WARREN SMITH: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with author and seminary professor Bruce Riley Ashford.
ASHFORD: It is built into us as human beings to know that we need to protect the weakest and the most vulnerable among us. And God builds it into a woman to know that she needs to protect and care for her baby. And when we ignore what God has built into us, you can’t flout God’s law indefinitely with impunity. We can’t break His laws and live against His design forever and not reap the consequences. And we are now, in the United States, reaping the devastating consequences of the sexual revolution and the abortion regime that followed in its aftermath.
SMITH: Do politics and Christianity mix? Bruce Ashford says yes, but it takes careful thought and a deep understanding of Scripture for that mixture to be a healthy one. Too often one or both of these ingredients is missing, and that’s why Ashford wrote his book Letters to An American Christian.
In this book, Ashford writes a series of letters to a hypothetical college student, with advice on both how to think about political issues from a Christian perspective, as well as advice about specific issues we are facing today. The result, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, is a “highly readable and eminently sensible series of reflections on faith and public life.”
Bruce Ashford is the provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also professor of theology and culture there. His previous books include One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics and Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians.
I had this conversation with Bruce Ashford at his office in Wake Forest, North Carolina.
SMITH: Bruce Ashford, welcome to the program and thank you for this book. I found it to be really nourishing, Letters to an American Christian, written in letter format to a young man, this hypothetical young man named Christian. And by the way is he hypothetical or was there a real person that you were thinking about?
ASHFORD: You know, I had in mind just an everyday Christian, but it’s interesting. Tom Wolfe wrote a novel called I Am Charlotte Simmons, and in that book there was a young lady named Charlotte at Dupont University, an elite university, who really lost her way and her life fell apart. So I had in mind a young Christian who was trying to sort of find his way, a new Christian and especially in relation to politics and public life. So I’ve got him at an elite university. He’s got mostly secular progressive professors and he’s got kind of a crazy secular, conservative family. And he’s asking the question, how do I bring gospel-centered Christianity into an appropriate interface with this sprawling and crazy political arena that we’ve got right now in the United States?
SMITH: Well, the book is divided, I guess you could say, into three sections, and every section has a number of letters to young Christian in there. The middle section, which we’re going to get to in a minute, is sort of a lot of the hot-button issues where he’s asking about hot-button issues and you’re responding to that, but the beginning of the book is where you kind of outline a framework for thinking about the world. And you introduce Abraham Kuyper into the conversation very, very early. Of course, I’m a big fan of Kuyper. Those of us at the Colson Center, we’re big fans of Kuyper. Chuck Colson was a big fan of Abraham Kuyper, but I’m also aware that maybe not everyone knows who Abraham Kuyper was. Would you tell us who Abraham Kuyper was and why you wanted to use him in some ways as a role model for this book?
ASHFORD: Yeah, I’d be happy to. You know, I actually named my only son Kuyper, so I’m all in. Father Abraham has many sons. Yeah, so let me say a couple of things about Kuyper. As we were talking earlier, you and I were, before the show, Kuyper’s just an amazing individual. He started out as a liberal pastor when he was very young. Became a more conservative Bible-believing pastor, and then eventually founded a national newspaper, founded a university, founded a political party, and eventually became prime minister of the Netherlans. So in addition to his life, his writings were really helpful. He had two essential insights that I’ll mention. One is the relationship of religion and culture. So Kuyper argued that if you want to find somebody’s religion, find their god; if you want to find their god, you might—it might be the God of Jesus Christ, or it might be sex and money and power—but whenever you find their god, you’ll find something that they embrace in a heartfelt manner. In fact, the Bible relates religion to the heart more than 800 times.
SMITH: And when you say God, and when Kuyper said God, and whenever you use the word—a word like idol—you mean something that creates ultimacy or that sort of points us to ultimate ends, is that correct?
