Running for Our Lives (Robb Ryerse) -- A Review

RUNNING FOR OUR LIVES: A Story of Faith, Politics, and the Common Good. By Robb Ryerse. Foreword by Brian D. McLaren. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xi + 165 pages.

                Can faith and politics coexist? I’m not talking about church and state exactly, but whether these two entities are compatible. The answer is probably, it's complicated. In the United States, church and state, at least in theory, are separate entities. This, however, doesn't mean the public square is empty of religious elements or that people of faith don’t approach public life from a religious/spiritual point of view. Besides this, there has been a de facto civil religion present in the United States that has its roots in Protestant Christianity. Through time Christianity, and most especially Protestantism, has played a significant role in public life in the United States. Sometimes that's been a good thing. At other times, not so much.

As we consider this question of the relationship between faith and politics, what happens when pastors run for public office? This isn’t unheard of, especially in the African American community where many political leaders have emerged from the church. Nevertheless, this can be a complicated issue for congregations and pastors, as well as the larger community. The question faced by any pastor entering political life concerns how one separates the two roles.

In Running for Our Lives, Robb Ryerse, a pastor from Arkansas who was recruited to run as a primary challenger to a Republican congressional incumbent, tells the story of how all of this took place. He shares how he had been interested in politics since he was a child (something I can identify with), his call to ministry, and how he was recruited to run for office and the subsequent campaign for Congress in 2018. Ryerse was the founding pastor of Vintage Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when he was recruited. As to whether he won his race, one can figure out by looking at his current employment. He is still pastor, along with his wife Vanessa, of Vintage Church. He also serves as Executive Director of Brand New Congress, the organization that recruited him and helped him create a campaign for office.

According to the story told in the book, from a young age Ryerse was interested in politics. He began his Christian life as a fundamentalist Christian who was also a committed conservative Republican. Over time he got connected with the Emergent Church movement, of which Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren (author of the book’s foreword) have been key leaders. He had led an Emergent-style congregation for several years when he became interested once again in politics due in large part to his opposition to Donald Trump. Though still a Republican, he found Trump to be anathema. His interest in politics became known to the people at Brand New Congress, who recruited him to primary the Republican incumbent, who was a staunch Trump supporter, from the Republican left.

As we follow along with the story, we not only learn about his race for Congress but also his relationship to Brand New Congress. This is an organization that recruited candidates to primary establishment members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Most appear to have been progressive Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Most of these candidates also appear to be aligned with Bernie Sanders. Ryerse, interestingly, ran as a progressive Republican. He advocated for Medicare for All, which he claims a majority of Republicans support, as well as addressing Climate Change. In fact, he seems to have supported quite a number of policies that are more ideologically aligned more with liberal Democrats than any Republican.

Throughout the book, Ryerse claims he is, in fact, a Republican. I will take him at his word, though I could never quite see where he fit within the Republican Party as it currently stands. Once upon a time, back when I was growing up, there was a significant liberal wing of the Republican Party. In my home state of Oregon, Republicans like Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield were strong environmentalists, and Hatfield had a fairly strong anti-war voting record. However, there aren't many Hatfields or McCalls left in the Republican party, which is why I long ago switched my registration to the Democratic Party.

While I have a difficult time imagining him as a Republican, the book offers an intriguing argument as to the possible future of American politics. Could there be possible new political alignments in the future? Might progressive Republicans reemerge at some point. It's hard to say.

Now, as you might expect, Ryerse didn’t win his race (I’ve already revealed that truth). But, challenging incumbents is never easy. From what I can tell from the book, the only person recruited by Brand New Congress to win a race was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled a major upset in her primary race. As I read the book, I was left wondering whether Ryerse, having lost the first time out, might try it again. Might he have a better chance of pulling an upset in his context if he ran as a Democrat instead of a Republican? He hinted that the Democrats have had difficulty fielding candidates, so could he be the one? That he took on this new position with Brand New Congress suggests he’s decided not to make another run, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Is it?

In the end, the book has value, less as a primer on getting elected to Congress as an anti-establishment type, and more as a reflection on the impact of faith on political views. By reading along with his story, we can see how Ryerse tried to balance being a pastor and a politician. It’s not an easy needle to thread, but apparently, he’s still trying to do so, even if not as a candidate. What I think is important about a book like this is that it allows us to consider how faith informs our public life. Do my politics define my faith, or does my faith define my politics? Unfortunately, too often political or national allegiances have a greater impact than does our faith. Oh, and I'm still not convinced Ryerse is really a Republican, but that's for him to decide! 


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