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February 16, 2011

18

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

by quaesitor

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris E
    Feb 16 2011

    “The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad.”

    That is true, but the comparison is somewhat unequal – the invasion of a country involves more obvious collateral damage than does setting up universal health care.

    “Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line”

    I’m not entirely sure that this is true. It seems to me that the same elements that you mention who have bought into the culture-war mentality have also bought into a form of neo-liberalism being closest to the economic underpinnings of the Bible. Given this and a virtual non-existence of serious advocates of two kingdom thinking in the UK, it seems to me that the so-called ‘Big Society’ and the attempt by the government to shift more civic responsibilities onto voluntary organisations like churches could provide a perfect storm in which a UK variant of the Christian Right suddenly achieves prominence.

    Reply
  2. Batreader
    Feb 16 2011

    Thanks for this helpful and comprehensive review – I think you nailed it!
    You can get hold of Carl’s book in Britain through Eden.co.uk or via Evangelical Press.

    Reply
  3. Feb 17 2011

    Thank you for a very helpful overview, Mark! I am always stunned by the scope of your reading (not to mention the depth of your reviews; I know how much time such things take). I will look for this book! We in Reformed, USA, certainly get a heavy dose of Republicanism-or-else; it is very troubling that we rarely question it as Trueman seems to be doing. It’s so much easier to keep things in two tidy boxes labeled “good” and “bad.”

    Reply
  4. Feb 17 2011

    Thanks for the review. I’m not entirely convinced by Trueman’s thesis not least his proposal for a nuanced Capitalism originating from his critique of Capitalism’s apparent weaknesses. Everything good has negatives/weakness BUT instead of critiquing these from a biblical-exegetical-theological perspective he seemed to appraise Capitalism from the Spirit of the Age e.g. his nebulous concern for the poor. For my money I think Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible does a better job.

    Reply
  5. Chris E
    Feb 17 2011

    “biblical-exegetical-theological perspective he seemed to appraise Capitalism from the Spirit of the Age e.g. his nebulous concern for the poor”

    Concern for the poor doesn’t necessarily have to spring from the Spirit of the Age, there are biblical varieties too.

    Reply
  6. Feb 17 2011

    Chris,

    I agree with you that concern for the poor isn’t necessarily a product of the zeitgist. My concern however was that rather than help us consider what the concern for the poor in the Scriptures actually looks like (e.g. it is uncoercive rather than State driven, should start with a care for those in the Church and work outwards etc) Trueman seemed to have a go at Capitalism under the pretext of caring for the unspecified poor (cf. e.g. Republocrat, page xxvii).

    Reply
  7. Chris E
    Feb 17 2011

    “It is uncoercive rather than State driven, should start with a care for those in the Church and work outwards etc”

    You are describing the actions of two separate entities (State and Church) in a single sentence. I’m sure that Carl Trueman would have no argument with your contention that the diaconate ministry of the Church as a gathered body should start with care for those within the church and work outwards, if only to preserve the primary role of the Church (again as a gathered body) as the preaching of the Gospel and the administering of the sacraments.

    The first part of your sentence deals particularly with the actions of the state, and this is where I suspect that Carl Trueman would say that Christian Liberty should reign here. Your comment seems to embed the assumption that taxation is necessarily theft, and yet the same concerns aren’t present in the Gospel – nor does Paul condemn the Annona in Romans.

    Reply
  8. Feb 17 2011

    Chris,

    We’re now getting into the nitty gritty of the debate which I’m happy to pursue but just to clarify – my point in the initial comment I made was that I’m not persuaded by Trueman’s thesis because of his concern for the poor in a very vague sense which in my view is not congruent with what Scripture teaches. When Scripture speaks of being concerned for the poor it does so very specifically by showing us who is to do it/who does it and also by indicating clearly whether it is coercive or not. On both these issues I fear that Trueman’s theology is rather inadequate.

    K

    Reply
  9. Batreader
    Feb 17 2011

    Kip – fess up! You have not read the book, have you?

    Reply
  10. Chris E
    Feb 18 2011

    Hi Kip –

    “When Scripture speaks of being concerned for the poor it does so very specifically by showing us who is to do it/who does it and also by indicating clearly whether it is coercive or not. On both these issues I fear that Trueman’s theology is rather inadequate.”

    From a two kingdoms perspective (like that of Carl Trueman), the Church is the only present day institution whose every aspect is regulated by the Bible. Insofar as everything else is concerned, Christians have liberty, whilst following the general dictates of Scripture and their conscience. Even where a majority of Christians might agree that a particular thing is a problem, they might well in good all support separate solutions, and do so in good conscience. If there is one criticism of the book, it would perhaps be that he didn’t lay out the two kingdoms doctrine clearly enough, serving as it does as a set of underlying assumption.

    Reply
  11. Feb 19 2011

    Kip,
    “what the concern for the poor in the Scriptures actually looks like (e.g. it is uncoercive rather than State driven…”

    Surely the OT injunctions to care for the poor should be seen at least in part as state driven as they were either the laws of the land (tithes, jubilee etc..) or warnings by prophets that the State (Kings and so on) had departed from their obligations as rulers to the poor and thus incurred God’s judgement.

    The NT is different and isn’t dealing with a nation state but at least we shouldn’t be entirely put off by state driven concern for the least in a society.

    Reply
  12. Chris E
    Feb 19 2011

    “Surely the OT injunctions to care for the poor should be seen at least in part as state driven as they were either the laws of the land (tithes, jubilee etc..) or warnings by prophets that the State (Kings and so on) had departed from their obligations as rulers to the poor and thus incurred God’s judgement.”

    We have to be careful about applying OT injunctions directly to the modern day, because we don’t live in a theonomic state in which God rules directly via a divinely appointed King and priests.