ASHFORD: Yeah, yeah, we can take anything in God’s good creation and elevate it to the level of a god: ascribe ultimacy to it, absolutetise it, and the only person we’re supposed to ascribe ultimacy to is God Himself, but we’ll tend to ascribe it to sex or money or power, success, other false gods. But whatever it is we’re worshiping or ascribing ultimacy to, it serves as a central organizer of our lives, right? And so religion, whatever our religion is, it can’t be separated from politics or art or science or any of our public life. So that was one central insight from Kuyper, that our religion will absolutely and necessarily affect our public life. The second insight is, he gave an architecture for society and culture. He thought that there was a way that God had arranged the different spheres of culture. Right? So we have different kinds of culture. Kuyper said, you know, just like God created different kinds of animals, created different kinds of culture, art and science, politics and economics, scholarship in education, marriage and family, church. And he gave a spatial analogy. He said it’s as if God created different spheres of culture and each of these spheres has its own center and its own circumference. Its own center is its reason for being and its circumference is limits to its jurisdiction. So God created the church to do this, but not these other things. He created the government to do this, but not these other things. So with government, God created government, and the process of politics, to guarantee justice among the various communities and individuals under its purview. He created the church to do something different and those two shouldn’t try to do each other’s business or control each other.
SMITH: And sometimes that concept is called sphere sovereignty. Where the center of that sphere has sovereignty over everything within the circumference of that sphere, but not sovereignty over something in one of the other spheres. Is that more or less accurate?
ASHFORD: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly right. Each sphere has its own integrity and it’s ruled directly by God through His Word and not ruled by some other sphere. So in terms of the government, Kuyper said that the government tends to be like a giant octopus trying to get its tentacles into absolutely everything. And what he would say is that the government should keep itself, limit itself to its own jurisdiction so that we don’t get into what is called statism, where the government encompasses all of life. On the other hand, we don’t want the Southern Baptist Convention, I mean, Lord have mercy, or the Roman Catholic Church, or any of these denominations to have sort of direct control over the government, or to consider themselves, you know, public policy think tanks.
SMITH: So while the church shouldn’t have sovereignty over the government, the government, though, does look to God, or is accountable to God for its authority as well. And we see that, for example, in our own founding documents with language like there are inalienable rights granted to us by our Creator, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So while the church is not over government, the government does have a responsibility before God.
ASHFORD: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The government has a responsibility to God but not to the church. God created the world in such a manner that it has a design inherent to it and there is a way of doing justice and a way of doing injustice. And the fact is this, that if government flouts God’s design for governing, it cannot do so indefinitely with impunity. It’ll pay the consequences. Just like an individual pays the consequences when we live a life that departs from God’s good design, there’s a law of cause and effect. It’s what Proverbs is built on, this general law of cause and effect, that if you depart from God’s design, you will pay the consequences. So what is true on the personal level is also true on the political level.
SMITH: So the, I don’t want to say bottom line, but I’ll say bottom line for lack of a better way to describe it. So the bottom line in a, at least in this part of what you’re saying is, is that number one, it is impossible to separate religion and politics. That if religion is ultimately sort of the way we as human beings define the ultimate questions, that’s naturally going to have an impact in the way we live in all areas of life; you’ve said that. And so therefore we as Christians shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed or apologize for letting who we are as human beings spill over into politics and all other spheres of life as well. Fair? Accurate?
ASHFORD: Absolutely. There was a—the most famous and influential American political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls—argued the opposite of this. He said that, listen, if you want to achieve fairness and justice in society, then you need to lay aside your religion and heavy ideology, and hide behind a veil of ignorance. Pretend that you don’t know who you are, religiously speaking, and that’ll enable you to be more more fair. And what Kuyper is saying, what Augustine said, what the Bible teaches, is religion is not like a garment that you can take off when you walk into a political discussion. Religion is more like your skin. You can’t rip your skin off, right, or it’s more like your heart. And so as Christians, what we want to say is, our motivation for achieving the common good, for helping our nation, actually comes from our religion. And so you don’t want us to lay it aside.
