CD: In the foreword to Republocrat, Peter Lillback describes you and this book, somewhat jokingly, as “oxymoronic.” Do you think that’s a fair categorization and can you outline some of your views that would be considered oxymoronic by folks on both the right and the left?
CT: The culture of theologically conservative American Protestantism tends to assume that conservative politics are part of the package. Thus, it really lacks a category for somebody who may have strongly conservative, traditional views on theological and ecclesiastical issues, and yet be liberal on political and economic issues.
I am staunchly anti-abortion, opposed to gay marriage (which I would distinguish from the concept of civil unions – a more difficult category about which to be black and white), have no difficulty with women serving in the military or holding high political office, oppose women’s ordination, favour some system of government health care and social security, would like to see tighter gun control laws, and am unconvinced that less government/lower taxes is the universal panacea that it is sometimes made out to be.
CD: What does a product like The Patriot’s Bible tell us about Christians in America? Why do you argue that the claims made by the publisher of The Patriot’s Bible are puerile and blasphemous?
CT: It epitomizes the close connection made in certain American Christian minds between the kingdom of God and the American political and social project as they understand it. It generally makes the gospel something which primarily reinforces patriotism and conservative social and moral causes. Neither patriotism nor such causes are necessarily bad; in fact, they can be very good as civic virtues; but they should not be confused with the coming of Christ’s kingdom.
As to the Patriot Bible’s puerility: when we are children, we believe ourselves to be the centre of the universe; indeed, one could describe the process of growing into adulthood as the slow and steady realization that this belief is a myth, a fairy-story. The Patriot’s Bible is such childishness writ large, identifying America and its institutions with God’s people and kingdom. Of course, other nations have done the same: Britain did it at the height of her imperial power in the nineteenth century; and the process whereby she has been disabused of that has been a painful and traumatic one; the same applies, even more painfully, to Germany.
As to being blasphemous, you need only to look at one example: the positive comparison of the Last Supper with the Continental Congress, something which the promotional video for the Patriot’s Bible does on its website. Need I say more?
CD: You argue that secularization has taken a different form in America as opposed to the form it took in Europe. Can you elaborate?
CT: In Europe, secularization has manifested itself in the sloughing off of religious language, idiom and practice. Thus, church attendance is at record lows, religion is either excluded entirely from public media or ridiculed by such or allowed to appear only in very anodyne forms.
In America, religion remains a potent force: church attendance is much higher than in Europe and, despite all the claims to the contrary, treated more positively and extensively by the media and politicians. Yet the question remains: how Christian is this Christianity? For example, the prosperity preachers are simply preaching secular values of health, wealth, and happiness through positive thinking but using generic Christian language to do so. The substance is secular. Then, all of the hoo-hah over things like the Ten Commandments in public places is interesting; but few Christians I know who are animated about such things actually hold to all ten: the prohibition of images and the Sabbath command have pretty much gone by the wayside. So, in addition to the vexed question about religion in public life, is it really the substance of the Ten Commandments which such people are campaigning for, or rather some symbol of cultural power? If the latter, then that is arguably just another form of secularism.
Ironically, this might actually make evangelism in Europe in one sense easier than in America. In Europe, the old Christian vocabulary of sin, grace, and redemption, was never quite secularized in the way it has been over here. Yes, these words are now strange to European ears and need to be explained; but at least they have not been so debased through common usage. The challenge to American Christians is: what vocabulary are you going to use to preach the gospel, seeing that the one provided has been so disemboweled of its original content?
CD: You seem to hold conservative talk radio in contempt. What is the root problem with it, and in your opinion, should Christians listen to it?
CT: The root problem with talk radio is a genre confusion. It is really entertainment; the danger comes when people produce it or, even worse, listen to it as serious political discourse. It depends upon witty one-liners, sharp put-downs, highly charged rhetoric, and black-and-white presentation of what are often complex and subtle problems. It does not generally offer good examples of what political discussion and thinking should be.
I have no objection to Christians listening to it; it is when they start believing it and following its example that it becomes problematic. Listen and enjoy; just do not take it too seriously.
CD: Why do you think that FOX News [are there other news stations we can lump in here?] has had a negative impact upon Christian political thought?
CT: FOX is simply the television equivalent of talk radio but with the added aesthetics that come with the medium. As with talk radio, it trades in clichés, a Manichean view of the world, home-crowd pleasing soundbytes, and conspiracy theories. Of course, this is no monopoly of the Right. Liberal channels can and do indulge in exactly the same. I am increasingly convinced that television and radio programs where serious discussion takes place are few and far between. The aesthetics of the medium are simply not that conducive to such.
[Watch Gabe Lyons’ interview with New York Times journalist Michael Luo on “Reporting Faith and Politics.”]
CD: What are some specific things Christians can do to become more informed citizens?
CT: Occasionally turn off the radio or television and read more thoughtful magazines and books instead: radio and television are very limited media for really gaining an understanding of what is going on in the world.
Read, listen and watch more widely: OK, we all enjoy having our prejudices confirmed by listening to the guy with whose views we know we agree before we even switch on the radio; but make sure you expose yourself to a wide range of opinion formers and commentators.
Understand that political thinking is more than just partisan politics. Yes, you can only vote for one party; but make sure you know that a vote is always a trade-off. You do not have to buy in to everything for which a particular party stands.
Think critically. There is no substitute for this. And it is a whole lot easier once you start to do the first three things recommended above.
And, finally, do not be intimidated by the hawks of the Christian Right or Left who tell you that Christians must hold to particular economic positions. Think for yourself.
What do you make of Trueman’s charges against talk radio and Fox News? There is some debate about whether or not America is heading down the same spiritual path as Europe. What do you believe and why?