Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. War and Peace and Anna Karenina have inspired millions over the last century. Less well-known about Tolstoy, though is that he had a profound effect upon many due to his interpretation of Christian ethics, especially regarding non-resistance and pacifism. In 1884, he expounded upon his beliefs in What I Believe, and this work was promptly banned in Russia for its negative depiction of the state and the Russian church. After the book had spread throughout the world and garnered attention, Russian secular and religious intellectuals began attacking his ideas. The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894, is a further explanation of his beliefs and a response to his opponents.
What would a country founded by Christians on libertarian principles look like?
James Wesley Rawles endeavors to provide an answer to this question in his latest work, Land of Promise. I received an advance copy of the book in exchange for a review, and when someone does something nice for me (like give me free stuff) I like to be able to reciprocate in kind.
However, having finished the book, I find myself facing a conundrum of sorts.
On the one hand, Rawles’ premise is interesting and one to which, as a writer of fiction myself, I have given some thought over the years. He certainly makes a noble attempt at describing his answer to the question posited above. Land of Promise is nothing if not a thorough detailing of how to construct a new nation from the ground up (quite literally). Pages — nay, chapters — are devoted to the specifications of everything from construction equipment to airfields to defense and munitions systems to passports. Such detail indicates Rawles’ knowledge of these subjects.
On the other hand, Rawles does not exactly spin such details into a gripping story, and I did not find the work to be the “bold piece of speculative fiction” as described on its Amazon page. Frankly, I struggle to even categorize this as purely a novel. Rawles’ characters are not compelling, the dialogue is often stilted, and the direction of the plot is difficult to discern. The story elements are sandwiched between passages that read more like a manual of what the author envisions needing to happen when the world goes to pot, rather than making those technical details truly support the story.
What Rawles does do deftly is weave his particular brand of reformed Christian beliefs through the book, constructing a government and voting system that virtually ensures Christians will remain in power. After all, the Christians get more votes than the unbelievers, many of whom are relegated to the “gulch” where they are treated as second-class citizens. Such marginalization of others does not really qualify as either libertarian or Christian, in my view.
As a writer myself, I admire Rawles’ efforts. Writing a 330-page novel is no small feat. And while this book may find an audience with a few Reformed Presbyterian Christian libertarians who have an interest in the literal nuts and bolts of nation-building, Rawles did not inspire me or capture my attention with his vision of a Land of Promise.