Despite all the talk about the conservative evangelical political consensus breaking up, Bible-believing Christians are still lodged in the Republican camp. Occasionally they become suspicious that maybe they are being catechized without realizing it by Fox News and Rupert Murdoch instead of by the Bible. So they look around for something to challenge their political assumptions.
Lisa Sharon Harper, my co-author in our forthcoming book, Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media), argued in an earlier book that an evangelical faith does not entail being either Republican or Democrat. But the position she articulates there would challenge the Democratic Party only by pulling it leftward. There are first principles that govern political life, and thus a logic to the policies that political parties advocate. So it is not surprising that Harper is writing starkly opposite me in Left, Right, and Christ.
Carl Trueman attempts to help the politically self-critical in Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. He claims that when Christians support the entire platform of a party that is not committed to Christ, they are inevitably drawn into taking un-Christian positions and confuse the wisdom of men with the teachings of God. Point well taken. People who are concerned to live consistently for Christ will subject broad political theories as well as specific policy positions to the biblical test.
But anyone who looks to this book in search of, for example, a position on healthcare will find no guidance. That's not Trueman's purpose for the book. It is cautionary and critical, not prescriptive. Trueman, a professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary who brings a British perspective to American politics, wants to challenge Christians not to be led by the political passions of the day: "[T]he politics of nations and the destiny of God's people, the church, must never be identified." This is a welcome reminder.
But all too often he makes judgments based on highly disputable claims, like his identification of the profit motive with greed. He also focuses on the complexities of political questions (which are certainly real) to the neglect of the biblically justifiable principles that enable us to navigate our way through those complexities to a consistent underlying political theory. He also bypasses substantive biblical arguments that support the American political tradition and instead directs the reader's attention to the apparent relativity of shifting historical positions. People in the Middle Ages thought feudalism was Christian. European imperialists thought that dominating the globe was their Christian duty. We think that liberal democracy is the biblically most consistent way. Who's to say? Actually, there is a lot to say.
Of course Trueman is happy with our democratic and capitalist system because it seems to work better than all the others. But he sees no underlying principles that should unite all Christians behind it in an act of faith. "The bottom line," he writes, "seems to be that politics as a whole is an art, not a science, and that individual political philosophies are generally eclectic." So Trueman takes what appears to be a jumble of positions that cut across party lines in this country: He is against abortion and same-sex marriage but in favor of gun control and universal, government health insurance.
But if human beings are by nature made for community with one another, i.e., naturally political, why should a rational understanding of politics, i.e., a political science, be impossible? If God governs the universe and gives us government for our good (Romans 13), there must be government we can identify as definitively good and others as definitively bad. There must be identifiable degrees of good and bad, righteous and unrighteous. If political acts have moral content and political decisions are morally imputable decisions, then Christians should be able to work out a moral, biblically faithful political theory to guide them through the complexities of political issues. Prudence, or what Trueman here calls art, has an important place in politics, but prudence is helpless without principle to apply.
Carl Trueman is one of the finest Reformed theologians of our day, and this book shows that he has also been a thoughtful observer of political life. It is well worth reading. It will challenge you. Christians should follow his call not to accept modern individualism uncritically, to resist with all our might individualism's horrible offspring, consumerism, and to beware of an undue emphasis on economic prosperity. But with appreciation for that brotherly counsel I remain undisturbed in my conscientious though not uncritical embrace of conservative American politics.