Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Meaningful Political/Social Engagement: For All? For Some? Yes…I Think!

Written by: on January 31, 2024

Oil and water.

Some things just don’t go very well together.

Another example: Matthew Petrusek’s Evangelization and Ideology (1) and 6 days to read it.

This long book (463 pages) is filled with philosophical content endorsing Catholic social thought and doctrine as a better foundation for a sociopolitical framework than the secular alternatives (2). These two realities made it difficult to meaningfully process the book in just one week, and yet I recognize the necessity to do the heavy intellectual lifting that the book is asking of its readers.

So let me be clear: I didn’t read it all. I did a quick scan of his critiques of each ‘ism’ and instead focussed on the philosophical framework that he was proposing and the final chapter of practical advice.  Here’s why:

Just last week I was discussing with another Pastor at our church about the importance of helping our people think both theologically and philosophically about the current issues of our day. So much of the dialogue around important and complex cultural values and beliefs seems to take place at a ‘surface level’—including our Christian responses to the cultural assertions we might disagree with. The other Pastor and I were contemplating who we might bring in to help our community think through things more comprehensively and deeply…and along came Petrusek.

The timing was both helpful and humbling. Helpful because I felt like Petrusek was putting words to (and indeed a philosophical framework for) some of the things I knew was necessary but couldn’t quite articulate. Humbling, because I recognized just how difficult building such frameworks are for some of us.

That led me to at least speculate whether such work is for everyone or some? Or perhaps more accurately, whether a general knowledge is required for all Christians, and some are uniquely gifted for more in-depth wrestling. The author makes a comment that, “every baptized Catholic is called to be an evangelist” (3) which means both advocating for the natural-law alternative to secular politics and introducing people to the person of Jesus (4). Yes…but in my evangelical tradition we tend to differentiate between everyone being a ‘witness’ and embodying the values of the new Kingdom of God in their private life and public sphere (this might be closer to how Petrusek is using the word ‘evangelize’ the quote above) and those specifically gifted by the Spirit for evangelism. Likewise, while all Christians are called to give a reason for the hope they have and must be able to articulate some understanding of the gospel message, there are those uniquely called and gifted to be apologetics that defend the faith and endorse the Christian worldview. Is this work of evangelization in the political culture the same? We must all coherently engage in rational discussion about various current issues and political ideologies, but are some—perhaps Petrusek?—uniquely gifted and called? Or is this me just trying to opt out of serious studying to learn the seven ‘levels’ of the hierarchical skyscraper (5) and the intellectual rigour to work a problem out through each level?

What do you all think?

Speaking of thinking, here are a few other thoughts that I reflected on as I read this book:

1. I never knew it until now, but I am more aligned with Aquinas than Augustine as it relates to their understanding for the necessity and morality of human’s political constructions (6). Without doing a deeper dive than this book gave me, it strikes me that a God of order (even within His very personhood) and structure would create an ordered creation (He did) and invite humans to organize and order themselves for effective stewardship and human flourishing. I struggle to see how such order is morally wrong.

2. Having just read Eve Poole’s book (7), I was intrigued by Petrusek’s summary of Catholic teaching regarding what it means to be made in God’s image: “…a composite of body and soul and possessing reason and free will—form the foundation of the biblical concept of human dignity” (8). Not only that, while Catholic teaching distinguishes slightly between soul and spirit, the fact that humans have an immaterial soul is seen as the determining factor to the intrinsic value and worth (dignity) of all people (9). Perhaps we need to look deeper into Catholic teaching to get some further clarity on the nature/understanding of the human soul?

3. I stated above that Petrusek uses the word ‘evangelization’ in a way that might sound strange to the evangelical ear; however, I was more hung up on the stated object of our evangelization. On several occasions, Petrusek spoke about our need to “evangelize the culture” (446) which includes the call to evangelize the political culture as well. I am not sure if this is splitting hairs or not, but I would be more inclined to speak about evangelizing people and engaging in culture in redemptive ways. If evangelism, as Petrusek notes, is ultimately about a relationship with God, then we can rightfully expect people to be able to engage in such a thing (being made in God’s image). Culture…not so much. Am I being too picky here?

4. Finally, I appreciated some of Petrusek’s practical advice for engaging in the political sphere. Like Mounk (10) who we read earlier, Petrusek highlights:
a. The importance of attacking bad ideas and not bad people (Mounk: Having compassion towards others)
b. Employ the Socratic method to engage others (Mounk: Truly seek to understand)
c. Be disposed to learn something new (Mounk: Importance of humility)

Unfortunately, Petrusek didn’t always seem to successfully live out his own principles in various parts of his book, and some of his useful teaching on thinking through an integrated philosophical framework (wherever one might land on any social issue) might be missed or ignored due to some of his chosen language/statements. 

This reminds me again of the importance of ‘How’ we engage in culture and the blind spots I can have even when I think I know the ‘right way to be’.  May the Spirit help me see my own blindspots so I (and the church at large) can meaningfully engage an increasingly volatile culture and their ideologies with both grace and truth.

(1) Matthew R. Petrusek, Evangelization and Ideology: How to Understand and Respond to the Political Culture (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire Institute, 2023).
(2) Petrusek, 4. The secular frameworks Petrusek examines and critiques are: Utilitarianism, Classical Liberalism & Libertarianism, Progressivism, and Non-Theistic Conservatism.
(3) Petrusek, 13.
(4) Petrusek, 13-14.
(5) Petrusek, 59.
(6) Petrusek, 90-96.
(7) Eve Poole, Robot Souls: Programming in Humanity (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2024)
(8) Petrusek, 97.
(9) Petrusek, 103.
(10) Yascha Mounk, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (NY: Penguin Press, 2023).

