This week, the Reformed Evangelical blogosphere was rocked* by the stunning revelation that their hipster-beard-wearing, homiletical heartthrob Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a pinko Commie.**
(* or at least mildly intrigued)
Jonathan Merritt’s post, Spurgeon: How the politically liberal preacher became a conservative paragon, was very clear in its intent. Merritt, a man of the left himself, wanted to highlight the embarrassing inconsistency of today’s conservative Christians appropriating Spurgeon’s theology as their own, but ignoring his politics. On the authority of two historians, Tom Nettles and Bill Leonard, Merritt presents Spurgeon as a “left winger” who was “anti-war, anti-imperial [and a] poverty advocate” and “loved the American idea of separation of church and state.”
Today, conservative Christians in America often find themselves among those who have a weaker view of the separation of church and state, favor individual responsibility over poverty alleviation by the government, and often support war. It’s not difficult to imagine that Spurgeon would have opposed the political positions of many conservative Christians today–for example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2003 resolution endorsing the Iraq War.
Merritt, satisfied that his point had been neatly made, turned to Twitter to tweak those inconsistent conservatives. “Don’t expect many RTs from my Reformed friends,” he tweeted.
Au contraire! This is precisely the type of article that lights my fire. When you agree with someone 95% of the time, it makes that final five percent fertile ground for exploration and discovery. For me, Spurgeon demonstrates a passion for Christ and very similar theological commitments. Thus, if he held political positions dissimilar to my own, I may be able to discover a blind spot in my own thinking. What could be more stimulating than that?
Unfortunately, Merritt doesn’t actually demonstrate that Spurgeon’s politics would be unwelcome within today’s Evangelical Right. Spurgeon opposed wars of imperial conquest, but believed that some righteous conflicts, like the American Civil War, justified bloodshed. He supported some poverty alleviation programs, but was a partisan supporter of Gladstone’s laissez-faire liberalism. He opposed the establishment of an official state church, but supported teaching the Bible in public schools. On each of these fronts, Spurgeon’s politics actually fit quite comfortably among the variety of political tenets ascribed to by today’s American Evangelicals.
On foreign policy, there is wide support for the “tea party” non-interventionism of Rand Paul. And even today’s interventionists justify conflicts like the invasion of Iraq as wars of liberation. (Don’t take my word for it, just click on that SBC resolution linked to by Merritt. The liberation of Iraqis features more prominently than even WMDs.)
On poverty programs, his support for the party less likely to raise taxes and expand welfare programs also sounds like par for the course. And his passion to see the plight of the poor improved is very reminiscent of the compassionate conservatism of Marvin Olasky.
And teaching the Bible in public school? What is he, some kind of crazy fundamentalist theocrat?
When pressed by these kind of inconsistencies on twitter, Merritt protested “We must judge based on one’s positions in context to place & time. [Spurgeon] was a political progressive in his day.” In other words, Merritt believes Spurgeon’s theology did not lead him to embrace specific political positions, but to take up the progressive cause whatever specific positions that entailed. Implicitly, Spurgeon would be pushing for a redefinition of marriage if he were around today.
On the contrary, I find it much more plausible that Spurgeon’s positions would remain constant whether that landed him on the political right or the left. Not for nothing did Prime Minister Gladstone refer to Spurgeon as the “Last of the Puritans.” Spurgeon was a man quite comfortable with being out of step with the times and on the proverbial “wrong side of history.”
In Merritt’s defense, it appears that he relied greatly upon Tom Nettle’s characterization of Spurgeon as a left winger. Nettles has a much anticipated biography of Spurgeon coming out next month. Perhaps this volume will contain evidence substantiating his claims and I can’t wait to read it to find out. Until then, I will continue to consider the political Spurgeon as something of a proto-Tea Partier.