Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Notes: Republocrat, Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl R. Trueman

I don't know if Carl Trueman actually set out to irritate people across the political spectrum; but his 2010 book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative has certainly achieved that. Trueman is most well known as a Reformed Theologian/Historian, whose punchy polemics have spread lively debates far and wide from his office at Philadelphia's Westminster Seminary. 

Republocrat contains Trueman's thoughts about contemporary politics - especially American politics, from a Christian perspective. Since leaving British soil for the USA, Trueman has very naturally found a spiritual home in the doctrine and practice of North America's Reformed churches. He seems however, to have been scandalised by the political culture of American Christianity; and it is this experience which drives this book.

In Trueman's view, unequivocal endorsement of the left is not an option. The church cannot 'baptise' the left agenda, because as he notes, the post 1960s new-left has abandoned the unique focus on addressing material oppression and turned to individualistic psychological categories and has therefore ended up supporting positions which defy the Bible, such as abortion on demand, or the gay-agenda. This chapter is of course, the one which will stir up more controversy in the church here in the UK. However, Trueman has a far larger target in mind than the post 60s left..

Trueman goes on to argue that the kind of assumptions made by huge swathes of the North American church that Christianity=unequivocal endorsement of right wing politics, is wrong. Actually, he argues far more strongly than that - he goes as far in his chapter on Christianity and Capital to describe the baptism of capitalism as an absolute good, or of American Exceptionalism as "idolatry". In his view, there are countless issues on which there is no definitively Biblical position and about which Christians in fellowship with one another can legitimately disagree. Take for example, (p94)
It is not obvious to me from reading Scripture that God really cares one way or the other about how health care is delivered. Sickness is a result of the fall. As it was God's own character revealed in Christ to reach out with compassion to those ill and suffering, so it should be part of the character of God reflected in Christians to act in a manner consistent with this. I would suggest it means that believers should consider health care a good thing and want to see as many people helped by it as possible. How this is done, to what extent the state is involved, etc., are legitimate subjects for debate and not something that should divide Christians as Christians.
In other words the blanket endorsement of the right-wing agenda by the church in the USA is a serious error. Trueman briefly outlines his concerns with the idea that Christian faith necessarily endorses such shibboleths as gun ownership, the minimal state, environmental neglect, or the lack of provision of universal health care; as is so often assumed to be the case in the USA. Much of the blame for this Trueman lays squarely at the door of the likes of Fox News (trusted as an unbiased 'Christian' news-source!), the Murdoch empire, secularism within the church, and the shoddy, almost imbecilic standard of political debate. Politics is complex, and for the Christian will always involve compromise and trade-offs, as each issue is thought-through from a Biblical perspective in its own right. But here, of course is a key for Trueman - as for him the market is not a source of authority or morality, only the Bible is. Therefore the operations of the market can be held to account!

The book is witty, shocking, provocative, readable and wise. It's packed full of perceptive and/or funny examples of his points. Christians who are politically aware should get it, read it and think through the lessons it offers seriously. Although addressed primarily at Christians in Trueman's adopted home, there's plenty in here which relates to British politics too. For those of us who have discussed politics with Christians in America and been deeply perplexed by the whole manifest-destiny stuff, the messianic notions of Foreign Policy, opposition to health-care for the poor, of love of weapons, or the assumption that the British NHS was set up by atheists, communists and opponents of the gospel (!!!!); Republocrat is essential reading. There are times when Republocrat will make the reader laugh, scoff, or even cheer out loud; it certainly won't bore you. It would be tragic if this important book was either ignored and not given the circulation that it deserves, especially amongst the American Christian right. It would also be tragic of the satirical, humorous, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek styled detracted from the sobering wake up call from political naivety, found within it. Trueman's motivation for writing this book is also important to notice as he is not pleading to be understood or accepted by his new countrymen, nor is he hoping to persuade the American Christians to cheerlead for health care reform or some such. While he is concerned that the political-right exploits the religious-right to get votes but doesn't deliver policy outcomes in return; this is not his fundamental reason for writing, as he reveals (p109)
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign policy issues.

In Republocrat, Trueman warns people not to digest media that doesn't challenge, but merely re-enforces their opinions. Of course, that' exactly the danger I am in when I read things like Republocrat. Nevertheless, it is good to read such a cheery and entertaining dismissal of the flawed idea that Biblical morality can be the exclusive property of either left or right.


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