A Review of Joe Boot’s Ruler of Kings
As Western societal norms erode at unprecedented levels and the Western political system becomes ever more questionable, a growing number of evangelicals are beginning to wonder whether Christians might have a few things to say about how to run a country.
Evangelicalism has long separated the ecclesial from the socio-political. The idea has been that if we can just get people saved and into churches, the world will more or less sort itself out. And if it doesn’t, it’s the state’s fault, not ours. We have imagined the worst possible state of affairs to be a “politicized” Church, preferring instead a policy of political quietism – or we might say, political “appeasement” – with the political Zeitgeist.
Perhaps this appeared sensible in light of the political partisanship of previous generations, where the Gospel’s edges may have been all too easily tailored to suit particular political agendas. This was, of course, a contextual reactionary approach, but has been held up as the definitively “Christian” way to engage (that is, disengage) with politics – an unusual stance even in light of Protestant history, let alone wider Church history.
There was also the issue of that revelatory year of 2020, when “Gospel-centered” evangelical churches appeared to become more politically amenable to the Left in subtle ways. Such pulpits had previously refused to speak strongly on issues like homosexuality, abortion, and transgenderism for fear of entangling the Gospel in distractive socio-politics. These same pulpits started commending government directives to deny church meetings, chastising the unvaccinated as unloving, and apologizing for whiteness and maleness.
Suddenly, we were introduced to a ream of new “Gospel issues” on the Left whilst continuing to dial down issues on the Right. Something deeply hypocritical in the evangelical mission was exposed, which many are still trying to dissect. Evangelicals are fast needing to re-educate themselves on what’s gone wrong and what Christians might say (and do) about it.
Enter Joe Boot’s Ruler of Kings: Toward a Christian Vision of Government (2022). Boot offers not just an engaging diagnosis of the deep problems with Western politics but also maps out how the Church might begin to respond reflectively and proactively. The word “toward” in the subtitle is key. Boot is not offering a fully fleshed-out political strategy nor a manifesto for Christian nationalism per se. But what he does offer is a robust, reflective, and extremely valuable theological underpinning for how we might begin to reclaim the socio-political arm of Christian mission.
At 200 pages it is a relatively short book, yet it feels tightly packed, covering an impressive amount of ground, introducing and unpacking an enormous amount of Biblical, theological, and socio-political reflection. Whilst the brevity of the book in light of the ground covered certainly leaves some material in need of yet more unpacking (especially Biblically) Boot generally does a superb job here of bringing issues to the forefront which have gone unconsidered for a long time.
Whilst he engages a wide range of sources, he is offering here a recovery of the Kuyperian vision applied to our present era. To evangelicals less familiar with some of these Dutch Reformed sources, it may feel like Gandalf trawling the dusty shelves of the Minas Tirith library for things long forgotten. If evangelicals have claimed to appreciate the socio-cultural apologetics of Francis Schaeffer or Abraham Kuyper’s famous maxim that there is “not one square inch” over which Jesus is not Lord, most evangelicals have not acted like it.
This is what Boot’s book aims to do, to think through the socio-political implications of Christ’s lordship and to reflect upon what it might mean to take it seriously in our time.
The Rule of Christ and the Cult of the Expert
Boot begins by contrasting the authority of Christ with the “self-anointed elite class – the intelligentsia” of Western humanism, who become “a secular substitute for pastor and priest” (16). He roots this in the radical human autonomy of the Renaissance, which ultimately rejected God’s given order for creation, recreating the world in humanity’s image. We need not look far today to see such reconstructions in practice: “[W]e can create the world we live in by our thought and language, right down to our sexuality” (19).
The “cult of the expert” refers to the way in which specialized intellectuals are afforded immense ideological power over the populace, despite having – in Thomas Sowell’s words –no “overarching conception of the world” (21). Such experts today are on a quasi-divine mission to convert and sanctify us towards the “virtues” of their favored ideology.
