Depending on how you look at it, it's easy to see a new little book on American politics from Moody Publishers as either just a wee bit late or maybe a tad early.
City of Man, by Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, is a few weeks late in that its appearance in bookstores comes a scant 30 days before the high-profile 2010 mid-term elections. If a significant number of thoughtful readers were expected to have taken the book seriously and adjusted their behavior as a result, it would have been good to have the book around sometime last spring.
Or, if an even greater number of serious Christian citizens might hope to integrate this book's message with their behavior in the months and years ahead, then it would be sad if City of Man were to get buried in the hurly burly of this fall's political circus.
The book is good enough, though, and also important enough, to rise above either handicap.
Neither Gerson nor Wehner, who both served as speech writers and policy advisors in the White House of George W. Bush, ever seems embarrassed to call himself a political conservative or an evangelical Christian. They don't dilute their good thinking by striking a squishy pose as "thoughtful moderates." They've earned the right to suggest a course of action for their conservative and Christian audience.
That course of action-if I might be permitted to oversimplify City of Man-is to be careful on the one hand to root one's political agenda in biblical principles, and then on the other hand to pursue that agenda with biblical civility. Gerson and Wehner fault the so-called Religious Right on both those fronts, suggesting that over the last generation conservatives have hurt themselves sometimes by including agenda items that aren't necessarily biblical priorities for political activity, sometimes by excluding agenda items that are, and way too often by doing both those things in an unmannerly way.
While making those points, Gerson and Wehner take notable care to show good manners themselves. They vigorously take issue with the late Jerry Falwell and with Pat Robertson-but you'll find no cheap shots. They concede that the political arena is a tough one in which to operate, and that the temptation to be less than civil is constant.
Gerson and Wehner know their history-and in these brief 136 pages, they use it (but sparingly!) to remind us how the roles of individual people, of the churches those people are members of, and of the nations in which they are citizens too often get garbled and confused.
Then, having sorted out those roles, they step the reader through the issues of (1) human rights, (2) law and order, (3) the family, and (4) wealth and prosperity. On all four fronts, City of Man faithfully nudges the reader toward a traditionally conservative position-but grounds the reader in an argument far more compelling than merely traditional conservatism. It's important, for example, to understand the four sections in the order presented, since a good understanding of human rights is critical for an understanding of the other areas of thought. And a good understanding of human rights, the authors stress, always starts with a theological perspective that sees humans as made in the image of God.
All of this is hard work-and the product isn't necessarily trimmed in black and white or finished with sharp edges. But that doesn't mean, Gerson and Wehner warn, that Christians should yield to temptation in either of two directions: They shouldn't back off in pietistic retreat, giving up on political engagement as if it were dirty, unseemly, and unproductive. Neither should they oversimplify the issues as if we already know all the answers. The authors of City of Man are optimistic that diligent endeavor by thoughtful and respectful Christians will bear fruit in the culture at large; but they warn that the endeavor almost always requires patience.
If conservatives are as politically successful on Nov. 2 as pollsters suggest they might be, City of Man could be a good guidebook for some of the victors as they occupy new and alien territory-helping them avoid the trap of squandering their success.
Email Joel Belz