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Book Review: Hunter Baker’s "Political Thought"

When I began my freshman year of college, I didn’t care much about politics. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, and as far as I knew, the beliefs of my parents suited me just fine. Yet I fully anticipated encountering new beliefs and perspectives on campus. My parents—rightly assuming that the predominant theological and political ideology at this liberal Lutheran college would clash with my conservative Pentecostal upbringing—did their best to prepare me, offering plenty of warnings and debate tactics. But in typical teenage fashion, I mostly shrugged it off. After all, I was going to be a music major. I fully expected to spend my days tickling the ivories in practice-room isolation. How political could things get? Within my first few weeks, however, I realized that apathy wouldn’t be so easy. Somewhere between singing solfège in my sleep and devouring bowls of microwaved ramen, I was being strategically pumped full of foundational course material that, though frequently misguided, was quite effective in sucking the critical thinking from my depths. After being prodded to participate in my first classroom “discussion” (read: outright brawl), it quickly became clear that the world of ideas was an exhilarating place to be. But it also proved to be brutal, particularly when it came to politics. Thus, if the political beliefs of my upbringing had any validity, it was going to take a journey of deep introspection to figure things out. Outside of reactionary right-wing talk radio and the copy of the “Communist Manifesto” conveniently handed to me by my sociology professor, I had no idea where to find answers to the fundamental questions that were bubbling up. Hunter Baker Political ThoughtNow, nearly a decade later, with his new book, “Political Thought: A Students Guide,” professor Hunter Baker has provided a great resource for students in this position, giving newcomers to the world of politics a basic framework for understanding the ins and outs and a healthy approach for Christian engagement therein. In my own college days, I found plenty of political primers, but unlike Baker’s work, most either scratched the surface or left me puzzled and confused. Many consist mostly of profiles of important thinkers or robotic, contrived debates about “major issues” like taxes, immigration, abortion, etc. Baker chooses instead to structure his book around more fundamental questions and primary themes: the family, the state of nature, order, justice, freedom and Christianity as a whole. By doing so, he offers something quite similar in function to Thomas Sowell’s masterful work, “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,” drawing attention to more basic visions about man and society before beginning todiscuss how we might contemplate, innovate and apply solutions. Yet unlike “A Conflict of Visions”—which, though revolutionary to my own thinking, was a bit laborious to read in my weekend lesiure—Baker’s work is concise, accessible and explicitly Christian in its approach. Rather than kicking off with a profile of Locke or Rousseau or a survey of the unique thought behind the American founding, Baker begins by simply pointing to the family, “our first society,” explaining how the basic issues at play in politics are quite similar to those found across basic social relationships. Connecting to his overall themes, Baker reminds us that “families have features such as leadership, order, fairness, debate, restrictions, coercion, and freedoms.” Building from there, he quickly connects the dots to broader society, noting that, at some point, the voluntary phase of relationship-building reaches an “involuntary point of living together as ‘government.'” This quickly leads to that big messy question in politics: “how big do we want this involuntary part to be?” By proceeding to examine various perspectives on states of nature and social contracts—now we get a dose of Locke and Rousseau—Baker shows the ways in which our basic beliefs about human nature and human destiny necessarily shape our political thought. He then offers several well-rounded chapters discussing his major themes of political governance—order, liberty, justice and “good politics”—and the competing ideological visions surrounding each. Although it is subtle through most of the book, Baker leads us to a very particular view of Christian political engagement. Particularly in the final chapters, which focus on Christian contributions to political thought, Baker carefully reviews the framework he’s constructed with the aid of folks like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther King, Jr. Having just taken readers through major political themes and the various alternatives within those themes, such a discussion is well-timed to demonstrate the profound and transformational impact a fundamentally Christian view can have. As Baker explains, if politics is fundamentally shaped around the ways in which we view humanity and society, Christianity has a lot to say about it. His conclusion: “Christian political thought sets out a basis for human rights and a hedge against totalitarianism.” As one who comes from a Christian college setting where students and faculty freely and carelessly tossed around words like “justice,” “equality” and “human rights,” Baker’s brief yet careful discussion of such matters would have been extremely valuable for me in clearing the air and providing direction. For Christian students currently struggling to find a political framework outside the white noise of energetic campus activists, ideological professors and classmates, and superficial political parties, I suggest starting here.