Whilst Western Christians seem to place implicit trust in such figures, Boot reminds us of Biblical figures like Joseph and Daniel, whose courageous application of God’s revelatory Word confounded the governmental advisors and experts of their day, enabling profound kingdom influence upon state and society (31-32). It should be noted, however, that such heroes did not strategize their way to political influence but were raised up through providential happenstance, often against their own inclinations. Even so, today, it is not political hubris that haunts evangelicalism, but fear of it.
Such fear comes at a cost. If we neglect our confidence in God’s Word, relying instead on “the ideas of godless people” for political direction, we “faithlessly abandon our society and culture to despotism and tyranny.” (33). A decade ago this might have sounded like a zealous overstatement. But the devastating impact of the cultural revolutions of recent years, coupled with cowardly ecclesial responses, reveals a more pressing concern to reclaim our socio-political confidence.
In ceasing to see God’s Law-Word as good and wise for all people, we have outsourced wisdom to posturing experts who oppose God’s kingdom, and thus we neglect “the whole counsel of God” as an important way we are to love our Lord as well as our neighbor.
Globalist Utopia vs. Biblical Nationhood
One of the consequences of our political abdication is the rise of globalist utopianism. This trend is rooted in the ideological legacies of the French Revolution and Marxism which continue to inform the infantilization and social control of the Western populace today, powered by elitist ideals. As Rousseau said: “Those who control a people’s opinions control its actions.” (36). Boot argues that Christians should reject all utopian visions as anti-real, coercive, and placeless (hence, “global”).
Theologically, utopias implicitly reject God’s providence, assuming a soteriological role to liberate humanity from disorder (36-39). Boot imagines globalist utopia as an idolatrous “godhead”, harboring mutated doctrinal attributes of divine “omnipotence”, “love”, “justice”, etc. This is insightful for understanding the progressive weaponization of personal offense in our time: “For there to be unity in the new godhead there must be total equality and equal ultimacy among all people…This means that there can be no discrimination in regard to anything.” (49). Although Boot does not cite it, this chimes in with Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) which lamented the West’s inevitable abolition of hierarchy, distinction, and judgment between different moral choices and ideas.1
The incessant drive towards mutated versions of love and justice leads to “an essentially structure-less collectivity of beings in harmony with themselves and the other (nature).” (53). This entirely impossible totalizing ideal requires an imagined omnipotence to even attempt: “In order to be all-powerful, the new god, of necessity, must eliminate chance, impotence (powerlessness) and uncertainty from human affairs and this requires total control and omni-competence.” (54). Totalitarian globalism thus becomes an inevitable byproduct of the Enlightenment, where God’s authority was supplanted in place of our own, echoing both Eden and Babel.
What, then, is the Christian alternative? Not Christian imperialism, Boot argues, but the preservation of Biblical nationhood. This involves theological reflection on the purpose of the nation-state throughout Scripture, including God’s desire to set distinct boundaries (e.g. Deut. 4:5-8, Acts 17:26-27), His proclamations to the nations (e.g. Isa. 42:1-6) and His opposition to man-made attempts at unification (cf. Babel). Indeed, Biblical nationhood has both a creational and eschatological telos, culminating in Revelation where the nations are unified not in defiance of God but in worship of Him.
Boot is nuanced enough to understand some globalist intentions stem from “a deep religious hunger and urge toward the unity and peace of the human race” but argues how this cannot possibly be achieved by idolatrous rejection of God’s commands (80). Contrasting the coercive “diversity” of the humanist utopia, God’s New Jerusalem “affirms a rich cultural diversity of languages, ethnicities and national identities, because the Word of God will have been applied and contextualized amongst every people of the earth.” (81). An ambitious vision indeed – but a Biblical one.
Religion, Government, and the Secularist Illusion
Boot then moves on to the implications of worldview. When Christians assume the neutrality of a secular and/or religiously pluralistic worldview in society they often aid implications that directly oppose Christianity. What we believe about the world is not merely a “private” religious matter. It necessarily affects “how we view marriage and family, human society, education, law and yes, politics and government!” (88).
