Sacred cows die hard. And tipping them is not just anyone’s game. When it comes to conservative American evangelicalism, there may be no cherished belief that needs to die more than its explicit allegiance to one political party.
An evangelical attachment to the history of America and to patriotism has colored its views on how the church should interact with the political sphere. And in the past few decades, with the meteoric rise of “the religious right”, the result has been an American version of Christianity which mixes zeal for conservative politics and Christian virtues. Along the way, a popular misconception has arisen on the part of secular and non-evangelical alike: the evangelical gospel is confused with a moralistic concern for “family values”.
Carl Trueman, a witty and winsome Brit, tackles this problem in a new book recently released by P & R Publishing. In Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, Trueman speaks from an outsider’s perspective on the political landscape facing American Christians today. He understands that some of his views will be frowned on from both sides of the American aisle, but he pushes forth in an effort to challenge the tendency toward a one-sided approach and overly simplistic view of politics which he sees as so prevalent in the conservative circles in which he ministers today (as dean of Westminster Theological Seminary).
Written in a witty and personal fashion, with a Brit’s sense and control of the English language, the book draws one into the discussion even as it disarms the would-be critic. I found it a quick and engrossing read, even if the argument seemed to overreach on some points. He offers pertinent and sometimes disturbing examples from recent political history to drive home his points, and in the end is quite convincing.
He starts out with a criticism of today’s “left”. He shows how originally the liberal concern for the marginalized and the poor spurred British Christians to political involvement and an embrace of classic liberalism. Since then, liberalism has grown to treat any perceived marginalization and threat to be equivalent with the real economic and physical problems, for example, that were caused by industrialization in the late 1800s. So the mother of an unwanted child is facing undue pressure to keep her child, and she along with a gay person who wants full acceptance by society both deserve the protection of modern liberals. Meanwhile, the true problems of poverty and economic marginalization which continue to plague our world get left behind in the posturing and the fuss over the more visible, concerns of today’s liberals.
He then moves on into the conservative kitchen, and tackles American exceptionalism, and the patriotic flavor of American Christianity responsible for such absurdities as The Patriot’s Bible. Where he really scored points with me was in his treatment of the Fox News channel. He drives home his point that no news media outlet can be completely unbiased. He also shows how the founders of Fox were moved by the almighty dollar, like anyone else in the secular world. His cautions on this point deserve notice:
When it comes to listening to the news, Christians should be eclectic in their approach and not depend merely on those pundits who simply confirm their view of the world while self-evidently using terminology, logic, and standard rules of evidence and argumentation in sloppy, tendentious, and sometimes frankly dishonest ways…. (pg. 56)
That the free market, capitalist system was a Christian concept derived from studying Scripture was one of the high points of my own Christian education. And Trueman takes aim at that whole idea. The system runs on good old fashioned, greed (which is actually sinful, mind you). And not just greed — discontent and dissatisfaction are built into the structure of our American economic system. The solution to economic hard times is for us consumers to show more confidence and fork out more money. And exactly how is this is a Christian concept, again? Let me allow Trueman himself to speak to this point more directly:
…we have no basis for absolutizing the social organization and the attendant institutions, practices, and values of our passing present than anybody in ages past. Feudalism seemed like the wave of the future when it was at its zenith, yet it has passed away, at least in the West. European imperialism seemed set to dominate the world forever and a day at the end of the nineteenth century, but along came two world wars that put an end to that notion…. (pg. 67)
Viewing our system as the best there ever was, is also a bit evolutionary in nature, Trueman contends. Somehow man has figured everything out now and our system is the best hope for the world. We need to liberate the world from their a-capitalism, and bring salvation by means of the free market.
He rounds out the book by discussing how democratic politics in our modern age are positioned such that every difference between the parties has to be emphasized and enlarged so that they can gain power. Careful, nuanced political debate is not served by today’s sound bites and smiling photo ops, either. Trueman’s postscript argues that the abortion issue doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all political issue for Christians in a fallen society like ours. He says, “It seems clear that the democratic legislative path to reducing or even outlawing abortions is proving remarkably unfruitful…. following from this… is there any point in allowing the matter to be the make-or-break issue on which individuals make their voting decisions at election time?” (pg. 106). He argues that incremental change can be pursued within either party, and before abortion will be outlawed a majority of Americans need to view it with distaste.
You won’t appreciate, or agree with, all Trueman’s concerns, but you will be challenged to think about what role the church should have in the political sphere. Should a church side with the conservative agenda so explicitly that non-conservatives are unwelcome, even if they also believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I think not. And if you pick up Trueman’s short book (only 110 pages), I suspect you’ll at least admit this much by the time you’ve read it. The Church of Jesus Christ should be wide enough to accept Christians of various political persuasions. The gospel, not politics or national pride, should unite us.
I want to close with an extended excerpt from Trueman’s conclusion. I don’t want to steal his thunder, but I feel this is the best way to give Trueman the hearing he may need for you to actually pick up his work and give it a listen.
Christians are to be good citizens, to take their civic responsibilities seriously, and to respect the civil magistrates appointed over us. We also need to acknowledge that the world is a lot more complicated than the pundits of Fox News (or MSNBC) tell us…. Christian politics, so often associated now with loudmouthed aggression, needs rather to be an example of thoughtful, informed engagement with the issues and appropriate involvement with the democratic process. And that requires a culture change. We need to read and watch more widely, be as critical of our own favored pundits and narratives as we are of those cherished by our opponents, and seek to be good stewards of the world and of the opportunities therein that God has given us.
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchallenged and unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign-policy issues…. We need to… [realize] the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and [earn] a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement. A good reputation with outsiders is, after all, a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome cliches, character assassinations, and Manichean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process. (pg. 108-110)
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
Pick up a copy of this book at Westminster Bookstore, Amazon.com or through P & R direct. See an expanded version of this review, with links to the book trailer and additional resources, at CrossFocusedReviews.com.