Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl Trueman, and City of Man: Religion & Politics in a New Era by Gerson & Wehner
We are in the middle of a publishing deluge of books about how Christians should approach matters cultural and political. This phenomenon is itself probably worthy of a book exploring why it should be the case, but the two books reviewed here (both published in 2010) give an answer anyway: The Religious Right has failed.
These are two thin, quick to read books (I read Republocrat on Christmas Eve, and City of Man yesterday – Happy Christmas!), which approach from different angles the Evangelical approach to American politics over the past few decades. They are very different in tone and style. Carl Trueman is an historian and academic (and a British exile in the USA), and a polemical and humorous writer. I doubt that anything he writes here would much upset a British reader, but in the States it seems to go down as very hot stuff. Gerson & Wehner are political insiders, both having served in senior positions in the Bush Whitehouse.
Trueman throws punches around, taking as easy targets the ‘shock-jocks’ of American political punditry and Fox News. He also expresses incomprehension at the unthinking right-wingness of a section of American evangelicalism:
I was rapidly disabused of my self-image as a moderate. On one of my very first Sundays in the USA, I was engaged in a conversation with a friend over coffee after church, and mentioned in passing what great work I thought the Clintons had done in Ulster. I might as well have said that Jack the Ripper had really helped to make the streets of London safe for women and children. I was given the full forty-minute “truth about Billary” lecture, and left the building in no doubt that the Clintons were, after Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, probably the most dangerous and wicked leaders in the history of world politics.
Trueman is also critical of the Left, and claims to have been stranded in a political no mans land, where he does not feel comfortable with any political grouping. But even if things had not got to this dire pitch, there should always be a sense in which Christians are uncomfortable in the political process,
I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also 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.
As an historian, Trueman is especially strong in the first chapter of Republocrat in which he describes the strange fusing of Marxism with Freudianism in modern left wing politics. This is probably also the most helpful chapter to British readers, as it applies more widely than to just the scene in the USA. The rest of the book is great fun though, and a helpful insight into things politico-religious Stateside.
Gerson & Wehner’s very different approach is nonetheless just as critical of the Religious Right, albeit in less polemical terms – and this might reassure those British readers who have a culturally-programmed assumption that anyone who has had anything to do with George W Bush is a loony tunes warmonger. With Trueman they agree: The vitriolic, bullying and partisan approach of the Religious Right was wrong. Yet they also claim that this hasn’t been a complete failure – there has been some success,
By providing a structured opposition to cultural liberalism, religious conservatives have slowed the movement toward a permissive society and prevented the complete victory of liberal secularism.
There are doubtless some statements in City of God that will make the typical European Social Democrat steam under their right-on cultural collars, but Gerson & Wehner’s overall analysis of how Christians should politcally engage is measured and helpful. Unsurprisingly, they defend the significance of what politics can achieve, taking issue with the arguments of commentator du jour James Davison Hunter. While largely sympathetic to his thesis, Gerson & Wehner claim that Hunter,
imputes too little influence to the state and the political process. They are more important than he thinks… Hunter is right that neither politics nor the state can “provide fully satisfying solutions to the problems of values in our society.” Nothing can provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society. The question is the degree to which perennial human problems can be ameliorated and habits improved.
There is little that is ground-breaking in City of Man, but it is worth a read. In practical terms (again, thinking of a British readership) the concluding chapter on Persuasion and the Public Square is particularly useful. Here Gerson & Wehner describe how Christians can be involved in politics in a way which is winsome, and maintains personal integrity – something that is so often lacking in political discourse.
The other big politics book of 2010 is Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible. While this is sitting on my desk I have yet to get to grips with it; although at over 600 pages it is not such an easy fireside read as the volumes reviewed here. However, as a British reader, perhaps one thing that particularly stands out from these books is that there is no British equivalent. Our political and church world is very different from that of America, so really we could do with something written that reflects our context.
Maybe in 2011…