A Review of
A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building the Beloved Community
Adam Russell Taylor
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Into the current fray of writing on the problem of polarization and our toxic political culture enters Rev. Adam Taylor, current president of Sojourners, with a call to deep unity based on Dr. Martin Luther King’s ethic of the “beloved community.” Taylor draws on his wide range of experience in social and political advocacy, as well as a profound respect for the teaching of Dr. King, to make his case. As someone who similarly loves Dr. King’s social vision, and even personally agrees with many of the left-leaning policy proposals that Taylor ultimately argues for in A More Perfect Union, I find myself in the awkward position of offering a critical reflection on this particular book.
My disappointment with A More Perfect Union is accentuated by the fact that I actually resonated with the visionary aspects of Taylor’s writing, primarily found early in the book as he lays out the foundation of his overall appeal. “We need a moral vision that draws from our most sacred civic and religious values and transcends our partisan loyalties, cultural and racial fissures, and ideological blinders. That moral vision, I believe, is a reimagined vision of the Beloved Community” (5). I couldn’t agree more with Taylor’s clarion call to draw from deep wells of spirituality, and especially his assertion that any hope to heal what plagues us will not be possible without such resources. “The deep spiritual and theological roots of the civil rights struggle are often ignored or understated. But without its deep religiosity and spirituality – the fuel and inspiration that so often made great sacrifice and moral resistance possible – there is no movement” (61). These claims, buttressed by his confident deployment of theological concepts like the Imago Dei – to undergird the dignity of all human beings – and the South African philosophy of ubuntu – interdependence that counteracts the insidious, rugged, atomized individualism rampant in America – made me hopeful and excited to read a book that would speak courageously and directly to our toxic divides while being unafraid to frame solutions in distinctively Christian theological language that is informed by non-Western perspectives and the best of progressive politics.
Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s argument itself plays into some of the very polarization dynamics he is seeking to unwind, and is unlikely to gain a hearing from more conservative voices that, like it or not, need to be engaged seriously for substantive change to happen in the political sphere (just as the reverse is similarly true – conservative arguments must be made in a way that engages the deep concerns of progressive voices, rather than simply ignoring them).
This dynamic shows up most clearly in the middle section of the book, titled “Building Blocks of the Beloved Community.” In these chapters, Taylor confronts what he sees as the primary obstacles to re-imagining the Beloved Community in America: myths about American history, political polarization and patriotism that distorts and devolves into shallow nationalism. Through these chapters, race becomes a central pillar of Taylor’s discussion, as he returns repeatedly to what he calls the “primary myth” of White Supremacy, which he sees as lurking behind and adding fuel to most of these obstacles (a diagnosis he pulls from Richard Hughes). While I would certainly agree with Taylor that race, and especially an honest account of America’s systemic and interpersonal racial injustices, must be a part of any substantive step forward, I was dismayed to see a lack of engagement with some of the most powerful and distinctively Christian theological voices on the history of race – like Willie Jennings or J. Kameron Carter – in favor of sources like Ibram Kendi and the 1619 Project.
My complaint is not so much with sources like the 1619 Project or Kendi as such (I have personally benefited from reading both), but in what I view as an uncritical and tone-deaf deployment of these voices in a book that is ostensibly about healing our pressing cultural divides. The reality of our cultural moment is such that there are prospective readers who simply will not be able to get past a single quotation from the 1619 Project, and again, to be clear, this dismays me, not only because there are deep wells of theological scholarship from which Taylor could draw on that would avoid the problem of tripping up readers on the other side of the political aisle, but also because Taylor is explicitly taking on the problem of polarization itself. This is one specific example, but it is repeated in different forms over the course of this section of the book. For example, Taylor focuses on critiquing specific actions of Trump– such as the infamous “Bible photo op”– in ways that I know (from personal experience of dialoguing with Trump-supporting family and friends) will cost him a fair hearing with those who will feel misunderstood and mischaracterized as being aligned with white supremacy and violent nationalism. Even-handed critiques of some of Obama’s immigration policies, for example, or demonstrating a more rigorous knowledge of some of the economic and cultural grievances of rural, white Americans, could have made Taylor’s argument much more effective and compelling for a wider readership.
Lest I sound overly critical, I want to end this review by emphasizing that Taylor’s vision and principles are stirring and effectively communicated, in a straightforward style that is accessible throughout A More Perfect Union. It is this very resonance with his overarching vision that, for me, created such dissonance in seeing his execution and application. As it is, Taylor’s call is likely to be written off, or outright ignored, by conservatives and Republican voters, while praised by Progressives who will already agree with him before cracking open the book. This is all the more tragic, as the principles behind A More Perfect Union – such as mutual interdependence, shared acknowledgment of human dignity, nonviolence, true patriotism, environmental stewardship – deserve the widest possible hearing, and could achieve that if packaged in a different form.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com