Reflections on Republocrat: A Serialized Book Review, Part 1

[amazon 1596381833 thumbnail] The name “Carl Trueman” didn’t mean a whole lot to me until recently. For some time, the name popped up often in blog-post links folks would email me. Sometimes something at the “Reformation 21” blog would catch my eye and turn out to be Trueman’s work.

Then a few months ago he began to really get my attention—in his response to the Elephant Room 2 confusion as well as subsequent insightful evaluations of the state of evangelicalism in general.

I had seen the book Republocrat: Confessions of Liberal Conservative some time before all that—without connecting its author to the blog work. Then one day it clicked. No, the Carl Trueman wrote Republocrat?

I had to read it. How could such a brilliant guy be so confused?

So why a serialized review of the book? Two reasons: (1) I’m more likely to finish the book this way; (2) it’s easier to write this way—and with school back in session, time’s tight. So, what follows is mostly pre-review notes standing in for the review.

Fly-over

The book consists of Foreword, Acknowledgments, Introduction and six chapters:

  1. Left Behind, 1
  2. The Slipperiness of Secularization, 21
  3. Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox, 41
  4. Living Life to the Max, 61
  5. Rulers of the Queen’s Navee [sic], 79
  6. Concluding Unpolitical Postscript, 101

The book is short.

Foreword

Confession: sometimes I skip forewords. Advice: don’t skip this one. In the foreword, Peter Lillback (President, Westminster Theological Seminary) explains how awkward and precarious it was for him, as a “conservative’s conservative” to write the foreword for a book by a “liberal.” (Trueman, a political liberal? Really? We’ll see.) He also explains why he is still so glad to have done so.

It’s interesting, insightful and pretty funny. Favorite line: “I’ve even toyed with renaming [Carl Trueman] ‘Karl Marxman.’” It’s clear that Lillback and Trueman are good friends. Trueman also dedicated the book to Lillback.

Possible most-important-observation in the foreword: “[T]his book is wrongly titled… . its title should be The Critique of Political Folly by a Pilgrim in a Strange Land.”

Is Lillback correct? Looking forward to finding out.

Acknowledgments

Don’t know any of these people, but it’s always nice to know that an author is a grateful guy. A little humor in reference to Lillback: “This book is dedicated to him, with the hope that it does not ruin his reputation!”

Introduction

Love it when an author states his thesis succinctly right up front. Sentence two: “[T]he thesis of this book—that conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas—is both more important and more interesting than the author.”

Thesis is resated on xxvi, however (for the Roman-numeral-challenged—second to last page of the Intro):

Indeed, the overall thesis of this book is not so much a politial one; rather, it can be summed up as “Politics in democracy is a whole lot more complicated than either political parties or your pastor tell you it is; treat it as such—learn about the issues and think for yourself.”

I’m sure he doesn’t mean every pastor. As a pastor who is interested in political philosophy—not just “politics”—I’m not sure I’ve understated the complexity of American politics. But I’ll grant that oversimplification and broad-brushing are all too common.

Most of the introduction is a autobiographical. Trueman explains the origins of his political awareness across the pond as a Thatcher supporter, then his gradual disillusionment with conservatism. The latter resulted mainly from two disappointments and one “realization.” Disappointment 1: “the corruption of the John Major government.” Disappointment 2: Rupert Murdoch’s apparent “blackball[ing]” of Patten’s memoirs about Hong Kong. Trueman acknowledges that these may seem obscure, but they were pivotal for him at the time. Apparently, Trueman had been viewing both John Major and Rupert Murdoch as some kind of personifications of the conservative essence, and Murdoch apparently put money first, silencing an effort to draw attention to the evils of Chinese government in post-UK Hong Kong. (Does it make sense to be disappointed with conservatism due to bad behavior by two conservatives? More on that later.)

Along side these two major disappointements, Trueman identifies a “realization” strongly influential in his movement away from conservatism. This caused the first real eyebrows-up moment for me—also the first real “gotta write in the margin” moment.

