Monday, March 3, 2008

Huckabee's Second Favorite Book

About a month ago, when someone asked the Republican Presidential candidates what book they would bring to the White House if they could only bring one, Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, spoke in glowing terms of the book How Should We Then Live,by Francis Shaeffer. Huckabee, the most popular Presidential candidate among evangelicals, has won the Republican Primaries in some of the southern states, but overall he's a distant second to front runner John McCain.

You can certainly tell a lot about a person by the books he recommends and How We Should Then Live is no exception. When I heard that Huckabee was praising it my ears perked up because I've got that book and I've even read it. The author, Francis Shaeffer is considered by many to be one of the leading intellectual lights of the religious right. How Should We Then Live was conceived in 1974 and published in 1976 along with a film version. I picked up the book for 50 cents at a garage sale about five years ago. The DVD sells for $60 but it can be rented out.

The book is a brief but comprehensive survey of art, theology, and philosophy from the time of the Roman Empire to the 1970's. The subtitle of the book is a good indicator of what it contains: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. According to Shaeffer, who is a Calvinist, the pinnacle of Western civilization was the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Why? Because "...they (the reformers) took seriously the Bible's own claim for itself - that it is the only final authority."

Shaeffer's thesis is that Western Civilization has been declining ever since because of the corrupting influence of humanism. By "humanism" Shaeffer means the doctrine that "human reason alone can think out the answers to the great questions which confront mankind." "At its core", he says, "the Reformation was the removing of the humanistic distortions which had entered the church."

What bugs Shaeffer, Huckabee, and all the other Fundamentalists about humanism? Shaeffer does a good job of summing it up: "unless there is an absolute, these things are lost to us: morals, values, the meaning of existence, and a basis for man." "If there is no absolute beyond man's ideas then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict - we are merely left with conflicting opinions."

While I admire Shaeffer's clarity I take issue with his conclusions. If there is absolute truth, how do we know it's absolute, and how do we know that his interpretation or anyone else's is the right one? Just look at all the numerous sects of Christianity, all based on different interpretations of the Bible.

I believe that knowledge is provisional. We can approach the truth using scientific method, but we can never know if something is absolutely true. We need to listen to conflicting opinions because there is always the chance that we are wrong. Believing in absolute truth is psychologically satisfying for some people, but it is very dangerous for political systems. Fundamentalists like George W. Bush, believe that they are following God's plan and therefore they ignore criticism and bypass legal checks and balances in order to get their way.

If I know the "absolute truth" then those who disagree with me are dangerous heretics who should be put down. It becomes OK to torture people if I think that they are terrorists and they might have information about terrorist plans that they don't want to tell me willingly. If I'm privy to the "absolute truth" then how can I make a mistake? Nor do I ever need to be corrected or to learn anything new.

The fact that George W. Bush's most loyal supporters were evangelicals is pretty strong evidence that they have no monopoly on truth or morality. And the fact that evangelicals support Huckabee show that they haven't learned much from experience.


  1. Very thought-provoking post. I have unfortunately not read the book, but in my experience, it seems as though most religions claim some form of absolute truth. And while the various religions all claim their own truth, I don’t think the truth they believe necessarily extends to their individual actions. If you believe scripture is truth, for example, trying to live that truth will result in a variety of interpretations and lifestyles, and each persons application of that would fall short, if only from human imperfection. So in a religious mindset, the doctrines and beliefs could be absolute while the actions of its adherents fall short.

    The biblical definition of faith is evidence of things not seen which are true. For me this ‘evidence’ is manifest in the goodness coming from something. If there is no goodness in an action or belief, then there is no evidence.

    That’s just my take on it at least.

    On a side note, Prince Rupert looks like an amazing place. I had not heard of it before – looks to be near the Alaskan border?

    1. It is an amazing place. Nestled in on the rugged BC's north coast. Only a ferry ride away from South East Alaska, Haida Gwaii, and Vancouver Island. Fantastic for hiking, fishing, hunting, kayaking, canoeing.