We often do not see it in these terms due to an imagined secular/sacred divide effectively resulting in the triumph of the secular: “[S]ecularism has become an interpretation of life that regards the living God and his Law-Word as non-essential and irrelevant for life and thought in the modern world.” (95). This correlates with modern Christian reticence to the political, where we bury our heads in the “spiritual” sand and pray for the best without really knowing what that is – almost as if we’re worried God might actually answer our prayers.
As a result, we partake in “a process of gradually distancing the living God from the real world.” (95). God becomes an absent deity who does not interfere with our world, and whose values, attributes, and decrees are essentially irrelevant to politics. This, again, is the fruit of Enlightenment humanism: radical human autonomy. In contrast, Gospel proclamation “destroys man’s claim to self-creation, self-election, self-definition and do-it-yourself redemption” (101). It is thus no surprise that the prevalence of the secularist worldview correlates with increasing hostility to Christianity.
Boot calls Christians to wake up to this reality: “[W]hat we as Christians face today, in what is sometimes called the ‘culture wars,’ is a life-and-death struggle between the Christian view of reality and the public faith of religious (pagan) secularism.” (102). Boot is not necessarily calling us to jump on every supposed “culture war” issue but rather to signal that the “cultural” sphere carries “spiritual” significance. Pietistic refusal to engage means ceding ground to secularism, which “demands the radical privatization of all faith except its own.” (105). Indeed, secularism’s requirements are not unlike the Roman “tolerance” of all religions into the pantheon provided they all acknowledge the lordship of Caesar. If Christianity is only tolerated so long as it remains publically unexpressed, it is not being tolerated but entirely undermined.
To truly challenge pagan secularism means a more comprehensive approach to cultural engagement than we have previously envisaged:
We need not only Christian lawyers, but a Christian approach to law; not just Christian artists, but art rooted in a scriptural world-and-life view; not merely Christian doctors, but a Christian philosophy of medicine; not only teachers who are Christian, but a truly Christian curriculum; not just Christians in politics, but a scriptural political philosophy. (108)
This is a call not simply for more kingdom talk but for actual kingdom advance through our application of the whole counsel of God to the whole of life. Indeed, if we are in fact at war, we should act accordingly.
Authority, Sovereignty, and the Heresy of Liberal Democracy
Having established the unspoken presuppositions of secular paganism as a worldview, and the need for Christians to oppose it, Boot then discusses how the political system most Western Christians uncritically favor – liberal democracy – is in fact a “heresy” directly opposed to Christ’s authority.
This is a striking concept. We think of heresy usually as an intra-ecclesiastical issue, but often fail to recognize the impact of heretical ideas in the world often supported by Christians. Because of our secular/sacred and public/private assumptions, “politics” is separated from “doctrine”, leading many to overlook the contradiction that to support some political ideas is to tacitly support heresy. There is a danger this approach could devalue the word entirely given that all Christians are likely entangled within various socio-political and economic arrangements which oppose Christ in one way or another. However, the primary point is worth reflecting on given the explicit tenets of liberal democracy.
The primary reason Boot sees it as “heretical” is because it supplants God’s sovereignty with “popular sovereignty” (122). The will of the people becomes the ultimate ruler. Political leaders thus tend towards optics over principles, paying sacrificial deference to the demos. To so elevate the virtue of the populace denies both human sinfulness and divine salvation since the people become their own redemption (cf. 139-40). One wonders, though, couldn’t most political systems also be charged with heresy? Does any political system acknowledge Christ’s lordship all the way down? If democracy is heresy, is there an “orthodox” system?
Boot is careful not to claim “a fully worked out political model to be simply read off the pages” of Scripture, maintaining that “no single political party has…a monopoly on religious truth” (141-42). He suggests instead that there are different extents to which a political theory may be rooted in (or opposed to) Scripture, and that the seeds of a Biblically faithful vision might be developed in light of creational norms.
Recognizing the tentative dangers of socio-political eisegesis, Boot reflects briefly on some indicative examples of what this might entail: the recognition of God’s sovereignty leading to delimited state authority; an embrace of Christian freedom leading to liberty of life; and the understanding of God’s gifts leading to just stewardship and investment (cf. 141). The good fruit of a “scripturally derived view of political life” will even commend itself to unbelievers, Boot argues, because it “bears fidelity to created reality” (142). Such an outcome, of course, contrasts with humanist utopianism which imposes itself upon reality in explicit defiance of God’s creation order and sovereignty.