And the life of our Christian community should make people want God’s kingdom to come. And I think that’s true even in politics. I don’t think most people think that’s true. I think most Christians think that politics is inherently dirty, that it’s bad in and of itself, and that therefore we can fight dirty and we can lay aside our Christian character. And I think that is absolutely fundamentally false, that politics is a God-given realm of human life, that we would have government of some sort and politics of some sort even if there weren’t sin. Even if there was no need for a sword, we’d have to figure out how to organize society, right? Which side of the road we drive on, who brings a pumpkin pie to the fall festival, what day are we gonna hold the fall festival on, where’s it going to be? We’d have to do this sort of thing, alright? So politics is not inherently evil. It’s like every other realm of culture. It’s given to us by God. It’s a good realm that has been twisted and corrupted by sinners. And our job as Christians is to get in there and help untwist what’s been twisted and to bring healing to what’s been corrupted.
SMITH: Bruce, I’d like to pivot a little bit in our conversation, you know, we spent the first segment talking about sort of the overview, the framework that you introduce in the first section of the book. Obviously a Christian worldview, but very specifically Kuyperian, depending upon Abraham Kuyper and sort of his understanding of the world. Now I want to dig in a little bit more into some specific issues because in part that’s what you do in the second section of the book as well. You sort of, you know, imagine that this young Christian has written you questions about particular issues. And I want to talk about a few issues, just sort of in a lightning round that, that I think have been very much in the public conversation. One of them is abortion. And one of the things that I love about the book and I love about Kuyper’s worldview is that he doesn’t just say abortion is wrong. We are pro-life, but he and you in the book really sort of go back to first principles about the life issue and about sexuality generally, and what are we created for. So can you sort of locate the life issue in the midst of all of that?
ASHFORD: Yeah. So, you know, in the book, as I’m writing to Christian, in the book the way I’ve got it sort of arranged is Christian is double majoring in political science and journalism. And his secular progressive professors have strong opinions pulling him to the left. He’s got a secular conservative family pulling him in the other direction. And I’m trying to coach Christian on how to reason with people about policy issues. People on the left and people on the right. And one of the things that I try to make clear to him is that the Bible doesn’t usually speak directly to public policy issues in a 21st century democratic republic. But it always speaks at least indirectly. And it’s what you were talking about, that we’re reasoning from principles toward a policy rather than just reading a Bible verse that goes ahead and states the policy for us is this, it’s this process of reasoning. And in abortion there are multiple different ways of doing that. One is to use specifically Christian reasoning and Christian language, and the other is to use more neutral, more sociological reasoning. And we can do both of those. The positive to using a Christian reason is that you get to put all of your cards on the table and you get to say, listen, we believe that God created human beings in His image and likeness and therefore human beings have an inherent intrinsic worth and dignity. And that unborn being in a mother’s womb is a human being created in the image and likeness of God. And then we could say and listen, you see in Matthew and in Luke that God even consecrates babies while they’re still in the womb, sets them apart for service. Other passages in the Bible say that. And then we bring the gospel into it and say that Christ shed His blood on behalf of, and set the table for, all humanity, whosoever will.
