Monday, March 14, 2011

Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl R. Trueman

Back in the dim and distant days of the 1980's, when Mrs. Thatcher held sway over Britain, I was something of a lefty. I used to attend meetings of the local branch of the Labour Party. Together with my comrades I tut-tutted  at the "police brutality" inflicted on heroic striking miners. I felt bitterly disappointed when Neil Kinnock failed to beat Margaret Thatcher and then John Major at successive general elections. At around the same time Carl Trueman was a young Tory, which would explain his liking for Dire Straits and other awful yuppie bands.  Musically it was Billy Bragg and The Jam/Style Council for me, not Dire Straits and Duran Duran. Becoming a Christian in the mid-80's didn't alter my basic political stance, although, over time my views became more centrist, or at lest centre leftist.

Living in south Wales and witnessing as I did the drastic decline of the UK's industrial base under Thatcher and the mass unemployment caused by the closure of factories and coal mines, I was never going to fall for her "there's no such thing as society" laissez-faire capitalism. But I also realised that old-style socialist economics, with the State propping up inefficient nationalised industries like British Leyland was hardly the way forward. Despite its harshness, Thatcherism had become the new economic orthodoxy. There was no going back to the cosy, post-1945 world of the Keynsian interventionist State.

Painfully at first the Labour Party began to adjust its policies fit in with the new political climate.  Under Tony Blair, "New Labour" was launched. In a highly symbolic measure Blair had the party ditch its outdated "Clause 4", which, in theory committed a Labour government to achieving "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". New Labour embraced the power of the markets, but also saw a positive role for government as a facilitating "helping hand" for the people. This was the celebrated/much derided "Third Way" between dog-eat-dog capitalism and the common ownership of all dogs entailed by socialism. Blair made no secret of his Christian inclinations and some of New Labour's rhetoric sounded attractive to conservative evangelicals (at least this one), "rights and responsibilities", "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", "education, education, education" etc. I well remember staying up late on the May 1997 election night, watching with wide-eyed wonder as Tory grandees like Michel Portillo lost their seats, helpless before the seemingly irresistible force of the New Labour electoral landslide. Ah, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive". After the greyness and sleaze of the Major years there was hope that, in the words of Labour's election anthem, "Things can only get better." (Cue empty laughter).

For me, being "of the Left" involved wanting a fairer society, where the Government used its power to alleviate poverty and open up opportunities for the less well off to improve their lot. This was linked to a strong sense that people must take responsibility for their lives rather than live off State handouts. Thus social justice and personal responsibility go hand in hand. However, under New Labour the gap between rich and poor grew ever wider. The Government's "light touch" approach to City regulation helped to foment the casino capitalism that led to the Credit Crunch. Just read Who Runs Britain? by Robert Peston. During the Labour years family breakdown became endemic, thrusting even more people into poverty. Holding to the politically correct view that "families come in all shapes and sizes - and that's a good thing", Labour failed to recognise that stable marriages provide the glue that holds families and society together. The Government's answer to the social disorder caused by family breakdown was to slap ASBOS on tearaway teenagers and the widespread installation of CCVT cameras to keep an eye on unruly citizens. For an analysis of Labour's "Broken Britain" have a look at Red Tory by Philip Blond.

Many Christians who welcomed the dawn of Blair's New Labour project were thoroughly disillusioned by the end of the Blair/Brown years. However, it would be churlish not to recognise some of the Government's positive achievements; peace in  Northern Ireland, Tax Credits that make work pay (how many pastors would have to leave the Ministry if Tax Credits were suddenly withdrawn?), investment in public services etc. But by the end of the New Labour years Britain was a more difficult place to be a Christian. Christian adoption agencies were forced to close for refusing to place children with homosexual couples. The Government attempted to remove the right of churches not to employ gay youth workers. Why on earth did a left of centre Government seem more interested in championing "gay rights" rather than helping the poor?

Trueman provides the answer. Yes, this is ostensibly a book review rather than an account of my own political journey (if that doesn't sound too Blairite), so I'd better say something about Republocrat at this point. With the failure of Marxist economics signalled by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the consumer society, left-leaning intellectuals began to realise that what the poor wanted was not political liberation, but more stuff. Designer goods, cable TV, foreign holidays etc. In a fusion of Marx and Freud, Herbert Marcuse proposed that oppression be defined not simply as the poor being exploited by the rich, but also in psychological terms. The recognition of heterosexual marriage as "the norm" excluded gays, who then cried, "Help! We're being oppressed." Hence the Left's championing of "gay rights". This leads to perverse consequences. As noted, Christian adoption agencies, dedicated to helping some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children in society had to close because their policy of only allocating children to heterosexual couples was deemed discriminatory and therefore oppressive to gays. Sadly, the Lib-Con Coalition is as committed to the cause of "gay rights" as the previous administration, with the result that Christians will not be able to decide their political allegiances on this issue alone.

