For those Americans who think of themselves as residing within the conservative Christian orbit, things might feel a bit odd these days. On the one hand, they have a president who is rather explicit about protecting their interests and advancing their priorities, even though his personal life does not, to put it gently, match up with their ideals. On the other hand, they feel increasingly besieged, as their moral views—especially about sexuality—have put them at odds with our society’s cultural elites (and sometimes with broader trends in public opinion). They are, it seems, a politically influential and especially controversial moral minority.
Responses to this odd moment have ranged from an almost shameless embrace of political Machiavellianism to calls for a defensive redeployment into friendly institutional redoubts. Bruce Riley Ashford’s Letters to an American Christian takes a bit of a different tack, offering a contemporary defense of what amounts to a pretty standard set of conservative political nostrums in the context of his Christian convictions.
As the title suggests, Ashford, who is provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, offers his arguments in the form of 26 letters written to a college student named Christian. Each letter covers a particular question—Should Christians be involved in politics? What’s the right view of gun control? How should Christians think about transgender issues?—and Ashford’s answers are always well-constructed, amiable, and fairly generous. Few people will agree with everything Ashford argues for, but if more conservative Christian political engagement was marked by the spirit of these letters, all of us (Christian and otherwise, conservative and otherwise) would be much better off.
Politics is a tough business, and sometimes it brings out the worst in us. But it’s worth asking why so many Christians act and speak in ways that seem obviously incompatible with everything they claim to believe. Some of it is just sheer human weakness and fear, but I think the way Ashford organizes his argument suggests something else as well: an inability or unwillingness on the part of evangelicals to think biblically and theologically about Christian political responsibilities, especially in an era when they constitute that “moral minority.”
It is striking, for instance, that Ashford frames his political arguments (for the most part) in terms of Abraham Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist political theology, allowing him to encourage his young protégé to be engaged politically but in a way that helpfully makes distinctions among church, state, economic life, and so on. Those distinctions allow Ashford (and folks like him) to hold together an acceptance of moral and religious pluralism with substantive commitments to what counts as a reasonably just political order. Absent some set of theological categories to help them make sense of the political world they inhabit, Christians may almost inevitably find themselves tempted toward a kind of panic politics, wherein every political moment (election, judicial nomination, regulation, etc.) takes on an apocalyptic hue. Ashford has strong political commitments, but he’s able to communicate them in a way that eschews the worst of American Christianity’s political rhetoric—precisely because he has theological grounds for doing so. The way we argue politically is not just strategic. It also reflects the substance of our political commitments, and the lack of biblical and theological grounding for many Christians’ politics leaves them vulnerable to acting and speaking badly.
So if you’d like a clear, cogent articulation of conservative American politics in its Christian key, Ashford’s book is well worth the price. But it also may reveal a couple of conservative Christianity’s weak spots. The ostensible purpose of Ashford’s letters is to offer encouragement and instruction to a young man of broadly conservative political sympathies who has recently become a Christian and is trying to figure out what difference this newfound faith might make. Since younger Christians are much less likely than their elders to identify as politically conservative, we might take the book as offering, if only implicitly, Ashford’s take on how to appeal to that younger generation.
Like I noted, in many respects, it works. Its tone is genial, it doesn’t caricature too much, and it offers a positive vision for what a Christian politics might look like. But I don’t think it does enough to grapple with the ways in which many of the challenges conservative Christianity faces are, in part, self-inflicted, and I suspect that such inattentiveness will make the job of persuading a younger generation to identify with conservative political views that much more difficult.
Consider the question of race, for example. Ashford is admirably direct in criticizing the alt-right and white ethnonationalism, and he recognizes rightly that many racial and ethnic minorities struggle unfairly in contemporary America. Racism is not done, and American Christians have work they can and must do in that regard. But I think it would be tremendously helpful if Christians—especially politically conservative Christians—would more forthrightly acknowledge that we did all too little for much too long. In other words, that the problem of race in America is partly a problem of our making.
This is especially important for Southern conservative evangelicals whose political emergence in the 1970s was not unrelated to concerns about civil rights and desegregation. If Christian conservatives want to persuade younger men and women of the rightness of their views, they will need to take seriously the lamentable aspects of their own histories.
Less Encouragement, More Judgment
And there’s another, more contemporary elephant in the room. Fairly or not, evangelicals in particular are perceived as President Trump’s most loyal and vocal defenders. So it’s odd that the president never makes a named appearance (so far as I could find) in Ashford’s letters.
Why not? Ashford’s admonitions (and especially tone) often indict Trumpian politics, and I suspect that if Ashford had made those critiques explicit, some significant portion of his intended audience simply would have tuned him out—or worse. But that suggests a deep problem within conservative Christian politics that cannot be fixed absent a serious and frank reckoning with both our past and present.
So as much as we should appreciate Ashford’s genial and encouraging tone, by the end of the book I was wondering whether we might need a bit of the old fire and brimstone. It is one thing for Christians (and anyone else) to make difficult choices among unsavory options; politics is, usually, the art of the imperfect. But it is quite another to traffic in the sort of politics that Ashford rightly finds dismaying—and sometimes even boast about it. Not only is it unwise and imprudent; it is also all too often simply not in keeping with most any sort of Christian ideals.
Ashford hopes to persuade his audience with more honey than vinegar, and perhaps it’s the right strategy. But maybe, just maybe, what we need is a bit less encouragement and a bit more judgment, a bit more Ash Wednesday: Repent and believe the gospel.
Bryan McGraw teaches political science at Wheaton College. His blog is Civitas Peregrina.