So that’s one line of reasoning on abortion. I think it’s compassionate and it’s profound and it’s powerful. But there’s another line of reasoning also where we can say, listen, even if you’re not a Christian, even if you won’t or don’t want to listen to my Christian reasoning, I want to appeal to you in a different way. Abortion is bad for society in every way imaginable. Law professor Marianne Glenndon, Harvard, said something like this. She said that since Roe v. Wade, our nation has suffered something like a moral ecological disaster and we are in the midst of the cleanup process right now. Abortion is bad for the baby, to begin with, horribly bad for the baby. Modern technology lets us see that, and it’s an odd and awful irony that an unborn baby in the womb has less legal protection than a spotted owl. It hurts the baby. It hurts the woman because it teaches the woman that it’s okay to use lethal violence against her own child. It also increases male irresponsibility and sexually predatory behavior. Because if a man is not going to have to man up and take responsibility, if he can just get rid of the, as they call it, products of conception, than a man is going to be more likely to be irresponsible. It’s bad for families. It’s bad for men. Do you know how many men want badly for a woman to keep a baby? And it goes, vice versa, sometimes the men are pressuring women to keep the baby. But you know, you’ve got men who find out 20 years later that a child that they would have liked to have kept, has now been done away with. It’s bad for law-governed democracies and it’s bad for justice and equality. Think about this irony. So many ironies in the fire here. In the 1960s, with the civil rights movement, we thought we had finally said something like this: Listen, Americans, you cannot take an entire class of people, the black community, and refuse to give them justice and equality. You cannot do that. And then in 1973 we turned around and said, well, there’s another entire class of humanity, unborn beings, and we will not give them justice and equality; there will not be justice and equality for all. And then finally, just so you know, society at large, the lesson with abortion is this: that it is okay to use lethal violence to solve your problems. And then we’re surprised when we’ve got people using lethal violence and all other sorts of manners.
SMITH: Well, yeah, that’s right. I mean, everything from school shootings to suicide—the so-called suicide epidemic that we’re facing right now—are really in some ways, I think from my way of thinking and I’m guessing based on what you said from your way of thinking too, are sort of inevitable natural outcomes of this cultural default position, which is that lethal violence is now suddenly okay. Or if not suddenly, it’s become okay over time.
ASHFORD: Absolutely. I mean, it is built into us as human beings to know that we need to protect the weakest and the most vulnerable among us. And God builds it into a woman to know that she needs to protect and care for her baby. And when we ignore what God has built into us, you can’t flout God’s law indefinitely with impunity. We can’t break His laws and live against His design forever and not reap the consequences. And we are now, in the United States, reaping the devastating consequences of the sexual revolution and the abortion regime that followed in its aftermath.
SMITH: Bruce, when we were talking about same-sex marriage and abortion and kind of the different cultural responses that we’re having to those two issues these days, even among Christians, one of the things that you said about same-sex marriage was that it’s been normalized, it’s been in the culture. And one of the things that you say at the end of the book, and now if we could pivot to sort of that last section of the book, is something that Chuck Colson used to say: that politics is downstream from culture. That once something becomes normalized in the culture, it’s much easier for that then to become policy, to become law. So given that, how is it that we as Christians are to live and behave in this culture?
ASHFORD: Yeah. You know, one of the things we’ve got to do, that you and I were talking about earlier, is to recover the lost art of Christian persuasion. And I actually take that phrase from Os Guinness’ book Fool’s Talk. That’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. He’s a prince of a guy. Everything he writes is good. This is a really good book. And at the end of the book he talks about how the early church talked about the way of persuasoria, and the way of disuasoria. The way of the open hand, and the way of the closed fist, and how we need to combine both of those. So the way the closed fist is when people come hard after the Christian faith and punch at it and we have to block it, alright? And so there’s a way in which we have to do that. People make rational arguments against the Christian faith and we make a rational argument in response and so forth. But there’s also the way of the open hand. And that is the way of human warmth and wit and wisdom. It’s when we persuade people and draw them into the Christian faith. This is what we’ve lost, I think, in the United States and what we’ve got to regain. We have an absolutely toxic public discourse right now. Weaponized, tribalized… Watching our political scene is like watching the combination of a war, carnival, and a Hollywood movie. I mean, it’s really awful stuff. Our political leaders are talk show hosts. It’s like a never ending series of political wedgies and what we’re going to have to do is cut our own wake and just find a more excellent way to persuade. We could take a lesson out of the playbook of Christian missionaries, actually. Think about it. So the way Bible-believing Christians often tend to interact in public right now is the way our president and many politicians and talk show hosts, all of us tend to do this; is we tend to insult the people on the other side of the aisle. We tend to take any of the negative attributes we’ve seen from people on the other side of the aisle, put them all together in an aggregate, and place them on the head of every person on the other side of the aisle. Then when you do that, you can justify sort of just mocking and insulting, telling partial truths about people on the other side of the aisle. It’s a temptation for all of us. I’ve done it before. I’m ashamed that I’ve done it before, and we’ve got to find a better way. What a missionary does is this. A missionary goes into a country and takes people who believe very differently than he does, or she does, and he listens to them, learns their language, understands their worldview, finds common ground, and wins them over with warmth and wisdom. That’s what we’ve got to learn how to do. And that’s why we’ve got to play the long game here. There’s something that’s really lost when we have reduced all of culture to politics and reduced all of politics to short term activism. If you’ve done that, you can justify any kind of idiocy and inanity. You can be ugly to people, you can insult them, you can mock them, if all you’re trying to do is score a short-term victory. But like you say, if we’re playing the long game, if we’re trying to persuade people and win them over, we’re going to be more likely to allow God to remind us of the need to have Christian virtue. For there to be integrity between the way we behave in church and the way we behave in public and in our public discourse.