The Church, the State, and the Kingdom of God
If some may recoil at the idea of democracy as a “heresy” this may be because we have inherited suspicions about Christ’s Lordship having “concrete implications for political life.” (143). Boot observes how Christians often imagine a false dichotomy: either return to medieval Christendom where the Church wielded immense societal power over the state, or allow the Church to become entirely peripheral to politics so that its voice is of no more significance than a sports club.
Despite a recent resurgence of pro-Christendom reflection, the anti-Christendom perspective remains the near-default view for most evangelicals. Indeed, as Boot notes, to be “accused of being ‘Constantinian’” today is to be seen as “ominously lurking…for an opportunity to destroy people’s liberties and oppress them” (144). Such attitudes reflect a profound confusion and ingratitude regarding the Christendom legacy across all spheres of society, including religious freedom.
Boot is certainly no unqualified Christendomian, however. He adds appropriate critiques of some Constantinian practices and their legacy for church-state relations, as sometimes seen especially within Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Whilst we rightly lament the diminished societal influence of the Church today, we do not necessarily wish for what Boot calls a “societal ecclesiocracy” (148) of the kind seen under late medieval papism. Here, the problem was not ecclesial societal influence itself, but the way in which the Church appeared to require unsacwred culture to be “churchified” in order to be sanctified. At times this even extended to the ecclesiastical use of the sword to win control over various lands, realms, and affairs, heavily infringing upon the state’s own God-given domain (150).
Today, however, the battle is not inappropriate ecclesial interference upon the state but vice-versa. The socio-political impotence of the Church emanates from an over-emphasis on the Church within the Church. Boot cites Ouwenweel, who argues we should not see local church membership as more important than being under Christ’s Lordship in other spheres of society (159).2 This point seems controversial in light of the theological significance of the Church within Scripture, where it is depicted as the unique revealer of God’s manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10), the pillar and buttress of the truth (1Tim. 3:15), and Christ’s body (1Cor. 12:27) and bride (Rev. 19:7). In contrast Boot employs the term “church” more prosaically as a descriptor for God’s gathered people on mission (162).
Boot also cites Ridderbos at length on the distinction between Church and kingdom: “[T]he basileia ranks first, not the ekklesia.” (162).3 The Church is on mission for the kingdom; it is not the mission itself. Again, one might quibble here given that the redemption of God’s people is arguably the message of the Bible, culminating in the wedding supper of the lamb and his bride. However, Boot is right to critique the way ecclesial overemphasis can minimize the lordship of Christ in all of life/society, noting how a problematically elevated ekklesia manifests in both the Roman Catholic and evangelical traditions in different ways (167): the domination of Church over state/society, or the total disconnection of Church from state/society.
Arguing against ecclesiastical overreach also seems vital for safeguarding against state overreach: “When it comes to political life and society, the church’s role is to prophetically propose, not impose its biblical insight for culture.” (167). One of the great ironies Boot points to today, however, is not that the Church is overly coercive but that “the Christianization of culture, including political life, is rejected as unChristian!” (169). Indeed, this seems to exemplify the coercion of secular culture upon the Church, not vice-versa.
State Absolutism, Sphere Sovereignty and the Limits of Political Authority
Having recalibrated the Church’s relation to both the kingdom and the state, the final chapter sees Boot clarify what a Christian political vision might actually entail. At this point, the temptation might have been to construct an ironically “utopian” Christian vision, a contextless one-strategy-to-rule-them-all. Boot wisely holds back from over-elaboration here and begins with the real situation with which we are faced: the problem of state absolutism: “One of the most remarkable features of the late modern era has been the strange coalescence of an incessant call for ‘total emancipation’ from the shackles of alleged oppression with an explicit totalitarian drift in political life” (171).