    That said, I don’t see a biblical reason why these things can’t be state driven, and this is the point, it’s an area in which Christian liberty should rule.

    Reply
  13. Feb 21 2011

    This is a late reply to some of the weekend comments – sorry I’ve been away.

    In brief. Batreader, I’ve only skim read Republocrat. You probably asked if I’ve read it because of my reference to Trueman’s concern for the unspecified poor being on page xxvii of Republocrat. Sorry that should have been page xxv (but for more also see pp 18 and 94)

    Phil, we need to be careful to follow Scripture on those things which it says should be criminalized and those which even though sinful should not lead to criminalization. So a question do you know any Scripture passage that would result in the State having power to criminalize those who spurn caring for the poor. This is in effect what happens to us in the UK today given that we are taxed to care for the poor and if you reject paying your taxes you’ll end up in jail. This where I have issue with Trueman – he is all for State provided welfare, healthcare etc but this is something that biblically cannot be coerced.

    Chris E, agreed that we need to be careful about how we apply OT injunctions to our situation but that still leaves the question of how we should apply OT and NT Scriptures as well as the question of the nature + roles of the State which you seem to suggest that Scripture hasn’t much to say but I’m not convincned given passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.

    KC

    Reply
  14. Chris E
    Feb 21 2011

    “This is in effect what happens to us in the UK today given that we are taxed to care for the poor and if you reject paying your taxes you’ll end up in jail. This where I have issue with Trueman – he is all for State provided welfare, healthcare etc but this is something that biblically cannot be coerced.”

    And what would have happened in 1st century Rome if you hadn’t paid your taxes? This is the background to which Romans 13 was written. Futhermore, given the levy based system around which tax collection was organised in the Empire, a large proportion went to enlarge the private coffers of rich and well connected individuals. Some part of the take would have been used to provide the Annona. Yet, Paul speaks to none of this, but merely reminds the Christians in Rome to live peaceably and pay their taxes.

    Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 have a lot to say about the christians attitude to government, less so about the role of the State itself. Some draw a minimalistic view of what the State should provide from these verses – but that is in fact very hard to do, given that the State was clearly doing a lot more (including extremely tight regulation of commerce), without a word of condemnation. Drawing a direct connection between these passages and how politics should be done in a democratic or republican system is even harder. Which is why we should be wary of tying particular policies to Christianity.

    Reply
  15. Batreader
    Feb 21 2011

    I take it that the comment about healthcare being coerced is a reference to the current court cases. Governments can declare mandates as part of good governance – such as criminal laws, health and safety regulations, military service. They can also pass laws that help society function – such as road regulations, vehicle insurance. Now, I know that you don’t have to drive a car but if you do, there is no option but to buy insurance. Everyone will call upon healthcare provision at some time so I don’t see the problem with spreading the burden of provision amongst everyone. Having lived in both the UK and the US I have to say that the cost of healthcare in the US is more than I had to pay in the UK. You can argue about different levels of service provision but essentially any service provided by insurance will always be overpriced – just think of the different way your car is repaired if you are paying for it compared with when the insurance company is paying for it! So, can the government ‘coerce’ healthcare from a biblical viewpoint? Yes, I think they can if that’s what we (the people) decide to do. Even if not, I don’t see any biblical argument against paying tax to Caesar – money that paid for the troops to stay in Israel and its other adventures abroad.

    Reply
  16. Feb 21 2011

    Kip,
    I don’t know what the sanction on non-payment of tithes (Deut 14:28 or care for the poor as in Lev 25:35) except that those books were addressed to the state, they were the laws and customs of not simply an individual but of the whole society to uphold. A tithe surely functioned like a tax in that case.

    Secondly of all the things that I object to in terms of use of my taxes, caring for the poor comes near the bottom. In fact I’m much happier in light of the above verses for my taxes to be used in that way than for many of the other things they are used for, for which I can give very little biblical support.

    I guess my question to you would be, are you against the state collecting all taxes or against the state using those taxes for welfare?

    Reply
  17. Feb 21 2011

    Chris,

    What do you make of Romans 13:2-4 and 1 Peter 2:14 both of these passages do more than just outline our attitude to the state but also spell out the role of the State. We could extend this line of argument by looking at how words like master, dominion, power, rule are used in Scripture to elaborate on the role of government.

    Batreader,

    I’m very uneasy about your line of thought largely because we cannot just simply say yes to what the State endorses because the people have said “yes we can”. One very tangible example of this is homosexuality – if the people voted to say homosexuality = marriage would that be fine?

    Phil,

    Who is Deut 14 addressed to? Verse 22 and following suggests it is addressed to the believers in Israel and not to the State. And note does God attach any civil punishment to what he commands here? No. Does that mean it would be sinful to disobey verse 28 – almost certainly yes but should the State intervene and punish you – absolutely not. There are some actions that can be criminalized and rightly punished by the State and others that should not. The same line of reasoning applies in Leviticus 25.

    In answer to your question I am not against all taxes but I’m against the state collecting taxes for things that Scripture has not mandated it to undertake e.g. healthcare provision and education to name two examples.

    KC

    Reply
  18. Chris E
    Feb 21 2011

    Kip –

    “What do you make of Romans 13:2-4 and 1 Peter 2:14 both of these passages do more than just outline our attitude to the state but also spell out the role of the State. ”

    Your argument says that those verses are supposed to be exhaustive in terms of the roles of the state, my previous comment shows why it is hard to make that argument. The State – as embodied in the Roman empire – was *already* doing a lot more at the time that Paul was writing Romans than simply what those passages talk about, which is a heavy suggestion that they are not meant to be exhaustive. Taxes raised by the empire were used for all sorts of purposes, some of which we would find distasteful, and yet Paul’s advice was ‘pay your taxes’.

    Reply

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