About the Author

Scott Dickie

8 responses to “Meaningful Political/Social Engagement: For All? For Some? Yes…I Think!”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    Scott, this is a great post. Regarding your comments/reflection about Petrusek stating that we need to evangelize the culture (and, with his statement that EVERY Catholic is called to be an evangelist), I like the way you reframed it in your point #3, stating, “but I would be more inclined to speak about evangelizing people and engaging in culture in redemptive ways.” I think the mission of God is certainly comprehensive (I referred to this in my post), but I did not necessarily agree with Petrusek’s statement about “call(ing) the culture back to Christ.” I wonder if he is making some assumptions about Western/North American “culture,” and said culture’s beginnings…as well as HOW Christians should engage in public dicourse…that other Christians might find mis-placed / mis-informed? My thinking went immediately to James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World. Hunter’s book may be one of the better / best books on a similar-ish subject that I’ve ever read, and Hunter takes the conversation about how culture does/does not change and the posture Chrsitians could take in the public square…in a different direction than Petrusek’s premise.

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Thanks for the recommendation Travis….I haven’t read Hunter’s book so I’ll get it on my list. I have always appreciated Catholic social engagement and did some study on the social gospel in my Master’s degree…and I love their notion and embodiment of ‘solidarity’ with the poor….but Petrusek’s concepts were more difficult for me to wrap my brain around. I kept asking the question, “Is his proposed answer the equivalent to a Theocracy?” It seems like the answer is “yes”…and if not, what exactly?

  2. mm Tim Clark says:

    You ask the question: “Am I being too picky, here?” I dont’ think so.

    You reference Petrusek when you say,.. “to be an evangelist” which means both advocating for the natural-law alternative to secular politics and introducing people to the person of Jesus.”

    This book made me realize I need to do a deep dive into different schools of thought because I’m firmly in the camp of “evangelize people and culture will change” not “evangelize culture so people will change”. While I am all for redemptive engagement of culture, I truly believe the order matters in a way that Petrusek seems to disagree with. It’s on me to determine how to argue my perspective which is what this book did for me (made me know how deficient I am in my own arguments).

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Hey Tim,

      Yes…I would, not surprisingly, tend to have a framework similar to yours. My primary challenge in understanding Petrusek’s book (as I mentioned in my response to Travis) was placing ‘evangelizing culture as we engage in discussions related to political ideology’….in my current framework of understanding. In my view it’s different than evangelization…which is geared towards people meeting the person of Jesus. It’s different than apologetics…although somewhat close (not defending the faith per se but defending a Christian worldview/ideology). It’s different than engagement in the public square in redemptive ways (my own tribe’s way of speaking about this).

      So what is it? Does Petrusek’s view essentially amount to a Theocracy (if all other ideologies are idols)?

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Scott,
    I suppose that Dr. Clark warned us about the length and breadth of the book. Whenever he does that I skip to the Conclusion and like yourself I took a hard look at his “How to.”
    1. Try to avoid attacking “bad people” and focus on attacking bad ideas instead.” (p.464)
    2. Employ the Socratic method to engage in debate. “This position is completely incoherent.” He writes, will likely shut down the conversation before it can even get started. He instructs…”the Socratic method Is usually the best technique for engaging in a conversation tht you hope will lead to an agreement. The Socratic method entails asking sincere questions and looking for sincere answers with the goal of attaining both definitional and logical clarity.
    3. Seek Clarity, not simplicity (p. 467)
    4. Be disposed to learn something new. (p. 467)
    5. Be a happy warrior. (p.469)
    6. Don’t be afraid of courage. (p. 470)
    7. Don’t compromise the faith to gain a (temporary) ally. (p.472)
    8. Be ready to make strategic retreats and take shelter (p.474)
    9. For God’s sake, don’t make everything about politics.

    As I prepare for my Immigration Symposium at Dallas Baptist University, I am taking many of his points to heart.

    I will have to wrestle with his Chapters 2 and 3 to get the feel for debate/arguement.


    • Scott Dickie says:

      Hi Russell,

      Yes…I found some of those tips helpful and hopeful as well…but, from my perspective, he doesn’t seem to take his own advice in some of the other chapters–choosing to set up the ‘other side’ in sometimes simplistic ways that could then be spoken about with nuances of condensation. I felt like he was trying to be civil….but his real feelings would leak out onto the page at times which diminished his good points related to deep philosophical thinking on current social/political issues.

  4. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Your post took my thinking in a different direction. As a missionary, “evangelization” (a word that I generally avoid actually) or sharing my faith is something I think about a lot. Naturally, as a pastor, your thoughts went to shepherding and teaching your church how to interact with ideas similar to Petrusek’s. It may seem obvious, but I was limiting my thinking to how I could personally apply the book and I was forgetting the possibility of teaching his ideas to others.

  5. Scott Dickie says:

    Hi Kim,

    I would way rather think about how others should apply truth into their lives than consider how I need to! That’s way easier…and why I became a Pastor: to tell others how to live! 🙂

    Seriously…As I try to shepherd others (and myself) in our context, which is probably closer to your French context than to America’s, I see how ill-equipped we are, as God’s people, to have meaningful conversations about a variety of social/political issues. Generally speaking…the younger demographic simply agree with current cultural ideologies without examining them and the older demographic get upset and make simplistic declarations about ‘truth’ that are shallow and have no foundational thinking underneath it and is therefore easy to topple (and Christians look foolish or unthinking). Whether or not we agree with Petrusek’s arguments against each political ideology, I do think a better philosophical framework of thinking is needed by God’s people in order to know how to live in secular society and then reasonably defend that position in our interactions with others. I appreciated his book for that contribution (the initial chapters).

Leave a Reply