Book Review: Letters to an American Christian

Book Review: Letters to an American Christian July 19, 2018

Bruce Ashford of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary enters the thick of the cultural conversation on religion and politics with this fresh collection of essays, structured as letters to a hypothetical Gen Z Christian. Spanning the gamut of hot-button issues, Ashford breathes new life into a brand of conservatism that has fallen out of fashion in post-Trump America.

Let me start with a bit of personal history: I am the child of Reagan conservatives. Our house was a library filled with books by Antonin Scalia, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, and many more conservative thinkers. My earliest memories are bound up with dinner-table discussions of religion, politics and public policy. (As a very young child, I took particular relish in observing and creating object lessons in free market capitalism.) By day, I was being home-schooled. By night, I was reading. Particular works stand out in memory as watershed moments in my civic education. There’s the day I first pulled Witness off the shelf at age eleven, the book that made me feel what communism was beyond mere knowing. There’s the high school year I studied Sowell’s Vision of the Anointed and learned one of the fundamental principles of public policy—indeed, of life: There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs and compromises.

World events stick in the mind as well, but not necessarily all the same ones that stick in everyone else’s mind. It’s not every millennial for whom the memory of Terry Schiavo’s slow murder by dehydration is as fresh as the memory of 9/11. Suffice it to say, my parents paid attention. They paid attention to things that mattered. And they taught me to pay attention too.

All this to say, the past couple of years have been weird for me to watch. To put it mildly. The rule books are gone. Categories that used to be sharply delineated are blurring and switching before my eyes. People I once counted on to deliver reliable news seem to have been invaded by body-snatchers. People of my parents’ generation have been seized with confusion and naivete while their young people—my peers—try to offer loving correction. (My own parents are as savvy as ever, happily.)

I didn’t vote in the last presidential election. I don’t plan to vote in the next. To some people, this signals that I have washed my hands of my country’s future. I don’t vote, therefore I must not care. I must be a detached observer. But I can assure them this is far from the case. As a nation, we have forgotten that there is far more to politics than the presidency. Consequently, there is still much to care about. To paraphrase Charles Krauthammer, I care about politics not because it is the thing of greatest interest to me, but because as politics goes, so goes everything else with it.

But how to walk this tightrope? How to be politically homeless, yet political? How to be a Christian in America, but not of it?

Letters to an American Christian doesn’t do a perfect job of explaining how. But it’s a welcome reminder that if you’re feeling politically homeless right now, you’re not alone.

Ashford’s imaginary correspondent is a relatively new Christian with a budding career in political journalism. We get the impression that he starts off as something of a smart-alecky Young Turk, but a Young Turk with his heart in the right place. Ashford imagines how a typical Gen Z-er might push back on conservative arguments in areas like immigration and gun control, then articulates the classical conservative rebuttals in systematic form. For people who didn’t grow up learning conservative principles alongside their ABC’s, this will be a handy reference aid.

Particularly gratifying is Ashford’s robust and repeated defense of constitutional originalism. My Scalia-loving heart was warmed as he emphasized that judicial overreaches like Roe and Obergefell were not merely moral abominations, but legal abominations. Conservatives should not be shy about hammering home this point, even as we also vigorously make the moral case for life and the preservation of marriage.

Fiscal conservatism gets some space to shine as well, including an  I, Pencil-like explanation of how price reflects market value. Ashford seeks to reclaim the “compassionate conservative” moniker, encouraging Christians to be unapologetic in affirming that the rising tide of capitalism will lift all boats while privately seeking what struggling seamen they may save in the meantime. It has been suggested in recent days that we need the yin and yang of reasonable right and reasonable left in our political discourse, so that the dispossessed classes are assured of a representative voice. Ashford shrewdly challenges the assumption that the left represent the dispossessed in principle, though public perception may be a different story.

In one of the weaker sections of the book, Ashford also touches on environmental politics. Granted, he acknowledges that aggressively “green” policies can have anti-human ripple effects (and that however America fusses and navel-gazes over its greenness, continents like Asia are unlikely to do anything of the sort). But he still automatically accepts that the various rituals of the environmentalists’ substitute religion are just “good stewardship” (reusing shopping bags, driving greener cars, recycling, etc.) He also indicates that our default position on anthropogenic global warming should be agnosticism, when in fact the evidence of skewed data and poor models is publicly available.

In the spirit of works like C. S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcom, Ashford has some fun with the format–too much fun, in some places. In addition to “Christian,” we also “meet” some of his colorful friends and relations, including the archetypal crudely right-wing “Uncle John.” To Ashford’s credit, he encourages Christian to be gracious to his elders and seek common ground instead of sweeping them into a basket of deplorables. Unfortunately, he still can’t resist some snide jabs of his own. In the (largely sensible) section on sexual politics, Ashford takes time to scold “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”-style rhetoric from Christian’s Uncle John, leaving his specific “demeaning” comments to the readers’ imagination but assuring us that Uncle John is “a man, it seems, in whom the milk of human kindness has curdled.” It struck this reader as an exercise in self-congratulation, and a peculiarly pointless one at that: “Oh God, I thank thee that I am not like this hypothetical Gen Z’er’s hypothetical Uncle John.” I’d quite like to meet Uncle John, myself. We’d probably like the same bands.

A running theme throughout is the call for a return to civility in our political discourse. This is certainly welcome in the age of Trump and has been modeled by writers such as David French. “If you want to be strong,” Ashford writes, “be civil. Show the strength that few possess—the power of self-control. Civility, in a phrase, is strength under control.” Ashford includes some welcome criticism of the alt-right in particular, briefly explaining the nature of the movement and its tactics. (For those who may have seen the word “cuck” floating about and wondered what in the world this term meant, Ashford gives you the sordid etymology thereof.) This is a perilous pit that we certainly should avoid at all costs.

Yet Ashford occasionally tilts too far in the other direction, as when he states that there is no place for mockery. I would ask him what the Babylon Bee is if not mockery appropriately exercised. I would also be curious to know if he thinks it “belittling” to suggest that in a reasonable country, a woman who has woken up every morning in tears since Trump’s win (true story) would be encouraged to seek psychiatric help. Like many writers, Ashford lapses into the well-worn trope of urging that we “respect” all our political opponents. Certainly, we should recognize that our political opponents are made in the image of God, and thus afford them the basic decency we would afford to any human being we should pass in the street. This, however, is not equivalent to respect. Respect is an earned quantity. To grant it indiscriminately is to devalue the currency.

In the end, however, Ashford finishes with a strong reminder that no matter how we temper our speech, to some it will always be the aroma of death. This, we cannot help. We can only keep speaking and acting properly. Far from the false hope of “making America great again,” Ashford offers the more modest but far more practical hope of making our individual corners of America better. He encourages the reader, “You might be surprised how little power you actually need to create life-giving culture. Perhaps you won’t transform the entirety of the American political system. But you can build something of cultural beauty and value.”

That’s a sentiment that may not win elections. But it just might win hearts.

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