Book Review: Republocrat by Carl Trueman, pt 2
For all of the delight inherent to a book penned by a witty Englishman and Reformed scholar, there are numerous points of frustration found in the political analysis of Carl Trueman in Republocrat. On occasion, he levels a substantive zinger at one or another political group, but he does so without displaying a sophisticated understanding of American politics. While the title Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative is catchy, it reflects an ambiguity with terms and concepts that stretches through the book.
Trueman’s frustration with many politically-conservative Christians is understandable. Those who conflate the mission of the church and the state in this world do so to the disservice of both, and those who recycle sound bites and don’t think deeply about faith and politics bring scorn upon a Church that already receives abuse for its perceived anti-intellectualism. That said, Trueman makes several fundamental mistakes that would undermine his book in politically-active circles. As with the previous review, Trueman’s thoughts will be cast against the historical backdrop of the American founding described in Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty.
First, there is a big difference between political parties (Republican and Democrat) and political ideologies (conservative and liberal). While I am sure Professor Trueman knows this, he often uses these terms interchangeably. In his introduction, for example, he uses the term “conservative party politics,” which is an unhelpful phrase. There is no American conservative party (unlike Britain), nor is there a party that is necessarily identified with the conservative ideology.
Second, this wrongful association of terms is exacerbated in the unclear use of the term “conservative.” American conservatism is most often broken down into three camps: traditionalists (who wish to conserve Western traditions, moral customs, and the Christian religion); libertarians (who wish to conserve fiscal freedom); and foreign policy hawks (who wish to conserve these values from enemies abroad). While Trueman rightly notes that there is often friction between some of these principles (i.e. the relationship of freedom and virtue, freedom and security, etc.), he overestimates these cleavages.
At root in conservatism is a complex understanding of human nature, one that accounts for created man’s inherent dignity as well as his capacity for sin. This understanding of human nature was very much at the core of America’s founding. The robust concept of “rights” in America was largely a result of theological and philosophical reflection on what it means to be human, and as Kidd notes, for many of the founders that had to do with man’s creation. At the same time, unlike today, there was little disagreement on the reality and pervasive nature of sin amongst the founders. Thus, they established a political and economic system that established checks and balances at every turn, in order to promote virtue and restrain the effects of sin.
Progressives (I will not use “liberal,” as it has historically meant a free society but now connotes a more managed society) tend to have a simplistic view of human nature. Many tend to have an optimistic view of human nature that diminishes sin and elevates “progress.” Others tend to have a more pessimistic view that diminishes dignity and favors greater governmental coercion. These distinctive views of human nature amongst conservatives and progressives should not be treated lightly and require extensive theological reflection by all Christians. They are also not relegated to parties. Most Christians hold to the complex view of human nature and cast their votes for different parties.
Third, the ambiguity in language extends to terms like “elitist.” Trueman asserts that former President (George W.) Bush was an elitist like his respective opponents because he grew up in favored circumstances. But elitism has nothing to do with upbringing, but with mindset. Elitism, as it is commonly used, pertains to those who believe that there is a subset of society (of which they are part) that is best equipped to run the life of society as a whole.
Fourth, Professor Trueman commits the same faux pas that he accuses others of making. He speaks of others’ conspiracy theories, but speaks in the same breath of his own suspicions regard Rupert Murdoch. He even speaks of Murdoch’s role in moving him from the British-conservative camp. Even if his suspicions regarding Murdoch held more water (they seem incredibly speculative and cynical), they provide a very shallow rationale for adopting different political opinions.
Fifth, Trueman debates almost exclusively with straw men—whether in describing the Left or the Right. In particular, few conservatives believe in the “untrammeled free market” (18) as an answer to social ills, as Trueman frequently asserts. Most will speak of a free market alongside a strong civil society that inculcates virtue. The Founders rightly noted that we will not be able to maintain this Republic or our freedoms apart from virtue, responsibility, and self-government. Trueman also takes his token shot at Sarah Palin’s term “death panels,” not understanding the extensive philosophical argument behind that term that asserts that the use of money is an expression of individual morality and that whoever controls one’s money controls their morality.
Finally, Professor Trueman is not alone. He finds himself “politically homeless” (18), but he does indeed have a home—self-described Independents, who make up about a third of the electorate. Of course, the joy of Trueman is that he could provoke an entire book of responses to his assertions. That is a trait of a good writer and thinker, and the fact that Trueman has and will provoke extensive responses will inevitably result in his desired outcome: a more reflective Christian citizenry. Everybody should buy this book, even if it gets thrown across the room a couple of times.
Stephen Roberts, MDiv