Forster, Greg. The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008.
Greg Forster’s The Contested Public Square is a readable, informative, and engaging history of Christian political thought. Far from an academic treatise, Forster recognizes that the moral consensus which Western nations have shared for fifteen hundred years has come apart, leading to a political crisis. He believes that “the first step to finding an answer [to this crisis] is understanding the question. We are going to have to do a better job of understanding the real nature of the crisis. If we do achieve that insight, we still might not succeed; but if we do not even try to achieve it, we will have lost before we even begin. That is what has driven me to write this book” (249).
Forster begins his work with the first centuries of the church, detours to take into account the influence of Greek philosophies, and then moves through Western history to the present. In the patristic era Christian apologists argued against state persecution of Christianity, but Christians did not have a real theology or philosophy of political involvement. Christian thinkers tended to argue against government and military participation because of the religious compromise it involved.
With the Christianization of the Roman Empire, Christians needed to develop a political theology. As in so many areas of theology, Augustine proved most influential (Forster points especially to book 19 of the City of God). Augustine first made use of the idea of natural law, which developed into a political theory in the middle ages, and persisted on to the time of Locke where it became a foundational element in his case for religious toleration and liberal democracy. Even in medieval Europe the seeds for Locke’s approach existed in the belief that natural law, with its concern for temporal goods, provided the foundation for civil law whereas the Bible and the Church concerned itself with spiritual goods. Yet because a shared morality, based on a shared religion, is necessary for the temporal good of society, the state enforced religious uniformity in the middle ages.
The Reformation shattered this uniformity. Because of the continued belief in the necessity of a shared religion, the Reformation set off a series of religious persecutions and wars. One attempt to settle the problem was to permit the prince to choose the religion of his nation. But in nations, such as England, where the religious positions of the monarchs shifted between Catholicism and Protestantism, religious conflict was only exacerbated. Enter John Locke. In his early years Locke favored strictly enforced religious conformity to ensure public tranquility. But on a diplomatic mission to Cleves, a city in Germany which, due to some strange political circumstances, allowed religious toleration, Locke’s views were radically transformed. He saw that toleration had removed religion from the political equation and led to public tranquility among adherents to different religion. Public virtue was not threatened because natural law undergirded a shared morality despite religious differences. Locke’s views led to the advent of religious toleration, even religious freedom, and liberal democracy.
In the twentieth century liberal democracy entered a crisis as political theorists denied the natural law foundations of Locke’s position and sought to replace them with something else: tradition (Edmund Burke and conservatism) and the maximization of human happiness (John Stuart Mill and utilitarianism) being the chief alternatives discussed by Forster. As philosophical and religious diversity increases, shared morality is fragmenting. Without a shared religion, a shared morality has shattered. And yet it is impossible at this juncture to return to a shared religion for each political community. Forster concludes, “All paths now lead to danger. If we wish to preserve religious freedom, we must somehow find a way to build social consensus around moral laws that politics requires without going back to dependence upon a shared religion.” How is this to be done; is it even possible? Forster concludes, “I do not know the answer to this crisis” (249).
The Contested Public Square is available on Amazon for $9.99 for Kindle or $21.40 in paperback.
Forster, Greg. Starting with Locke. New York: Continuum, 2011.
The publisher says that the “Starting with . . . series offers clear, concise and accessible introductions to the key thinkers in philosophy.” Greg Forster lived up to this expectation in Starting with Locke. He helpfully positioned Locke in his historical setting and then showed how his philosophy emerged through wrestling with the major issues of his day in England. According to Forster, England in Locke’s time was politically tumultuous because the religion of the nation was tied to the religion of the rulers. As the rulers moved between Catholicism and Protestantism, the politics of England became bloody. Upon a visit to Cleves, a city in Germany that due to a strange confluence of circumstances practiced religious toleration, Locke realized that religious toleration, far from exacerbating political tensions, would ease them. In his epistemology, Locke seeks to drive his readers to admit the limits of what they can know. Given this, people should be slow to impose their beliefs on others. This does not mean that Locke was not a Christian (though his silence on certain points have raised questions as to what kind of Christian) or that he did not believe the Bible to be revelation from God. He did believe the Bible was God’s revelation. But he believed that natural law, rather than Scriptural revelation, ought to serve as the basis for a society’s common morality. This obviated the need for a common religion. The other major question that Locke addressed was who has the right to rule. He argued from Gen. 1:26-28 that all men are given the right of dominion over the earth. Contrary to divine-right theorists, Locke argued that no one could prove a heredity right to rule through a certain line of persons from Adam. Thus if all had the right to rule, then the investiture of that right in an organized government must occur with the consent of the governed, if only tacitly. This, therefore, underlies Locke’s theory that rebellion is justified when a government violates its trust and changes into a tyranny.
Forster closes the book by reflecting on the present political situation in the United States. Here he has two main concerns. First, there is a great breakdown of moral consensus on issues far more fundamental than those Locke faced. Second, he notes a divide in American society between those who think of politics from a Lockean perspective (mainly on the right) and those (mainly on the left) who approach it from the perspective of John Stuart Mill. Forster worries that Americans will slip into a kind of confessionalism in which morality (from left or right) is imposed from a particular viewpoint or move into a society in which the “state may simply give up trying to justify itself morally.” To avoid these Forster says we must find some way to “maintain moral consensus without religious consensus.”
Starting with Locke is available on Amazon for $13.71 for Kindle and $18.26 in paperback.