liberalism has mixed some Enlightenment thought with the moral urgency it has inherited from Puritanism and Revivalism. Most of us today are some mix of all the above and are at least familiar with names like William Bradford, Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, and William Wilberforce. Names like Hermann Witsius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Geerhardus Johannes Vos, however, are unlikely to be as familiar to the average layman. Perhaps these thinkers should be better known, and perhaps they have much to teach us. But Van Drunen’s book is less an introduction to their thought than an analysis through the lens of their tradition.
Unfortunately, not much of the tradition comes through. Van Drunen repeats a pattern that many Christians have adopted when it comes to thinking about politics. In his chapter on religious liberty, for instance, Van Drunen explains that the “general framework I propose for religious liberty is so different from that of much of the Christian tradition.” This is facially unsurprising. Most Christians today would readily admit they are against burning their theological opponents at the stake. But when confronted with this sort of breach between modern circumstances and traditional polemics, Christians are tempted to outsource their thinking to classical liberals (many of whom are hostile to orthodoxy) rather than try to rescue any truths that may be found in the once universal opinion that right religion is a proper concern of the state. Van Drunen admits that his approach to religious freedom relies on Sebastian Castellio, Pierre Bayle, John Milton, John Locke, and Roger Williams. Only the first two names represent the continental Reformed tradition. Milton is an uncomfortable fit in any of the English theological traditions, and is in fact a critic of most of those traditions. Locke, for his part, was associated with unorthodox Dissent well into the nineteenth century. And while an orthodox Trinitarian, the Baptist Williams nevertheless represents a decisive break from the Reformed tradition.
It may be helpful to contrast Van Drunen’s approach with that of the Catholic Church (which he criticizes). Catholic apologists have sometimes been more than a little coy in arguing that Dignitatis humanae’s position on religious freedom represents a “development” rather than a breach in Catholic teaching. But the declaration does root its support of religious freedom in the traditional idea that man is “bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth” and is “also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known.” This preservation of the traditional view of an individual’s duty protects the discourse about religious liberty from getting too muddled in abstract rights talk, and prevents critics of orthodoxy from stealing the show and carrying their logic to extremes. Reformed political thinkers could learn a great deal from this approach.
The sum of my questions about Van Drunen’s book leaves me wondering if it is possible to build a political philosophy on the inferences one can draw from a single biblical passage. Considering that question charitably would require another review. Suffice it to say, as a proponent of ordered liberty who finds critiques of our current liberal state compelling and often legitimate, I was hopeful that Van Drunen would offer a convincing counterweight to the general trend of current Christian thinking. A defense of liberalism that doesn’t inadvertently expand the definition of the “blessings of liberty” or find itself too timid to critique the excesses of secular economies would be timely and welcome. Unfortunately, Van Drunen’s project falls a little short of this mark. Readers wanting a compelling Reformed defense of ordered liberty will have to keep waiting.