Book Review: Bruce Ashford, Letters to an American Christian

Ashford, Bruce Riley. Letters to an American Christian. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018. 239 pp.; Pb. $16.99  Link to B&H Academic  

Bruce Ashford modeled his latest book after C. S. Lewis’s Letters to an American Lady, or perhaps Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is a more apt comparison since the recipient of these letters is fictional. In this imaginary, one-way conversation, Ashford present a series of essays on contemporary issues in American culture. This imaginary dialogue partner is a recent convert named Christian who is studying political science and journalism at Dupont University. (It is possible Ashford took the name from Tom Wolfe’s 2004 novel I am Charlotte Simmons, but it may be a coincidence). His goal in his book is to help Christians “construct a political paradigm that recognizes God’s sovereignty over our nation, draws on our Christianity to work for the common good, and respects the dignity and rights of citizens who have differing visions of the common good” (53-4).

The first part of the book develops a Christian view of politics and public life. These first seven chapters argue the Christian faith ought to influence political views and public postures on key issues being discussed in contemporary culture. Although some Christians manage to separate their religious faith from their political views, Ashford argues in this first section that even though humanity is fallen and deeply wounded by sin, God’s redemption through Jesus began at the cross. Culture is corrupted by the fall but but God can redeemed culture and redirect it toward Christ’s intentions (29). He follows Abraham Kuyper closely in these first seven chapters. Politics and religion have distinct centers and circumferences. The church has its own “center” and therefore cannot rule politics, nor should politics rule religion (27). However, the circumference of the spheres may overlap and interact, and sometime overreach in an attempt to control the other’s center (44). In the end, Ashford concludes conservative better serves this agenda than liberalism. But as he examines a series of social and political issues, this conservatism is not

In part two of the book Ashford treats a series of “hot-button issues.” These sixteen chapters touch lightly on a wide range of topics. Some are the typical fare for “hot-button” books since the 1970s (abortion, just war, environmentalism, religious liberty and free speech), but others touch on issues which have pushed their way to the front page of every local newspaper. These include the Black Lives Matter movement, gun legislation, immigration reform, fake news and alternative facts). Several chapters revolve around surging nationalism and responses. Some of the chapter titles are humorous teases, such as “To Shave a Yak” (on environmentalism) or “Beware the Giant Octopus” (on big government).

For some of these controversial issues, Ashford attempts to chart a course between two extremes. For example, on the issue of immigration and DACA, he suggests policy which upholds both the biblical virtues of justice and mercy. Justice requires the government produce and follow a clear immigration policy which protect citizens, but mercy and compassion recognizes immigrants are humans in God’s image who ought to be protected and treated well. He therefor advocates in favor of the Dreamers. Within the fiction of the letters to an American Christian, a professor represents a more liberal view, while an Uncle John is a more conservative voice. Both are caricatures set up to make the middle path more palatable.

Given the format of the book and the intricacies of these issues, some readers will find Ashford’s treatment sketchy. Two examples are his chapters on same-sex marriage, gender dysphoria and the transgender movement. The issue is so complex it is impossible to adequately address them in nine pages. Although there are a few endnotes for each chapter, most of these issues demand a “for further reading” section to point readers to more detailed studies of the issues. No one should read these short chapters as an end to the discussion. Ashford introduces in summary fashion the broad strokes of a debate and points the way toward a biblical understanding of the issue, but there is much more to be said. Many books have been written covering each “hot button” issue.

One topic which is missing from the book is women’s rights. This book was published in 2018 so it is likely Ashford did not address the issue since the book was finished before the #MeToo movement began in October 2017. Given the recent developments with Paige Patterson and the 2018 Southern Baptist convention, a chapter on sexual harassment would have been timely. But other women’s issues have been “hot buttons” for many years. For example, the gender wage-gap is a longstanding issue, ordination of women, or perhaps the overt sexual American culture and its effect on boys and girls would have made important chapters in this book. Remarkably, there is no chapter on pornography in the book.

Finally, the final three chapters attempt to hold out some hope for American politics. The gist of these “Why can’t Republicans be nice people?” Chapter 25 laments the loss of the “art of Christian persuasion.” American political discourse has become insult caricature. The chapter would have been more powerful he had mentioned Donald Trump’s hateful use of Twitter. If we do not respect people with whom we disagree, Ashford says “we’ll lose. Worse yet, we’ll be poor witnesses for Christ. We’ll be seen as calloused jerks who are nothing more than a hypocritical and bigoted special interest arm of a major political party” (216)

Conclusion. Since Ashford is Professor of Theology and the Provost/Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as the Provost/Dean of the Faculty for the seminary, the discussion is conservative, but it is not as conservative as some might have assumed. There are a few digs at the predominantly liberal university. For example, the political science department at DuPont University has forty-three democrats and only one Republican. In general I thought Ashford’s brief overviews of these issues fell into the category of thoughtful, classic Christian conservatism. By this I mean his views are not knee-jerk, emotional, or hateful. He attempts to present his views as peacefully as possible, but he makes no apology for presenting them as the biblical view. This is not spew from the alt-right, but it may not make Bernie Sanders comfortable either.

I do agree with Ashford (citing N. T. Wright) that Jesus himself was “inescapably political” (32) even if he never entered into anything we would recognize as politics from a modern perspective. Jesus’s challenge to the aristocratic leaders of his day, and the Paul’s Gospel to the Roman world was radical and extreme. Jesus challenged the powerful men who held political power and was crucified; Paul was accused of defying the decrees of Caesar and “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Ashford’s book will a challenge for conservative readers to construct a biblical view of politics as well as their role in American culture, but I suspect Jesus would have pushed for a more radical engagement of the spirit of this age.

NB: Thanks to B&H Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.