Review of Reforming American Politics by Harold Heie

In Book Reviews by Josh Bowman

Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation. By Harold Heie. (Canton, MI: Front Edge Publishing) 2019. Xx + 426 pages.
 
Harold Heie’s Reforming American Politics exemplifies how committed lay persons and non-political scientists can contribute to understanding, and bettering, American politics. The book brings together the lifetime experiences and insights of the author and his conversation partners.

Heie trained in aerospace sciences (PhD, Princeton University, 1965), and served as professor of mathematics at The King’s College (1963-75) and Gordon College (1975-80), as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Northwestern College in Iowa (1980-88) and Messiah College (1988-93). He was also the Founding Director of the Center for Christian Studies (renamed Center for Faith and Inquiry) at Gordon College (1994-2003). Since “retirement” in 2003, Heie has been writing and speaking on themes related to “respectful conversation” and the “integration of faith and learning.” He has served in various capacities at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Center for Public Justice, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Colossian Forum. Post-retirement, Heie created a website (www.respecfulconversation.net) to conduct “ecircle discussions,” pairing Christians of opposing viewpoints on controversial topics. Reforming American Politics is the fourth book to be produced from ecircle discussions; the previous (third) book was Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity, and the next (fifth) will be on President Donald Trump.

For the current book, Heie brought together twenty-three people, pairing persons of opposing viewpoints to dialogue, for one month, on a specific topic/prompt on the ecircle website.  Participants agreed to respectfully listen to each other and to be forthright in their statements so that the conversation might prove enlightening. The conversation partners were motivated by Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbors, including those with whom one has disagreements, and to offer a model of conversation for others to emulate.

This book includes ten substantive chapters, grouped into four thematic parts: how Christians and others should talk to one another about political issues (Part 1); the meaning of politics and the appropriate scope of political activity (Part 2); selected public policy proposals (Part 3); and how churches and Christian para-church organizations should proceed, or not proceed, relative to political activity (Part 4).  Chapter 1 challenges Christians to reflect if they are part of the problem or solution. Chapter 2 expounds on Christian love and what it entails, including two competing proposals by Heie (“Christian love requires that I engage in political conversations with humility, courage, and love”) and by Duke Divinity graduate student Greg Williams (“Christian love requires that I actively seek to foster the flourishing of poor, marginalized, and oppressed peoples”). Heie defines humility as, “The acknowledgement that however strongly I hold to my beliefs and express them with deep conviction…I may be wrong”; courage as, “The willingness to ‘speak out’ my understanding of the ‘truth’ relative to the issue at hand, even if negative consequences result from my doing so”; and “love” as, creating a safe and welcoming space for others, listening carefully, finding common ground when possible and disagreeing respectfully when not.

Chapter 3 explores the limits to civil discourse and free speech in the US, and discusses examples of Barack Obama and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Chapter 4 promotes civic and political activism among ordinary citizens. Chapter 5 discusses party politics and the function of political parties, and the limits to what politics can accomplish. This chapter sheds light on partisan tribalism, and how Christians can overcome such tribalism. Chapter 6 debates the role of money and special interests in politics.

Part Three debates three controversial issues–immigration (chapter 7), wealth and poverty (chapter 8), and health care (chapter 9)—and the Christian principles, such as hospitality to strangers and the duty to obey the law, which animate competing views of government policies. Part Four (chapter 10) offers three case studies of communities engaging in politics and public discourse, including a Mennonite congregation and an United Church of Christ congregation in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Each chapter concludes with Heie’s distillation of these conversations. In the concluding chapter 11, Heie offers his take on a way forward and how Christians can contribute to the reformation of American politics. To those who suggest that the church and Christians bear no responsibilities, he points to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 (concern for the least of these). Heie also addresses the American propensity to individualism and to resist being required to contribute to the common good.

The book is a large-scale experiment in civil discourse, and has been praised by leading evangelicals as a pathway out of America’s endless culture wars. Historian Mark Noll writes, “It is hard to imagine a better book for times like these. In an age of flaming rhetoric, fractious politics and fissiparous ideology, Harold Heie exemplifies a much better way….The marvel for readers will be to see believers airing their differences frankly, but doing so with Christian friendship preserved and Christian wisdom to the forefront.”
Still, what the book gains in a wealth of genuine conversations, grounded in Christian thought, it lacks a coherently argued and supported thesis, besides that Americans require respectful dialogue. For more fundamental insights to our political problems, and to potential solutions, readers can turn to leading political scientists and theorists, such as Allan Bloom (Closing of the American Mind, 1987), James Q. Wilson (e.g., Bureaucracy, 1989), and Jean B. Elshtain (Democracy on Trial, 1993).

Despite this caveat, Reforming American Politics is a useful guide for teachers, community leaders and moderators of small discussion groups and classes in congregations; political science courses in Christian colleges; and general university courses on civil society, public discourse, and religion and politics.
 
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Review by:
       Wondong Lee
 (lwondong@uci.edu
             Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine.
        Joseph Yi (joyichicago@yahoo.com)
             Associate professor of Political Science at Hanyang University (Seoul)