Almost 50% of the world’s population is eligible to vote in the sixty-four national elections and the European Union’s election that are scheduled for some point in 2024. Included in this are presidential elections in the United States, parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, as well as elections in Russia, India, and a host of influential European nations. Every election seems to be “the most important of our lifetime,” but the international geopolitical landscape suggests that this is a plausible claim for this year. Russia is still waging war in Ukraine, Israeli hostages are still held in Gaza, China has escalated its rhetoric regarding Taiwan, and Iran’s president died earlier this year in a helicopter crash. Each of these is serious enough to elicit serious concern, but the confluence of circumstances demands that the world’s armies, national governments, and supra-national political and economic institutions be led by men and women with steady hands and clear minds. Our present circumstances should motivate all of us to consider what it means to be a citizen and how to honor the responsibilities of citizenship, including voting. 

Political scientist David Koyzis’s forthcoming book, Citizenship Without Illusions: A Christian Guide to Political Engagement, is one book in a very crowded election-year field specifically addressed to Christians as a guide to considering just those themes. It is also one of the best. 

Many of the books in this genre address Christian political engagement from explicitly partisan perspectives, although I would suspect the authors would disagree with this. Others address the deep cultural and social fractures that have marked our most recent public discourse regarding politics. The book seeks to answer the question, “How do we discharge our responsibilities as citizens of our political communities while remaining faithful to our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord?” Most in the genre begin at a similar starting point, but presume so much that it isn’t too difficult to discern the author’s ideological starting point. 

Koyzis’s approach, however, is uniquely systematic and rooted in ideas and sources that far predate our contemporary debates. Rather than re-articulate an obvious description of the cultural and social divisions that we face, Koyzis begins by examining the origins of concepts like citizenship, community, nationhood, and authority, situating these within the rise of the Christian tradition. In fact, nearly half of the book is dedicated to examining the history behind the political vocabulary we take for granted before delving into more pragmatic issues like voting and political activism. He returns to his historiographical approach to address progressivism and conservatism, the two most dominant yet overly simplified political postures, almost universally misunderstood and improperly defined.  This approach is remarkably helpful. 

Koyzis’s audience is clearly Western Christians. Most of the discussion assumes citizenship in free, open societies where all people have the freedom to participate in government. Other works that reduce Christian social and political duties to the most fundamental theoretical level can be quite erudite, but not overly helpful because the practical application of these universal duties is much different in the West than in North Korea. Other approaches to this conversation, as noted above, veer too readily into partisan territory once the authors begin to apply the precepts they’ve articulated. Koyzis adeptly steers clear of both ditches and addresses Christians living in particular political, social, and economic contexts without becoming bogged down in the political, social, and economic divisions of those contexts.

I hesitate to offer two small critiques of this work, but cannot resist entirely. 

First, in Chapter 3 (“How to be a Citizen”), Koyzis very briefly describes the early Christian approach to citizenship as “attempt[ing] to stay under the radar as much as possible.” In fairness, he does not expound on this description and in the immediate context it is contrasted with a Christian politician in Pakistan who was ultimately assassinated on account of his public witness. Even in a largely Christianized society, living Christianly is often counter-cultural. Of course, perspective matters a great deal. Christians living under Diocletian or Nero or in Boko Haram-controlled areas in modern Nigeria would be confounded by what most modern Western Christians would call persecution. Early Christians didn’t intend to antagonize their neighbors as they faithfully rescued exposed infants from trash heaps and cared for the sick and poor. These good works set them apart and sometimes invited suspicion. I don’t suggest that Koyzis would disagree at this point. But it is important to note that being salt and light is complex—while light always illuminates, salt is rarely visible in the things that it flavors. Faithful living is never “under the radar” even in times when it is largely forced underground. 

Second, Koyzis’s earlier work, Political Visions and Illusions, dedicates much more space to expounding upon the notions of conservatism and progressivism than Chapter 7 of Citizenship Without Illusions. But the larger argument of the present work is somewhat compromised by the abbreviated treatment of these perspectives. As a conservative, I do not recognize the traditional beliefs that inform my perspectives as described in this chapter. Conservatism doesn’t seek to preserve tradition blindly for traditions sake. Edmund Burke himself wrote that  “We must reform in order to conserve.” The dominant posture of conservatism is one of gratitude for civilizational inheritance and humility with regard to passing that inheritance on to future generations. Not being a progressive, it is difficult for me to ascertain the ways Koyzis may not have accurately describe progressivism as an ideology, at least within the meaning that progressives would embrace. Even so, these issues could be resolved by reframing the issues as “right and left” rather than “conservative and progressive.” Western democracies sort political parties into conservative and progressive categories, leading to confusion about the meaning of these terms. “Right and left,” in contrast, refer to political and social outcomes rather than theoretical principles and are thus more substantive, if not always necessarily the most precise way to address political issues.

Citizenship Without Illusions is easily one of the best books on this subject due out in 2024. Koyzis’s systematic, historically and philosophically grounded approach to exploring the duties of citizenship rather than more transitory and immediate aspects of our current political climate sets it apart from many other works engaging similar themes. Unfortunately, it is due out so late in the year that almost every Christian going to the polls around the world this year will do so without the wisdom of this book. Hopefully Koyzis’s measured, thoughtful, and thoroughly Christian approach will be the catalyst for serious reflection about the vocation of Christian citizenship.