SMITH: Well, Bruce, let me just say, having read the book, I think you’ve done a masterful job of that. And I think you’ve probably already mostly answered my last question, but I’m going to go ahead and ask it anyway and just give you a chance to respond with any other additional ideas. Is that what you want this book to do? In other words, what do you want this book to do? Is that, is that it? To give folks a third way of looking at how to be Christians in the world? Neither left nor right, and not just a mushy middle, but a higher ground?
ASHFORD: Yeah. You know, here’s what I want. I think most of us who are Bible-believing Christians sense that the ground has been shifting beneath us for 30 or 40 years, and maybe even more rapidly in the past decade. And we find ourselves to some extent a little bit more on the margins, you know, and we’re finding ourselves with all sorts of new challenges and we want to know how to respond. And what I’ve tried to do in the book is to help equip Christians with a couple of things. First is the truth content they’re going to need; the Biblical principles that will help them reframe issues in ways that are faithful to Christ. And then the second is to reframe our disposition and demeanor. Because it’s an ugly irony when our disposition is profoundly ungracious. And yet the truth content of our views has to do with grace. But in terms of being a witness from the political margins, I think increasingly we will be pushed more to the margins, Bible-believing Christians will. So we’re going to have to learn how to recenter God in interesting ways into the public conversation. Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. How can we do that? We’re gonna need to learn to decenter the self. It’s hard to recenter God unless we’re de-centered. How do we decenter the self? By having the strength to be civil in public argument. Even when somebody else mocks us, insults us, lies about us; first to stand there in the moment and treat the other person with dignity and respect. That’s a way of decentering the self and if we would do that, it would raise some real eyebrows. We would be different than everybody else. So recenter God decenter the self. Another way of decentering the self is to seek the common good rather than merely the good of our own tribe. I think that tribal politics, identity politics, is the death of a democracy if we seek only the good of our own people. So recenter God, de-center self, reframe issues, which is what you mentioned and we talked about a moment ago. Reframing issues allows us to make Christianity interesting again—MCIA. I’m going to make a hat. Instead of MAGA, it’s MCIA: Make Christianity Interesting Again. And then finally, revitalize cultural institutions. We need to realize the significance of cultural institutions. Politics is downstream from culture. Culture is so much bigger than politics. It includes politics, but also art and science and higher education and marriage and family and church, sports and competition, business and entrepreneurship, and if we enter into these sorts of cultural institutions as believers, seeking to make them better in light of our Christian worldview, then we’ve got an opportunity to do something special. And as Newbigin would put it, to be a preview of God’s coming kingdom.
SMITH: That brings to a close my conversation with Bruce Riley Ashford. We discussed his new book Letters to An American Christian. Bruce Ashford is the provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he is a research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Commission.
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The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In.