Book Review – Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective

In Book Reviews by Kim Conger

If you are looking for a readable, thoughtful, and scholarly textbook for an introduction to political science course, you will want to pick up Fred Van Geest’s Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective, published by Intervarsity Press, 2017. The content in the textbook is fairly standard for an introductory text in political science. It is broken into four parts: foundational values and ideas for government; institutions; policy; and foreign policy and international relations. In terms of subject matter, it is distinguished from standard textbooks at the chapter level primarily by its chapters on “What is a Christian Government? Should There Be One?” (ch. 2) and “Church, State, and Shalom” (ch. 13). Aside from those, it contains familiar discussions of liberal democracy, political parties and interest groups, and the basic perspectives on international relations, just to name a few.

Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective by Fred Van Geest. Intervarsity Press, 2017.Review by Andrew Kaufmann, PhD, Northwest University

While the subject matter is fairly standard, where Van Geest is distinctive is in his offering what he calls “A Christian Perspective” on that subject matter. Importantly, the “Christian perspective” is not exhausted by his chapters on church and state or whether there should be a Christian government. While those chapters are significant, readers will also find a Christian perspective in his attempt throughout to evaluate all the political phenomena of our world. For example, Van Geest assesses the extent to which interest groups serve the needs of the weak and vulnerable in society (144) and elsewhere evaluates whether it is a Christian perspective to think that civil government should have no role in social welfare (176). In short, a Christian perspective is not an add-on but is baked into the analysis throughout.
Overall, the text has much to commend it. It is clear and well-written for an undergraduate audience. I can easily see students in an introductory political science course engaged by the prose. For an introductory text it also has surprising depth. Most introductory texts are so superficial that it is almost not worth the time to study and teach. Van Geest also provides chapter objectives and very helpful discussion questions that could easily be used by instructors to structure their courses. Instructor’s materials are also provided for anyone who would like to adopt the book for their course. One caveat: Christian professors at Christian institutions will have no problem using this text. I don’t know how Christian professors at non-Christian institutions would use it: perhaps not as an assigned text, but as an aid in class preparation?
Van Geest also provides a helpful framework for Christians to understand politics without overreading what the Bible requires. This comes through in the preface: “Although God provides basic principles for political life in Scripture, he has not given us a blueprint for how to develop political systems and practices.” (x) What are those basic principles? Well, the reader is led to believe that it starts with the view that “governments have a responsibility to promote public justice for all citizens in a way that allows them the freedom and opportunity to flourish as they were created to do.” (x) Does this mean governments must spend 20% of GDP or 25%? Van Geest is not about to use the Bible to answer that question. Instead, biblically-derived norms of public justice and the common good are used to evaluate government and civic life. Instead of the question, does the Bible require taxpayer-funded universal education, he pushes his readers to ask, does taxpayer-funded universal education serve the common good and allow image bearers of God to realize their full potential? (182)
While the text has much to commend it, it does fall a little flat in one area, and that is the insufficient attempt to do political theology, and then to connect political theology with public policy. This may be because Van Geest is a political scientist and not a theologian, but it is a problem nonetheless. I will use one example to illustrate. In his helpful discussion on social policy, he entertains the view that only individuals and voluntary associations are responsible for taking care of the poor. He rejects that position by reference to Psalm 72 and Proverbs 31:1-19, where “ruling authorities have been given the task of protecting the poor and the weak.” (176) The difficulty in this line of argument is twofold. First, he will need to do more than reference these passages if he wants to convince a reader who holds the other view—he will actually need to do the work of exegetical and biblical theology, proving that the rulers mentioned in Psalms and Proverbs are civil rulers, and that whatever norms applicable to those rulers should also apply to civil rulers in 2017. Are the commands from the Old and New Testaments to protect the poor meant for God’s people (Israel and the church), or is it also meant for all human beings? These are not easy questions, but they require more sustained exegetical analysis. Secondly, even if these passages do teach that civil rulers today are to protect the poor and weak, does that mean civil governments should enact social policy in the forms we see in modern welfare states? Could it not simply mean that civil governments should show no favoritism to the strong and rich, but instead be evenhanded in their administration of justice? Van Geest is indeed on more solid ground with his claim that no sacred text justifies the position that government has no role to play in social welfare. Perhaps he should have just left it there.
These two criticisms point to problems in the book, but I am not sure how much of this is Van Geest’s fault. An insufficient connection between political theology and public policy is something a political scientist like Van Geest should be able to overcome. However, is it realistic to expect an introductory textbook in political science to also be a theology and biblical studies textbook? I think not. To demand such would ask too much of the book and the author. But this raises a larger problem with the project itself. If a “Christian perspective” is to mean anything at all, does it not mean that it should be a “biblical perspective”? Who are Christians without the Bible? If this is the case, can an introduction to political science textbook do anything except give cursory treatment of biblical texts? Unfortunately, books cannot do everything, and books written for undergraduates in political science cannot really do full-length exegetical theology.
These minor criticisms should not detract from the great value of the book. Indeed, now that Van Geest has paved the way in writing an introduction to political science from a “Christian perspective,” why not have future volumes that take up the four subfields of political science? Not a book on political theology, and not a book on public policy, but textbooks geared toward undergraduate courses in comparative politics, international relations, American government, and political theory, with “a Christian perspective” in mind. Van Geest’s book will most likely make it into my Introduction to Political Science course at some point. Perhaps there are more to follow?