This is indeed an alarming aspect of secular “liberalism,” where modern democratic states develop ever-expansive totalitarian control over various spheres of life and society in the name of “freedom”. As more progressive rights are “demanded into existence” the state becomes the ultimate provider, “the lord and coordinator of all society” (171). Hence, the inevitable modern descent into pervasive bureaucracy, with society increasingly dullened to “the state’s omnipresence” (172-73).
With large swathes of the Church having given up the cultural mandate, church leaders effectively become “committed apologists for statism” (175), actively discouraging Christians from political influence, thus actively encouraging ever-greater state encroachment. When Boot says “we are sleepwalking toward tyranny” (175) he does not speak lightly. When Western culture is actively de-Christianized, it is actively re-paganized.
Boot’s antidote to pagan totalism – where all is “unified” under the state – is a reassertion of Biblical sphere sovereignty. He leans upon Dooerweerd’s articulation, noting how all human institutions are distinguished and duty-bound under God’s sovereignty to accord with creational norms in accordance with His revealed Word.4 It is on this basis that state power can be reined in from inappropriate intrusion into other spheres:
The state does not grant existence to the family or the church as though they were lesser parts of itself. Instead, the state must recognize their uniqueness, acknowledge the legitimacy of their relative independence and respect the boundaries of their God-given freedom and authority. (182)
Following Kuyper, who argued that parental authority exists “not because the government allows it, but because God imposed it” (188), fathers are fathers, for example, because God says so and made it so. To understand the implications of this is to understand why sphere sovereignty matters, and how it can protect politics from being defiled, deified, or both.
Boot concludes the book homiletically, exhorting Christians to challenge the “passive, dependent and docile spirit, ready to run to the state for salvation, safety, and provision.” (199), calling them “to remind all power and authority that Jesus Christ is Lord” (201). An appropriately prophetic way to end an appropriately prophetic book.
In Boot’s analysis, there are certainly shades of Francis Schaeffer. This is primarily a strength, to be sure; a testament to Boot’s gift as a visionary thinker. He is able to say “this means that” as a theological interpreter of the socio-political climate with a refreshing confidence and creativity. But this is also not without its pitfalls, depending on whom he wants to persuade. This is because, like Schaeffer, Boot’s observations, diagnoses, and hypotheses tend to be macrocosmic in scope, thus are at times prone to systematic generalization.
These categorizations are often insightfully lucid and they “ring true” without need for abundant statistical or evidential “proofs”. Those of us who see the socio-political moment with the same eyes will heartily “amen!” them. However, the centrist evangelical detractors who need persuading might easily dismiss some of Boot’s general hypotheses as overly dependent on rhetorical dichotomies and systematic overreach. As such, the book’s persuasiveness could have been strengthened by a little more exemplification, especially when addressing some of the contemporary ecclesial trends Boot is critiquing.
The book also raises many questions for further reflection, such as regarding the extensive implications of sphere sovereignty. Whilst it is Biblically undeniable that God institutes and informs the distinct spheres of family, church, and state – each with Biblically defined parameters of governance – what about other “spheres”? Where do their boundaries lie, and who says so? Did God intend to institute “art” and “commerce” and “media”, for example, as distinct spheres on the same level as family, church, and state? Where Boot refers to Christ’s lordship in “every province of human life and thought” (164) are these provinces of equal recognition, distinctness, and importance? Who gets to decide these boundaries if they cannot be identified Biblically?
Key questions also revolve around precisely how we are to think about the repurposing or re-founding of Christendom. Even as the earliest Christians confessed Christ as Lord, did they consciously strategize towards a vision for government per se? Christendom’s defining moments – like Israel’s – are historically inimitable and largely unrepeatable. Are we to wait for the conversion of an emperor, or the catastrophic decline of globalist technocracy before we begin our Benedictine recovery? Can we start building from what’s left of Christendom’s eroded foundations? Or should we be open to the reassertion of Christ’s lordship in ways that might be as surprising to us as the conversion of Constantine or the sight of a medieval cathedral would have seemed to the Christians in the catacombs?
The sharp diagnoses and bold proposals of Boot’s book not only bring such questions to the frontlines of Christian mission but also enable us to think clearly and reflectively about how to begin plotting our next moves.
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