Oxymoronic or Moronic?

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Review of Carl Trueman’s Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P & R Publishing, 2010), xxvii + 110 pgs, paperback, $9.99.

Carl Trueman is confused, but not as confused as his book’s title and subtitle indicate. He is trying to describe with one term both his political and religious viewpoint.

It is rare that an author clearly states his thesis upfront instead of making you wade through the whole book wondering just what it is the author is trying to prove. Although it is not clear from the book’s title or subtitle, Trueman’s thesis, which he states in different forms in his acknowledgments and his introduction, makes it clear that he is a religious conservative and a political liberal:

Religious conservatism does not demand unconditional political conservatism.

Conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas.

The author is living proof that his thesis is true. As am I. But that is where our similarities end.

Trueman fears that his book will merely confirm that he is a “bleeding-heart liberal,” that it is just “a tract for the Left,” and that it is “little more than the special pleading of a confused political liberal.” After reading the book I must say that his fears are justified. But what did he expect?

Trueman favors gun control and nationalized health care (although he is quick to point out that he is “not a socialist”). He holds dear as important political issues poverty, sanitation, housing, unemployment, and hunger. He also has “concern for the environment.” He believes the government “has a role to play in health care and helping the poor.” He disdains capitalism and feels that “pure private enterprise is not adequate for meeting all of society’s needs.”

Yet, he finds himself “politically homeless, restless, and disenchanted.” This is because, although “a man of the left,” Trueman, as a theological conservative, is pro-life and anti-gay marriage. No wonder he feels that any of the secular Left reading the book will find him “woefully inconsistent.”

So why am I, a theological conservative and a hardcore libertarian, even bothering to review a book that I find so muddled and moronic that I have to say is not worth reading?

One, Trueman makes some good points about both the Right and the Left that I feel are worth mentioning. And two, Trueman makes some bad points about Christianity and capitalism and Christianity and politics that I also feel are worth mentioning.

Let me first give some brief information about the author and his book.

Trueman is originally from Great Britain. He did not move to the United States until 2001. He was a member of the British Conservative Party in the mid-1980s, but became disillusioned and made a “leftward turn.” He is now the vice president of academics and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. This is a conservative seminary that was founded by J. Gresham Machen. Trueman holds a Ph.D. in church history from Aberdeen University.

Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, is a small book of 110 pages that takes longer to digest than to read. It contains six chapters. The first chapter, with the catchy title of “Left Behind,” is a critique of the Left. Chapter 2 is about the secularization of American Christianity. Chapter 3 is a critique of Fox News. Chapter 4 is a critique of Max Weber and capitalism. Chapter 5 is about politics. Chapter 6 is a “Concluding Unpolitical Postscript.” The book also contains an introduction by the author and a foreword by a politically conservative colleague who recounts how, when visiting the grave of Karl Marx with the author, he was careful to stand to the right of the bust of Marx while Trueman stood to the left.

In his critique of the Right, Trueman correctly criticizes the idea that America should be identified with God’s special people. He cautions against the temptation for the “dominant nation at any point in world history to identify its mission with the mission of God.” This “must be resisted at all costs.” In this context, he specifically mentions The American Patriot’s Bible, a nationalistic and militaristic Bible published recently that I have negatively reviewed here. Trueman terms one of the claims in this Bible’s promotional video “puerile, blasphemous nonsense.” Even worse though is the painting One Nation Under God, which portrays Jesus holding the Constitution while surrounded by deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. “To include them pictorially,” says Trueman, “in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous, and, quite frankly, risible.”

Trueman has nothing good to say about Fox News, the station where “any dissent from the most robust conservative philosophy was seen as a sign of basic moral failure.” He especially focuses on the shortcomings of Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. I like Trueman’s suggestion that “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.”

Trueman has a good eye for the hypocrisy of the Right, like this insight: “While the Christian Right is intolerant of any personal peccadillo on the part of liberals, it is often very forgiving of the private failings of its heroes.” The description of John McCain and Sarah Palin as mavericks he finds “clearly absurd.” And of good ol’ boy George W. Bush, there is “no one more elite.” Trueman points out the inconsistency of the Right holding “a deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context,” but decrying as “unpatriotic and un-American” any criticism of the government when it invades some foreign country. On the issue of abortion, Trueman astutely perceives that “it seems to be something the Right often uses as little more than a means to drum up cheap votes for its candidates.” He questions the real commitment of Bush, McCain, and the Republican Party to the pro-life cause.

