What type of book is David P. Gushee’s Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism? Because it follows Gushee’s fifty or so years in Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and American politics, one might call it a memoir, but it reads more like a series of portraits that help explain how politics and religion now relate in America, showing how individual people have negotiated the culture wars that still divide us. Gushee, the president of the American Academy of Religion and Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, has done something exceptional with his experiences: he has looked out onto the American public sphere, looked into himself, and written something simple and wise. Still Christian is neither a mea culpa nor an apologia. It was not written to settle old scores. Its style is plainspoken, yet it succeeds in laying out the complex shadows and knots of each political struggle it describes and the people who took part in them.
Gushee says he composed the book to make sense of his life for himself—how he began as a Catholic, became Southern Baptist, took centrist and then increasingly progressive political stands, was lambasted by both conservatives and liberals, and found his way back to Catholic worship while remaining at Mercer University with its evangelical heritage. The book is a model of how to survey one’s actions—and those of both supporters and adversaries—through the lens of Christian values. Gushee has been savvy in his professional life but he has also tried to be ethical. His ethic might be described as non-relativist forgiveness. He has taken clear, often controversial stands, and fought for them. He has had his share of opponents but tries to avoid demonizing them, and, to an impressive degree, he succeeds. If Gushee doesn’t go on at length about his own mistakes, neither does he dwell on those of his adversaries. He writes, “People are a mix of good and bad, and the bad is often just a slightly exaggerated version of the good. That’s just as true of Christians as it is of everyone else.... It will not be hard to show the virtues of each strand of Christian I have encountered. But it will also be clear how simultaneously these virtues became their own vices.... All we see are each other’s vices, none of each other’s virtues.”
This piece of wisdom runs throughout the book. Gushee’s irenic tone may not satisfy more partisan readers; they may accuse him of evasion. But this would be unfair given his willingness to take on the risks of engaging in politics and religion for twenty-five years. In one passage, Gushee highlights some of the more challenging ones:
the day in 1987 that I was told that white men had better remain quiet in a course on liberation theology, the day in 1995 that I was invited to sell my soul for a nice future working with a conservative seminary president, the evening in 1995 in which the Holy Spirit burned out of me any capacity to hate that same president, the days in 2006 when I received hate mail for opposing torture while my daughter lay unconscious in the hospital, the day in 2007 when I was interrogated intensely for having spent way too long working with conservatives, the day in 2008 when I figured out I was being used by the Obama campaign, and the day in 2011 when a very bright philosopher at a very conservative Christian college said to me, “We know we are supposed to oppose gays, but we can’t really give any good reason for it anymore.”
In his professorships and political activism, Gushee has supported environmental protection, immigration reform, gun-safety laws, women in the pastorate, abortion reduction, and, most controversially, LGBT “employment rights and relationship recognition within the context of religious-liberty protections” (Changing Our Mind, 2014). He has worked to end racism, torture, capital punishment, pollution, and nuclear proliferation. Gushee’s aim in this book is to understand how he and others, juggling belief, the intricacies of group dynamics, and political forces, got to the positions they held and the tactics they employed.