Politics as Applied Theology: A Conversation with Peter and Helen Evans

Peter and Helen Evans know what it’s like to be spiritual seekers. They ran through the gamut of Eastern religions and philosophies before returning to the Christianity of their youth. Better still, they’ve written a book to help those who find themselves similarly seeking.
The result is Get Serious: The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture, a collection of in-depth interviews with Christian representatives — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — on six cultural issues facing the church today: abortion, war, euthanasia, animal rights, welfare, and genetic engineering.
Brian Saint-Paul — the interviewee for their chapter on animal rights — spoke with them about the project.
♦ ♦ ♦
Brian Saint-Paul: What was the motivation behind the book? This was a considerable project. Why take it on?
Helen Evans: It started years ago, when we came back to Christianity ourselves. I had grown up Orthodox, but had left it for many years. We went to the Easter service with my sister as a family obligation, and Peter started asking questions about it. When I tried to answer, I realized that I really didn’t know how.
We had looked into so many things. We’d studied Eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism. We went to Sikh temples, etc. But I realized that I didn’t know anything about Christianity, so we started studying that. As we did so, we discovered what a great, rich tapestry it was.
Peter Evans: It was a revelation.
Helen: Right. We realized we’d been mouthing a lot of words about Christianity that we’d picked up along the way, but had no idea what we were saying. We really didn’t know anything about it, and knew there were a lot of people out there just like us.
So that’s why we wrote it.
Get Serious: The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture is the name of the book. There’s also a teaser line on the cover that asks, “Whoever said Christianity was nice?” What did you mean by that?
Peter: We were looking for something short for the main title, and had considered a number of options. One idea was simply to name it The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture, but that looked more like a subtitle.
So we came up with Get Serious — that was how we felt when we decided to recommit ourselves to Christianity. The whole thing was almost an alarming experience for us. I remember that we were at a hotel in Washington, D.C., and had decided that this was what we were going to do. We were going to become Christians again.
Helen: Right after Christmas service, we had gone out to eat afterward and just couldn’t speak to each other. No words would come out. We looked at each other and asked, “Do you feel the same way?” “Yes.”
We knew it was going to change our lives.
Peter: Right. In life, we have decisions to make. Because we believe that politics is applied theology, when we make political decisions, we better make them based on the truth. Otherwise, they’ll be bad decisions. That’s why it’s important to “get serious” about them.
And the line, “Whoever said Christianity was nice?” What does that mean? It seems to run counter to the way a lot of people think about the Christian faith.
Peter: Yes, true. We had encountered an amazing array of nonsense when we were plowing around in the New Age. We kept hearing about how “nice” everything should be. When you die, you go into the light, and everything’s so “nice.” The more we researched Christianity, the more we realized that Christianity wasn’t “nice” in that sense. Its great virtue is that it’s the truth.
Nice just isn’t good enough.
Helen: Who was the first person who went to heaven? The thief. He may not have done one good thing in his life, but he ultimately embraced the truth, and that was what mattered.
How did you decide on the structure of the book — the interview format? Why not just write a straight-ahead text addressing the various issues?
Peter: Because we had in mind our target reader as being someone who may not be interested in plowing through the content, but who might enjoy “overhearing” conversations that don’t put the onus on them.
Helen: You’ll also notice that often — even within the same interview — we’ll ask similar questions with different phrasings. We did that because we want people to hear their own questions, in the words they would use.
Peter: And to be flippant, it was easier.
Easier? One of the things that struck me when we did our own interview — and this came back to me as I was reading the others in the book — was how thoroughly prepared you both were on each subject. You clearly did a great deal of research prior to the interviews.
Helen: Absolutely. Just choosing people to interview was a challenge in itself.
We had to be well prepared; we had an idea how each conversation would flow. Also, of course, we wanted to lead the reader through a logical sequence on each topic, so that they would eventually be able to embrace those positions themselves.
Peter: Of course, it also grew out of our own questioning and research. So as we were conducting the interviews, we recalled a lot of what we had learned ourselves.
As you mentioned, you’re both Orthodox, but this is very much an ecumenical book. You interview Orthodox Christians, of course — including the Dean Emeritus at St. Vladimir’s — but you also interview Catholics and even an Evangelical Anglican. Why the ecumenical approach? Why not just write something from the Orthodox perspective?
