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On the Place of Profits and Politics

Review of: Carl R. Trueman, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), ISBN: 978-1-59638-183-4.

Carl R. Trueman is academic dean of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and an academic historian of the first-order. In this brief book, however, Trueman brings his considerable analytical powers to bear on the contemporary situation of the evangelical church in North America. Specifically, Trueman’s accessible work is an outgrowth of his “belief that the evangelical church in America is in danger of alienating a significant section of its people, particularly younger people, through too tight a connection between conservative party politics and Christian fidelity.” Depending on one’s own context, of course, this claim may have more or less merit and existential pull. That is, a mainline Protestant churchgoer is far less likely than an evangelical to be concerned with the identification of conservative politics and the Christian faith.

Trueman is sensitive to this, though, and defends his choice of focus on conservative politics, since “the USA is my adopted context and the Religious Right is where I see the most immediate problem. But hard-and-fast identification of gospel faithfulness with the Left, or even with the center, can be just as problematic. The gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing.” Underscoring this commitment to unraveling any easy identification of particular political views with the Christian faith, Trueman proceeds, in six brisk chapters, to excoriate the New Left, secularism and American civil religion, Fox News and political reportage in general, free-market capitalism and Christianity, contemporary democracy in America, and the simplification of politics. Trueman is at his best when smashing these various idols, the many different ways that Christians all too easily accommodate the dominant worldly culture. His analysis of the transition from concerns of the Old Left (primarily economic and objective) to the New Left (primarily psychological and subjective) is particularly penetrating.

Readers of Religion & Liberty will be most interested, however, in Trueman’s critical engagement of capitalism (chapter 4) and politics (running throughout, although particularly in chapters 5 and 6). With regard to economics, Trueman reiterates his basic theme: the Christian faith cannot be simply and unequivocally identified with any particular economic system. He focuses especially on capitalism because, as in the case of conservative politics, that is the system most likely to be idolized in his proximate context. Some readers will be put off by his rather stark portrayal of capitalism as a system that “has no morality other than what is generated by the need to turn a profit.” Indeed, this rather broad-brush characterization of “the morality of the market” (or the lack thereof), rings a little out-of-tune for a project that is trying to do justice to the complexity of contemporary life, in all its economic, political, and social variety. Trueman’s attempt to raise the level of discourse and to show how life is not simply “black-and-white” sometimes risks being undermined by his “either/or” juxtaposition (in this case of “untrammeled” capitalism and Christianity). To use Trueman’s phrase, the relationship between morality and markets is one that, in Christian perspective, must do justice to “the complexity of reality.”

A better way to read Trueman, however, is to see that his project is not about demonizing capitalism, wealth, or profits on the one hand, or political power on the other. It is about putting the pursuit of profit and power in its proper place. Thus what he writes about the market applies equally well to the government: “no economic system, least of all perhaps capitalism, can long survive without some kind of larger moral underpinning that stands prior to and independent of the kinds of values the market itself generates.” It is in this larger and prior system of belief and action, the Christian faith, that we are to seek our primary identity and unity, and in pursuit of this, Trueman’s book is a bracing and worthwhile effort.

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, and author of Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Christian’s Library Press, 2010).