**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review**
I have to begin this review with a confession. As someone who reviews multiple books a month, I occasionally request or agree to review a book with a mistaken idea of what the book is about. Such was the case with Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective by Bethel University professor of political science Fred Van Geest. This book is a textbook intended to be used in introductory political science classes in private Christian universities. I will admit from the outset that I don’t feel entirely qualified to judge the book as a textbook; my background is in theology, so I will be reviewing this book as a theologically-minded individual not in a classroom setting. For a discussion of how this book works as a textbook to use in your political science course, I’d recommend finding another reviewer.
It bears repeating that this is a textbook for an introductory political science course and is structured as such. It has four sections, with chapters beneath each: Foundational Values and Ideas for Government, Institutions, Policy, and Foreign Policy and International Relations. Each chapter ends with further exercises, questions for discussion, and a vocab guide, clearly meant for classroom use. Again, I cannot speak to the usefulness of these resources.
Given the book’s purpose (an introductory text for private, probably conservative-leaning universities), I feared the book might be overly America-normative and have a noticeable conservative bias. Generally, I was pleasantly surprised. I judged a book by its cover and was incorrect; there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
I have two main criticisms of this book I would like to address before highlighting its many positive aspects.
First, while the book avoided holding America’s governmental systems as the standard by which other systems are judged, the author clearly believes that the modern liberal democracy is the ideal form of government, and takes this as an assumption with very little supporting discussion. I think Geest here makes an irresponsible jump early on that doesn’t reflect the care with which he treats the rest of the subject material. First, much of the Christian tradition has seen democracy as a sort of compromise: to paraphrase Aquinas, it’s democracy is the least bad option, not a great thing in and of itself. While he doesn’t explicitly say it, a section labeled “Is Democracy the Most Christian Form of Government?” (38-41) seems to answer with a weak “yes.” Geest believes that the government exists in support of justice, and that democracy best allows this exercise. Without necessarily disagreeing, I take issue with Geest’s lack of interaction with significant Christian thinkers who believe otherwise. Aquinas believed that monarchy was the most just form of government, and Israel operated as a monarchy for most of the Hebrew Bible. I don’t disagree with Geest’s view, but the claim is bolder than the evidence he puts forward, and contradicts the ideas of several significant theological heavy-hitters.
This ties into my second complaint with the book: Geest uses the phrase “the Christian view” much too easily. Geest is a great political scientist (I’ll sing his praises soon), but not a particularly good theologian. Too often in the book he uses the phrase “the Christian view” on an issue in which the Christian tradition has reached no consensus. Particularly problematic is table 3.1 on page 58, where views of “Liberalism,” “Conservatism,” “Socialism” and “Christianity” on Human Nature, Society, Government, Source of Truth, Justice, and Goals. None of these criteria have a settled “Christian” view that encompasses the entire tradition, “Christianity” probably shouldn’t be juxtaposed to liberalism, conservatism, or socialism as if they are exclusionary ideas answering the same questions. Again, as a theologian by training with a tinge of Postmodern influence, I take issue with the use of the phrase “the Christian view” in almost any scenario.
I’ve highlighted what I believe two serious problems with the book: Geest’s idea of democracy as the clear “Christian” form of government and his assumption that a standard “Christian” view of government exists. That said, these problems almost exclusively affect Part 1 of the book, “Foundational Values and Ideas for Government.” When Geest starts writing more specifically as a political scientist, the results are great. My criticisms aside, I ultimately recommend this book for the following three sections. I really enjoyed and appreciated Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective after a rough start. Here are just a few of the highlights.
First, while I critiqued the book for being democracy-centric, it is decidedly not America-centric. Geest regularly compares the government structures of various other democratic countries to America and critiques the American systems. This is a government textbook that isn’t afraid to critique the government it was written under, and some if it’s suggestions for changes to American voting policies and means of representation are extremely compelling.
Second, Geest has a strong concern for social justice and the plight of the poor in the United States. His chapter on taxation is meticulously researched, and his evaluation of different tax models is based upon how they affect wealthy individuals versus how they affect poor individuals. Incredibly educational and written with a conviction that the United States’ current tax system disproportionately benefits the wealthy, Geest’s book is worth the buy almost for this chapter alone.
Third, Geest shows absolutely no partisan preference. Even in the first section, Geest treats liberalism (which he notes that, historically, both the Republicans and Democrats fall under the broad umbrella of), conservatism, and socialism as equally valid approaches to government that any Christian may hold. Seeing Geest, a professor at a conservative Christian university, hold socialism as a perfectly valid governmental structure is greatly encouraging and refreshing, as is his deliberate distinction between “socialism” and “communism.”
These three things make Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective unique among books of its kind. As a Political Science textbook, it works pretty well, and is especially interesting in its willingness to critique American systems in comparison to other countries. The “Christian” element is fairly weak, but does manifest beautifully in the chapter on taxation.
Overall, it’s a little difficult to know who to recommend this book to. Obviously, as a textbook, most people won’t be buying it based on recommendations, but on syllabi. Nevertheless, for the individual Christian wanting to understand the structure of modern democracies and the pros and cons of various political positions, Fred Van Geest’s Introduction to Political Science: A Christian Perspective is a helpful resource (minus a few speed bumps in the first section).