Peter: We wanted to have a broader appeal. We did mention in the preface that there are various branches to the Christian tree, but we were aiming for some of the core issues. We’ll leave the more distinctive theological issues to others. Our point was to show that Christianity shares these principles.
Helen: These are topics that the traditional branches of Christianity agree on. Helping the poor, euthanasia, just war, etc. There’s a lot of false Christianity out there, and we wanted to appeal to that group as well. For example, some forms of Christianity say that you need to be compassionate, and part of that compassion is helping someone to “end” his suffering through euthanasia. But that’s false — plainly false. A lot of people mix up Karmic religions with Christianity.
In the book, we try to meet this head on by presenting the true Christian faith as it should be lived in the public square.
So the book responds not only to secularist weaknesses, but also to some of the problems in “soft Christianity,” if I might call it that.
Helen: I recall a Pew Research poll that found that anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of Americans believe they are religious. But when you look more closely, you see that they don’t actually mean religious — they mean spiritual. And that may not include Jesus, or may have Jesus alongside Buddha and Hinduism. That’s why we were clear to say, “No, some of those things are definitely not Christian, and here’s the truly Christian position.
As we mentioned, you did quite a bit of research prior to the interviews. What did you learn in that research — or in the interviews themselves — that surprised you? In other words, what discoveries did you make in the creation of this book?
Helen: The most surprising was how politics really is applied theology. And that works backwards, too. All the branches of Christianity — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — have their right and left, conservatives and liberals. We give talks on the topics in the book, and when we’re inside the Beltway, we hear pastors — even priests — who tell us, “Hmm, why don’t you just say that abortion is a ‘problem’? We don’t want to get too carried away.” At the same time, if we’re outside the Beltway, we hear, “You’ve got to tell them abortion is wrong.”
Interesting.
Helen: Yes it is. But even in studying church history, we see that this split is found throughout time. This is nothing new. It may not have been labeled “conservative” and “liberal,” but the same sort of division is present in the history of the church.
Peter: If politics is applied theology, then theology has political implications.
One of the things that surprised me in the creation of this book was discovering that the Church is not uniformly pacifist. That seemed to be all we were hearing before we looked into the matter. Being a strong Second Amendment guy myself, I was delighted to find that there’s a well-developed tradition in the Catholic Church of just war theory. That same thing exists as a tradition in the Orthodox Church as well.
Yes, I noticed you chose Father Johannes Jacobse — an Orthodox priest — to address the question of war. That was an interesting twist, and I appreciated seeing the same just-war concepts expressed in new terms.
Peter: Also, there was an organization called the Orthodox Peace Fellowship which was making a lot of incorrect claims about war and Christianity. So we wanted to correct that as well.
You put the book together at the end of the last administration. Now, with a new president and a new global situation, what does the popular culture need to hear most?
Peter: Oh boy.
[Laughter]
Try to narrow it down to a half-dozen items or so.
Helen: Well, for one thing, we need to understand where our goodness comes from — it is not from people, nor from any administration, nor from any country. The only immortal thing on earth is the human soul, and God gave us that. We try to protect our freedoms and liberties because God gave them to us — not some government. Likewise, God provides us ultimately with our sustenance, not government. We can be patriotic, but we must always put God first.
Peter: A long time ago, it was observed that salvation doesn’t come through a system, but through a savior. That is more true now than ever before, because the state is beginning to intrude in ways that it has not before — and even presenting itself as a kind of savior. “We have a crisis? The government will save us!”
There is some instrumental truth in that, if in fact it’s able to correct some of the problems in the financial sector. But there is no salvation there. I’m concerned that we’ll become fearful as we watch our jobs and savings disappear, and that fear will override our faith. I’m concerned that we’ll be swept up into the growing intrusions of the state into all aspects of our lives.
Helen: I think that we’re going to be tested in our faith. We may be looking at new hate-speech laws, the Freedom of Choice Act — maybe even people who decide to leave the medical profession if they’re forced to do these things. We’re going to be tested, but then, we’ve always been tested. That’s what we’re guaranteed as Christians. Christ promised to help carry our burdens, so let’s take Him up on that.
♦ ♦ ♦

You can order Get Serious: The Church’s Stand on Contemporary Culture here.

By

Peter and Helen Evans are co-authors of the book "Get Serious: The Church's Stand on Contemporary Culture."

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU