The tension between religious beliefs and political decisions is a recurring challenge in American history—if not throughout all history. During the antebellum period, evangelical voters often wrestled with profound moral dilemmas, torn over whether to cast their ballots for candidates who were gamblers, duelists, or slaveholders. As they stepped into the political arena, these individuals often navigated complex moral negotiations, deeply concerned about the state of their souls and the moral direction of the nation. Some sought to change the system from within, viewing compromise as a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, strategy for exerting Christian influence. In sharp contrast, radical abolitionists argued that any political support for entities favoring pro-slavery stances amounted to risking eternal damnation. This era’s debates over slavery created deep fissures within religious communities, mirroring the national conflicts of the time. These divisions split major denominations, such as the Methodists and Baptists. With leaders of both the Whig and Democratic parties being notable slaveholders, evangelicals encountered intricate ethical quandaries that shaped not only their personal beliefs but also the policies of their churches and the broader political actions of religious groups. This history, whether reassuring or disheartening, underscores the enduring reality that Christians have consistently faced stark challenges in their political involvement.

In looking at today, in his State of the Union address, President Biden resolutely voiced his support for “reproductive freedom,” a stance that stands in stark contrast to the official teachings of his Roman Catholic faith. This declaration not only highlights his commitment to this controversial issue but also sets the stage for potential tensions within the broader religious community he is part of. Meanwhile, amidst a storm of legal battles, including allegations of payoffs to porn stars and accusations of sexual assault, former President Donald Trump has provocatively endorsed the “God Bless the USA Bible.” This endorsement, amid his overwhelming support from white evangelicals, further mystifies observers about the reconciliation of such support with their proclaimed values. These scenarios weave a complex tapestry for Christians, compelling them to confront and reconcile the stark dichotomies between their spiritual convictions and political affiliations. These scenarios carve out a challenging landscape for modern American Christians, compelling them to navigate the turbulent waters between their spiritual values and political choices, and to confront the stark dichotomies that lie at the intersection of faith and governance.

To assist in navigating these dilemmas and to encourage deeper reflection on their consequences, N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird present their latest work, Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies. Despite its brevity, the book seeks to provide insights into how Christians can effectively bear witness to their faith amidst the challenges of contemporary politics.

First and foremost, it is essential to clarify that Jesus and the Powers is not a comprehensive treatise on political theology. Those seeking a work comparable to Augustine’s The City of God, Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian, or a direct counter to Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism or something akin to Aaron M. Renn’s Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture may find themselves disappointed. Combining elements of political theology, biblical analysis, and church history, Wright and Bird offer more a collection of reflective thoughts and meaningful exegesis than a systematic exposition. The book often reads like a prolonged sermon—inspirational and thought-provoking at its best, yet at times frustratingly ambiguous for those of us trying to put preaching into practice at its worst.

Wright and Bird offer a compelling perspective on the stark contrasts between the ancient world’s approach to political power and our modern experiences. In contemporary society, leaders are often elected based on perceived merit or popularity, but as Wright and Bird elucidate, ancient power structures were largely shaped by brutal conquests or inherited through lineage. Likewise, they highlight how the biblical narratives unfold against the backdrop of formidable empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and ultimately Rome. This historical context helpfully emphasizes that the biblical authors were less concerned with the acquisition of power, especially significant given that the norm in the ancient world often involved acquiring power through violent conquest, and more focused speaking truth to power and holding the said power accountable. 

As New Testament scholars, Wright and Bird primarily delve into the Gospels and Paul’s Letters, but they do offer a broad sweep of ancient Israel’s tumultuous political history. Their discussions on power are particularly compelling, drawing from a broad spectrum of biblical texts that link terrestrial political authority with spiritual realms, notably those influenced by demonic forces, as seen in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Colossians 1:15-17. In the contemporary world, the notion of separating church and state is a familiar concept, yet such a separation would have been foreign to the New Testament’s authors. For example, while Pontius Pilate and the Roman forces physically orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion, the scriptures also reveal underlying spiritual dynamics at play, highlighted in passages like 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 and Colossians 2:9-12. For Christians, these texts underscore a profound anticipation for the Day of Judgment, when all earthly powers will be subjugated under Christ’s dominion and facing His ultimate judgment.

But what should Christians do in the meantime?

Wright and Bird explore this question by examining the well-known scriptures of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, where Paul and Peter seem to advocate for Christian submission to state authorities. But Wright and Bird contend that the reality behind these texts is more nuanced. They illustrate how ancient Christians, like their modern counterparts, balanced being proactive citizens—paying taxes and serving as societal role models—with the necessity to resist worshipping Roman emperors as gods or compromising their moral integrity under Greco-Roman cultural pressures. Yet Nadya Williams has recently demonstrated that ancient Christians weren’t always as countercultural as we might think (paralleling the modern tendency to overestimate our revolutionary and countercultural Christian spirit). But as Wright and Bird recognize, while being a Christian in the Roman Empire was demanding and sometimes perilous, the eventual Christianization of the empire presented both new political opportunities and fresh civic challenges.

