Republocrat: The Pitfalls of American Politics

Review of Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl Trueman

Imagine that an evangelical Brit decides to make running commentary on American politics–what would he say? Add to that the fact that this particular Brit has lived in the United States for almost two decades; then add the dash of cheekiness that we have come to expect of such fellows from across the pond. That’s what we get from Carl Trueman in Republocrat–a book that has something in it to offend all brands of evangelical politicos.

Trueman is quick to lay his cards on the table: politically, he’s left of center. His aim is to serve American evangelicals by providing an informed, outsider perspective of how they conduct themselves in the political arena. The book is a delight due to its witty prose, razor-like insight, and his eye for the ironies of our political system. Republocrat is short–another service that ensures a wider audience. I will quickly summarize each chapter and provide some concluding thoughts.

Chapter 1 – Left Behind: Trueman takes a romp through political history, from the Old Left as a backlash against the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, through the intelligentsia’s acquisition of Marxism, and finally ending at the New Left and its adoption of “psychological categories.” Trueman writes,

For someone like me, here lies the heart of the problem of the New Left: once the concerns of the Left shifted from material, empiricial issues–hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease–to psychological categories, the door was opened for everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big One for this generation.

His point is simple: Christians should naturally be in favor of the party that cares for the weak and needy, but the New Left has artificially tied these concerns with “psychological categories” of gay rights and abortion.

Chapter 2 – The Slipperiness of Secularization: The United States is known to be an anomaly in the Western world due to its enduring religiosity in the face of a secularized Europe. But is the story so simple? Trueman argues that the church itself has imbibed secularization. He highlights: 1) the prosperity teaching of Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn, 2) the church’s membership culture becoming a consumer culture, 3) the unbiblical marriage of Christianity and the United States in the popular imagination demonstrated in The Patriot’s Bible and the Left Behind series, and 4) celebrity preachers. The golden quote:

What is needed is continual reformation that takes us back to the standards of God’s Word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.

Chapter 3 – Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox: Trueman bemoans the state of American political punditry and takes special aim at Fox News. He’s aware of the shortfalls of other networks such as MSNBC, but he pays special attention to Fox News because of the allegiance of vast swaths of the “Religious Right”. Trueman’s main point is that we should use our brains when watching the news and not trust everything we hear. We should think critically, learn how to construct a syllogism, and, above all, remember nothing is black and white.

Chapter 4 – Living Life to the Max: Trueman wants to warn American evangelicals about the pitfalls of capitalism, while also recognizing that capitalism is the best thing we have at the moment. We should avoid chronological snobbery, which assumes that the current principle of social and economic organization is the apex and the end of history. The same was thought of feudalism and where has that gone? The genius of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was tying religious/conservative values with this free market ideology, but Trueman views this partnership as problematic.

At heart, the problem of contemporary capitalism is that its (at least theoretical) commitment to untrammeled markets as providing the best mechanisms for the shaping of life leads inexorably toward a form of libertarianism–economic at the outset but profoundly moral in the long run. And no economic system, least of all perhaps capitalism, can long survive without some kind of larger moral underpinning that stands prior to and independent of the kinds of values the market itself generates.

The thinking on this follows closely that of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (my observation, not Trueman’s).

Chapter 5 – Rulers of the Queen’s Navee: Like the prior chapter, Trueman considers the problems inherent in contemporary democracy and the way it limits thoughtful discourse, but concedes with Winston Churchill that it’s the best alternative that we have. His main gripe is how good looks (think the Nixon/Kennedy televised debate) and sound bytes (name any presidential debate or policy meme) triumph over a serious look at the issues and their policy implications. The two-party American system caters to polarization during campaigning, but a run to centrism once in office. But American democracy is what we have, so the solution can only be applied to individuals: Christians must be thinkers, not mindless followers.

Republocrat can be summarized easily as LET MY PEOPLE THINK! Even if readers don’t agree with Trueman’s arguments or do take issue with his conclusions, they must acknowledge that Trueman demonstrates good thinking. If we need anything, we need to learn to hear the other side. But lest we think Trueman is simply calling for the Religious Right to break camp and head for the Religious Left, he has sharp barbs for young evangelicals who vote Democrat just to be naughty.

Christianity in politics was at one time a noble cause. (Think of William Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity, early Christian abolitionists, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) Readers will be quick to bring up the noble pro-life cause. Trueman leaves this topic to his concluding postscript, where he directly addresses pro-life, single-issue voting. He states the obvious–when we vote, we’re limited in our choices and have to choose the best of our options. Taking a pragmatic voting philosophy, Trueman advocates a broader view when thinking about pro-life voting, which, in my opinion, is the most controversial part of the book.

Trueman starts by pointing out the negligible progress made on the pro-life agenda. Since 1973, lengthy Republican administrations and Republican-controlled Congresses have done little to roll back Roe v Wade. Politicians cater to pro-lifers during campaigns, but quickly shut up about the issue once in office. (Trueman points to the McCain campaign 2008, which became more vocal on abortion issues to drum up votes.) If the legislative path is not making headway on this issue, is it worth making abortion an ultimate deciding factor? Since most politicians are functionally incrementalists in terms of making policy changes, couldn’t this be done as much by a pro-life Republican as a pro-life Democrat?

The postscript discusses other juicy topics and prodding insights. Unfortunately, because Republocrat was published in 2010, Trueman doesn’t address the more pressing issue of same-sex marriage. Whether or not readers agree with Trueman, readers should still wrestle with his ideas. I will conclude with Trueman’s own words:

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 avoid this marginalization of the voice of Christians in politics by realizing the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and by earning a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement.

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