Book Review: Republocrat by Carl Trueman, pt 1
Carl Trueman, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010). 128 pgs. Paper. $9.99.
Michael Horton’s front cover blurb on Carl Trueman’s Republocrat is as helpful as it is succinct: “Will delight, frustrate, and encourage healthy discussions that we have needed to have for a long time.” In the first of two reviews of Republocrat and Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty, the delightful aspects of Trueman’s book will be highlighted against the backdrop of the American Founding.
Trueman writes Republocrat out of his belief that “the evangelical church in America is in danger of alienating a significant section of its people…through too tight a connection between conservative party politics and Christian fidelity” (XX). This keen observation by the British author is unfortunately accurate in many respects. As a chaplain in the US Army Reserves, I have seen the constant pressure to conflate our mission as Christians and citizens—a conflation that is well-recorded throughout our nation’s history.
Kidd notes that a uniting sentiment behind our Founding Fathers’ quest for freedom—whether the Founder be deist, Universalist, or Calvinist—was the value of religion in creating a free and virtuous society. While many evangelical Christians would agree with that premise, the logical outworking of that premise was a pragmatic view of Christianity that saw it as a mere means to an end. General Washington loved his evangelical chaplains because their stirring sermons in favor of the war motivated his troops like no secular speech could. They were useful to the state.
Many evangelical pastors of the Founding era—particularly those affected by the First Great Awakening—believed America to be the new Israel (rather than the church), and spoke of the Revolution in apocalyptic terms. The British were agents of the Roman Catholic antichrist and an American victory would bring about the new millennium. With the mission of church and state so closely wedded, Kidd speaks of the First Great Awakening and the Revolution as two parts of the same revolution.
It is this pervasive, pragmatic view of religion in America that Trueman recognizes and refutes. He rightly sees this trend in The Patriot’s Bible—which sets Jesus alongside the Founding Fathers, and in the Left Behind series—which paints Americans and Jews as good guys and Europeans and Arabs as bad guys. The message is clear in these cultural mediums and others, claims Trueman, “America is God’s agent in saving the world” (34).
But “the politics of nations and the destiny of God’s people, the church, must never be identified,” Trueman contends. “The Bible gives us no basis for doing that” (35). “God’s providential dealings with his people (the church, not any particular nation) are too mysterious to be reducible to simplistic nationalism; and the gospel requires only repentance for sin and faith in Christ” (36). Ultimately, Trueman’s argument is that of many Calvinists throughout modern history—maintain the spirituality of the church.
In my mind, Trueman seems to miss a larger issue in America’s religious history than the entanglement of church and state. In reading Kidd’s history of America’s founding, a trend seems to rise to the fore: as the disestablished churches became the more prominent churches in American society, objective religious knowledge and authority began to fall to the wayside. Many of the itinerant preachers roaming the countryside, leading revival services, did so without prior theological training, relied on subjective experiences to verify faith, and actively worked to undermine traditional churches and their structures of authority.
Trueman is right to encourage the disentanglement of churchly and civil identities and missions, but he missed the greater story of America’s history: the disentanglement of faith and values from objective fact. It is that story that better informs the denigration of American politics, not mass media nor specific political ideologies. So as it pertains to the spirituality of the church, Trueman’s book is indeed delightful and worthy of purchase, but as it pertains to politics, as will be indicated in the next review, the book falls far short of adequately addressing Christian civil engagement in America.
Stephen Roberts, MDiv