Tim Keller's NY Times Op-Ed and the Predictability of American Evangelicalism
A couple of weeks ago, the Rev. Tim Keller, author and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “How Do Christians Fit into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.” Although the piece is an excerpt from his recently published book, The Prodigal Prophet, the piece’s appearance against the backdrop of the Kavanaugh hearings all but insured that it would be read as an indictment of the fierce partisanship that places many evangelicals firmly on one side of the contemporary political landscape.
Predictably, conservative evangelicals did what they do; they undermined his thoughtful theological reflection by finding reasons to avoid reading it in the first place. One particular example struck an all-too-familiar chord.
On The Mod blog at White Horse Inn, Carl Trueman wrote about the recurring charge that Tim Keller is a Marxist. That this claim was leveled at Keller after his Op-Ed did not entirely shock me (I’ll explain why in a minute). That this is a recurring charge—according to Trueman—did shock me. I don’t really keep up with Tim Keller, but his work has never struck me as Marxist. Indeed, he seems obviously conservative enough to have caused a great commotion at Princeton Theological Seminary last year on account of his conservative theological position against same-sex marriage and gay ordination.
Trueman quickly dismisses the criticism by showing how ignorant the claim is both to what the term Marxist means and to Keller’s own body of work. He then draws out an important point; the main similarity between Marxism and Christianity as it is construed by Keller is that both seek to transform culture; however, what they think culture ought to be transformed into, how, and for what purpose, are greatly at odds with each other.
Trueman teaches at a Christian college and so, while I don’t know for certain the context in which the question was posed to him, I can imagine the question coming from a student. When I teach college students, I am regularly asked about interpretations of scripture that appear to transform Jesus into a Marxist or that turn Christianity into a marxist appeal for social justice. Generally, these questions always disappoint me for two reasons. First, because this indicates that these 19-21 year old students are steeped in a Christianity and that knows more about what it doesn’t believe than what it does—and it doesn’t believe in Marxism. Second, because this tells me that I’ve already lost the student. There is something about their faith that is fortified behind preconceived understandings about scripture and what it means. Anything that challenges those assumptions is wrong and dangerous, and they shut down as a defense mechanism.
I’ve previously explored American Christianity’s aversion to Marxism. Particularly how it came to prominence in American evangelicalism and American catholicism such that anything that emphasizes social justice and criticizes the negative effects of capitalism is approximated to the social gospel and the Marxist false eschatologies of cultural transformation.
But the term Marxism has become a bogey man for American Evangelicals. With one word, evangelicals can label and dismiss thoughtful Christian reflection. Bernie Sanders is a Marxist because he wants to promote social well-being (he might actually be); Pope Francis is a marxist because he promotes social justice; Tim Keller is a Marxist because … ; anyone who interprets Jesus’ harsh words about money as a criticism of the grosser effects of capitalism unfettered is a marxist because they have politicized Jesus’s words and taken them out of their spiritual context.
I’m not a Marxist. Every political philosopher and student of economics will tell you that some of his criticisms of capitalism are true and that those criticisms are studied even today. Every sociologist will tell you that his conflict theory remains a significant theory to study even if one, at the end of the day does not ascribe to it, because it is a powerful explanation of social organisms and human behavior. So to know Marx and to cite Marx is not the worst thing in the world. The irony here is that the people that American Evangelicals dismiss as Marxist often aren’t even appealing to Marx at all. Neither do they appeal to many of the philosophers and scholars throughout the centuries who have belonged to the school of Marxism.
What they really mean is that Keller’s brand of Christianity does not buy into the public/private distinction that is made in post-enlightenment society. Politics are public and religion is private. Jesus is only lord of my personal life, but in the here and now our lives are governed by a different type of politics and a different set of principles. In particular, Americans are people who prize individual liberty and free markets. Anyone who suggests that either of those ought to be constrained for the good of others is promoting a type of socialism that might erode those important ideals.
Here’s the funny thing about all of this: Tim Keller reads the same prophetic texts from Israel’s history that Jesus read, that the social gospel pastors read, that Bernie Sanders tried to appeal to when he spoke to evangelicals, and that—just maybe—Karl Marx read at some point in his life (although Marx was raised as a nominal Protestant, his maternal grandfather was a Rabbi). It seems bizarre to me that whenever someone reads these texts and takes them seriously that that should be accused of anachronistically reading Marxism into Christianity. The far more likely scenario is that wherever Marxism shares an affinity with Christianity it is because it has borrowed something truthful from the scriptures themselves. And if that is true, then there is an open question about what Christianity might learn about itself from these outsiders.
Nevertheless, Tim Keller is not a Marxist; he’s a Christian. If you read the op-ed, you will understand that that is the point he is making all along. Christians cannot be Marxist or Capitalists first; they must be Christians first. There will be Christians that move a little bit in either direction, but to move completely to one side of that binary is to forsake Christ altogether for an ideology that is actually an idolatry.