As a political liberal himself, Trueman’s critique of the Left is naturally limited. As mentioned previously, our author deviates from the Left on the issues of abortion and gay marriage. He believes that the Left has been hijacked by identity politics. When the Left made gay rights and abortion touchstone issues, “those of us with strong religious convictions on these matters found ourselves essentially alienated from the parties to which our allegiance would naturally be given.” In advocating gay rights, “the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help.” On abortion, Trueman wonders “how many on the Left have ever taken the time to address the issue of how the right to abortion became so inextricably linked to the notion of women’s rights.” He thinks that abortion “would seem to be a classic cause for the Left” since the Left “prides itself on speaking up for the oppressed, especially for those who cannot speak up for themselves.” He considers it “quite stunning” that a rhetorical connection has been forged “between the oppression of women and the denial of on-demand abortion.”

There are some other insights in the book as well. Trueman has some good remarks on the Manichaean nature of American politics. He is especially perplexed that Christians “who have a great capacity for subtle thinking in matters of theology seem to prefer to think in terms of very straightforward, black-and-white, if not Manichaean, categories when it comes to politics.”

Trueman has issues, not just with Max Weber’s understanding of the “affinity between Protestantism and the capitalist ethic,” but with capitalism itself. Christians should be wary of capitalism because:

  • it promotes a view of life rooted in material accumulation;
  • it can tend to drive all social relations and values to being determined by cash transactions;
  • and when given spiritual significance, it can become something that looks a little too much like the prosperity gospel.

Trueman’s strained attempt to say that a capitalistic society is conducive to euthanasia and abortion is ludicrous. Oh, capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to euthanasia, “but it creates one of the kinds of societies where such discussion might well take place.” Well, some ancient pagan cultures didn’t just discuss human sacrifice; they practiced it. They certainly had no idea what capitalism was. I think rather that the opposite of what Trueman says is true. He also maintains that “access to abortion” is “not unconnected” to capitalism. I suppose this is why there were so many abortions in the Soviet Union – under communism.

Yet, according to our author, who, you will remember, is “not a socialist,” there is “no alternative out there.” Capitalism “has its great benefits” and “brings much good in its wake, not least the creation of wealth and the facilitation of social mobility.” Clearly, Trueman is confused about capitalism.

On capitalism from a secular perspective, see my brief review of Robert P. Murphy’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and Thomas J. DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America. On capitalism from a Christian perspective, see my The Myth of the Just Price.

But in addition to Trueman’s bad points about Christianity and capitalism, there are his remarks about Christianity and politics.

Trueman believes it is part of the Christian’s “civic duty” to vote even as they “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.”

But I don’t know why Trueman thinks Christians should feel pain or be making trade-offs when they vote since he believes that, apart from abortion, there are no issues upon which Christians can have opinions shaped by Scripture:

I believe that on certain issues there is no obviously “Christian” position. I am inclined to include among such issues the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the appropriateness of trade unions, rates of direct and indirect taxation, etc. To make any of these things acid tests of Christian orthodoxy is to go well beyond anything the Bible teachers or that the church has felt it necessary to define over the two thousand years of its existence.

It is not obvious to me from reading Scripture that God really cares one way or the other about how health care is delivered. . . . I would suggest it means that believers should consider heath care a good thing and want to see as many people helped by it as possible. How that is done, to what extent the state is involved, etc., are legitimate subjects for debate and not something that should divide Christians as Christians.

Beyond abortion, there are a whole host of issues on which the Christian pundits have strong opinions, from gun control to defense spending to financial regulation to education. The problem is, of course, that whether there is a distinctly biblical position on these matters that can thus be pressed on the church is debatable.

As Christians, we should be able to disagree vigorously on, say gun control.

If there are no “Christian” positions on these issues – all of which involve theft and/or violence by the state – then there are no “Christian” positions on any issues and the Bible is completely irrelevant to modern life.

For a book that was written because of the author’s “belief that the evangelical church in America is in danger of alienating a significant section of its people, particularly younger people, through too tight a connection between conservative party politics and Christian fidelity,” it contains surprisingly few references to Scripture. I only count five, and most of them are on one page (p. 71). Trueman doesn’t actually quote any Scripture, and neither does he give any real references (book, chapter, & verse). He merely refers to 2 Corinthians 1, the Book of Acts, 2 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 1 & 2, and Ecclesiastes 2.

I think I see Trueman’s political problem. He makes this statement on page 81: “There does not appear to be a grand, unifying theory in politics that allows all these areas to be tied together into one coherent and necessary whole.” The grand, unifying theory that Trueman overlooks is, of course, libertarianism. Our author does mention libertarianism twice, but each time with a negative connotation. Once he remarks that having a commitment to untrammeled markets leads toward “a form of libertarianism – economic at the outset but profoundly moral in the long run.” Then, in his conclusion, Trueman talks about the Right shifting “in a more socially and morally libertarian direction.” So not only is Trueman confused about capitalism, he is confused about libertarianism as well. I would refer him to my recent ASC lecture, “Is Libertarianism Compatible with Religion?

Carl Trueman may be a liberal conservative, but he is a liberal conservative statist.

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