With the Roman Empire’s endorsement, Christians shifted from being a persecuted group to one that could confront and sometimes persecute their historical adversaries, including Pagans, Jews, and heretical Christians. In this transformation, the Church unfortunately became an instrument of imperial ambition, currying favor with power, blessing the victors, and denouncing the vanquished, all while endorsing plunder, exploitation, and enslavement. As Wright and Bird poignantly observe, “The Church came to exchange the cross of Christ for the sword of Rome.” Despite efforts by some, such as Sohrab Ahmari, to rehabilitate the cultural and societal goods wrought by Constantinian Christianity, Wright and Bird offer a crucial reminder of the concessions Christianity made to secure the favor of the Roman Empire.

Of course, this narrative would be familiar to anyone with even a basic understanding of Christian history. Christian authors have consistently addressed the atrocities committed in Christ’s name, both to confront the church’s historical misdeeds and to illustrate the corrupting influence of power. Should these Christians writers stop in their work, critics of Christianity have been and will continue to be equally relentless in producing works that emphasize these dark chapters. Nevertheless, Wright and Bird also vigorously defend Christianity as well, commending the numerous ways in which Christians throughout history have upheld human dignity, inspired by Jesus’ mandate to love thy neighbor. They cite instances where Christian states have established hospitals, charities, and universities, and laud those who have leveraged their societal, economic, and political influence to combat the atrocities of slavery, Nazism, and Communism. Despite its compact size, Jesus and the Powers adeptly emphasizes these themes, showcasing both the misuse and judicious application of power within a Christian framework.

Jesus and the Powers notably shines in its succinct chapter defending liberal democracy, which is especially timely given the recent critiques from both the political left and right. Wright and Bird’s defense, though restrained, is notably refreshing from a popular Christian perspective. They recognize that while other forms of governance have historically supported human flourishing, liberal democracy offers unique benefits that Christians should not only celebrate but utilize for the advancement of the kingdom. These benefits include the preservation of individual rights, the separation of powers, the promotion of economic equality and opportunity, and the independence of the judiciary, just to name a few. They suggest that amidst the sins of the past, Christianity can not only survive but thrive under the cultural and religious pluralism upheld by liberal democracies. Rather than retreating from the world or scheming ways to take over the reins of power, Wright and Bird encourage Christians to become deeply involved in their local communities, living out the gospel as best they can with what they have at their disposal with charity, advocacy, and even protest. As the song goes, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” 

This stands in contrast to imagined and forebodingly vague systems that prioritize Christian advancement, as promoted by proponents of Christian nationalism. Bird’s robust engagement with these arguments on various digital platforms, including podcasts and his YouTube channel, sharply contrasts with the book’s more measured tone. The absence of direct responses to influential thinkers like Stephen Wolfe, Rod Dreher, Patrick J. Deneen, and Douglas Wilson is a real missed opportunity. Engaging with their arguments could have provided a stronger counter-narrative to Christian nationalism, which is gaining traction in some sectors. This deeper critique would enhance the book’s impact by not only defending liberal democracy more vigorously but also by challenging the ideologies that threaten its foundational principles of diversity and tolerance.

This criticism underscores a broader issue central to Jesus and the Powers: its vagueness on current political matters. Wright and Bird frequently employ emotive and evocative language, such as the cliché-ridden phrase “speaking truth to power,” but often fail to specify the exact truths or identify the specific powers to which Christians should be addressing their words. For instance, some of the most contentious issues that not only divide churches but will also polarize American Christians during this upcoming election season—such as LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, economic stagnation, the influence of pornography, healthcare, immigration and refugee policies, environmental concerns, foreign policy (just to name a few!)—are scarcely, if at all, addressed in the text. The lack of engagement with these topics leaves a gap in the narrative that could otherwise offer practical guidance and clarity on how Christians might navigate these complex and divisive issues within a framework of liberal democracy. This omission is particularly noticeable given the pressing nature of these debates in public discourse and their profound implications for the Christian community and society at large. Consequently, the book’s exploration of political theology results in a somewhat tepid final product, lacking in both interest and depth so many readers are craving at this moment. 

Readers will undoubtedly benefit from Wright and Bird’s insights, although this brief contribution to the Christian political theological discourse will not be as impactful as their work on the historical Jesus, the New Perspective on Paul, and other aspects of Christian origins. Jesus and the Powers can certainly be recommended to anyone who wants to think about how Christians have engaged with the political challenges of their time, but perhaps not commended as a source for engaging with our own times.