As something of a lefty I've always been a bit baffled by the alliance between right wing Republicanism and conservative evangelicalism in the USA. One of Trueman's aims in this book is to pick apart the assumption that conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics are inevitable bedfellows. It is always dangerous for believers to equate their chosen political cause with the kingdom of God. Trueman rightly rejects talk of America's "manifest destiny" in world history. He denounces the so-called Patriot's Bible as a blasphemous identification of America with God's redemptive-historical purposes. Trueman warns against the slipperiness of secularisation. It may seem that America is a "more Christian" country compared with many European nations, but sometimes a veneer of religiosity is simply a cover for deeply unchristian values. What is Joel Olsteen's "gospel" of health, wealth and prosperity but a reflection of the materialistic goals and aspirations of Middle America? The Right isn't always right and (contra Max Weber) there is no necessary correlation between Calvinism and market capitalism. Capitalism may be better than Communism, but that doesn't mean that Regan and Thatcher miraculously happened upon the economics of the eschaton. Two words, "Credit" and Crunch" serve to disabuse us of any such notion.

In a chapter entertainingly entitled,  "Not-So-Fantastic Mr.Fox", Trueman deals with the political bias of US news outlets, especially Fox News, which at least some conservative Christians regard as the neutral news that tells it straight. Er, no. Fox News, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire has its own right-wing populist agenda. Perhaps American Christians will be surprised to learn that Murdoch's interests include that ardent promoter of Christian values in the UK,  The Sun newspaper, with its infamous Page Three Girls. No news media is free from bias, not even good old Auntie Beeb. As BBC political pundit Andrew Marr admitted,
The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It's a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities and gay people. It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.
Christians should exercise discernment in their use of news media, and not blindly follow the line of their chosen newspaper, or broadcaster. Gospel Truth is found only in the Bible, not in the Daily Mail, or the Guardian for that matter.

In Republocrat, Trueman has given us a fascinating "outsider's view"on American politics. I suspect that with his questioning of the inevitability of the link between conservative theology  and conservative  politics, his book will cause something of a stir on the other side of the Pond. It also has something to say to our situation here in the UK. After all, we are not immune from the temptation to identify our favoured political party with the cause of Christ. Witness Spurgeon campaigning for Gladstone's Liberal Party. While many Christians might be mightily fed up with the Left in the wake of the New Labour years, we mustn't go thinking that  David Cameron's "Big Society" is a manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth.

After having read this review you might be wondering what exactly Trueman's "liberal conservatism" means in terms of UK party politics. You'll have to get the book to find out. You may well be surprised/shocked/laugh out loud.

Republocrat: Confessions of a Conservative Liberal, Carl R. Trueman, P&R, 2010, 110pp.


Clare said...

commie. your pulpit invitation is rescinded.

Exiled Preacher said...

Isn't that a red rose in your profile photo, comrade Clare?

Ben said...

Interesting. I've recently been reading parts of Trueman's Histories and Fallacies, which is very stimulating and salutary too.

Mrs Thatcher deserves to be quoted in context: in her famous 'No such thing as society' statement she was rejecting the avoidance of individual responsibility by casting the blame for our ills on an amorphous and ill-defined mass, as in 'society is to blame'. This is very far from a failure to recognise the wider connections that individuals and families have.

On Northern Ireland, it's a pity that John Major isn't accorded the credit he deserves for the role he played in initiating peace before 'hand of history' Tony Blair appeared on the scene. Major was fairly dire but at least he did little harm, the National Lottery apart, and I a thousand times wished his tired old government back in office instead of the truly dreadful and destructive New Labour.

Laissez faire, by the way, only one z.

Clare said...

Oh boy. I've accidentally commented using my wife's login again. She keeps using my PC...

Jonathan Hunt said...

Try again. The first comment is from me, not my wife, she would never be so rude!

Exiled Preacher said...

I thought it was you really, Tory boy.