I had also come to a general realization that Thatcher had pulled off something of a political balancing act that was now clearly no longer viable: she had married free-market economics to traditional values, and built an electable party on the basis of an alliance of supporters of these two positions; but as I will argue in a later essay in this book, such an alliance was always doomed to be inherently unstable and in the long run unviable. (xxii)

For me, an effective tease! It’s my conviction that these “two positions” are not only fully compatible, but are ultimately inseparable in a truly conservative political philosophy. But maybe incompatibility is not his point. Looking forward to that essay.

Upon his arrival in the US in 2001, Trueman’s displeasure with conservatism—and politics in general—intensified. He relates an experience in which he described something good Clinton had done for Ulster. The reaction lead him to believe that American conservatives see the Clintons as being right up there with “Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.”

Interesting recurring word: American politics is “Manichaean”? Trueman seems to use the word to mean “about an elemental struggle between good and evil” in which the good guys are completely good, the bad guys are completely bad, and the difference between them is black and white. So he apparently means Manichaean as in dualistic.

Quotes, responses, wrap-up

xxv: “[T]he identification of Christianity with political agendas, whether of the right or the left, is problematic for a variety of reasons.” Seems to be a restatement of the thesis. How will he support it? Much depends on what “identification” and “poltical agendas” means.

xxv: Dramatic understatement: “But hard-and-fast identification of gospel faithfulness with Left, or even with the center, can be just as problematic.” (Can be?)

xxv: “The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Note scratched in margin: Who believes it should be? I don’t know anybody who wants to associate the faith mere posturing.

xxv: Among the reasons why he cannot be a good conservative:

I also look to writers and thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum. William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P.J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs… these writers span the left-right divide, and yet I have enjoyed and profited from them all.

Conservatives can’t enjoy and profit from writers on the left side of the divide? Apparently, Trueman has never read Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley Jr. or Thomas Sowell. (Note to self: might a gift subscription to The Weekly Standard help?)

Perhaps I’m inferring more that Trumen means to imply, but willingness or ability to learn from and enjoy the full spectrum of thinkers is completely irrelevant to what makes a genuine conservative.

Which brings me back to “personifications of the conservative essence.” It’s too early in this journey through Republocrat to tell for sure, but I suspect that Trueman has confused several things with conservativism. Among them: people claiming to be conservatives, attributes of some conservatives that are not essential attributes of conservatism, poorly executed pursuit of conservative goals. None of these things are conservatism.

The introduction represents the conduct of Ruppert Murdoch regarding Hong Kong—and to a lesser degree, John Major’s ethical issues—as a kind of betrayal. But if these acts were betrayals, what were they betrayals of? If we say “conservatism,” doesn’t that argue that “conservatism” exists in contrast to their behavior, not as something exposed by it?

Trueman may well be more conservative than he realizes.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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JT has a particular view not only of "what Christians ought to do" about the mess we're in, but also a particular view of "the mess we're in." So the disagreement arises partly from each of these I think.

If your view of "The Mess We're In" (MWI) is that the republic is about to collapse and Christians are about to be rounded up and put in concentration camps, how he sees the "what we ought to do" part looks a bit more understandable.

My own view of the MWI is that it's in some ways not that serious and in other ways far more serious. On the first point, I don't believe the republic is about to collapse and that we're about to lose all our religious freedoms. The MWI is actually worse than that... less urgent, but worse. It's worse because there is a profound and deep problem in how Americans now think about social problems, equality, government, and religious liberty. There's a problem with how we process ethical and moral questions in general including the social variety.

What that means is that the "what we should do" part is also not all that urgent but even more serious. You can pass laws and amendments to temporarily slow the loss of freedoms and the increase in bad social policy, but without a deeper change in thinking, it's a bandaid on cancer.

So my view is that the nation does not need the ER; it needs a long-term chemo, radiation, diet and exercise regimen (for lack of a better metaphor).

(I hasten to add though, that not all the indicators are bad in the MWI... national attitudes toward abortion have slowly improved over the last couple of decades)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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