The Ends Justify the Memes

A Response to Carl Trueman on Pop Nietzscheanism

In his response to my article arguing that political Protestants aren’t Nietzscheans grasping for worldly power, Carl Trueman focuses upon the final paragraph where I counsel Christians that in negative world conditions, “crude memes, subterfuge, and deception” may be necessary. He accuses me of “ignoring” New Testament commands and re-writing default Christian ethics (i.e., normalizing Rahab’s deception for everyone). Clearly concerned, Trueman soberly declares that my words need to be “marked, pondered, and remembered.” Unsurprisingly, many public intellectuals began denouncing my article.1 In short, Trueman accuses me of being a bad Christian, or perhaps of not being a Christian at all.

I have five things to say in response. First, Trueman passes over the substance of my article. A balanced response would have addressed the central question of the appropriate use of political power in negative world conditions and recognized that universal Christian moral norms and exceptions to those norms both have a place. Trueman dismisses my elaboration on Aaron Renn’s negative world with a convenient appeal to the insufficiency of my supposed reliance on “grand theories.” Unjustifiably labeling my argument with a pre-determinedly irrelevant category allows Trueman to seem as if he is academically engaging my position, even while dodging it completely. 

Second, Trueman complains that my article lacked “serious engagement” with Scripture. Yet my piece was not a work of exegesis or biblical theology, but instead engaged Renn’s three worlds illuminated through the thought of Augustine and Luther.2 It is unfair for Trueman to criticize my article for failing to do something it never intended or attempted to do. A robust and serious debate about the Christian use of subterfuge and deception drawing upon exegesis, biblical theology, ethics, and Church history is welcome. Already, Timon Cline has demonstrated that deceit for godly ends was acceptable within the Protestant tradition, and Miles Smith IV has added important commentary on the priority of the Church in instructing the civil magistrate.

Trueman’s own position lacks exegesis. In appealing to the “redemptive historical context” of Rahab and verses from 1 Peter 2 (vv. 1, 11-12, 15) to refute my position, he assumes what he hasn’t proven: that biblical injunctions preclude exceptions. This constitutes a type of hermeneutic and proof-texting juke that presupposes that Trueman need not engage in exegesis or argue for his redemptive historical hermeneutic because it is simply assumed that his position is correct and beyond reproach, whereas any interlocutor is burdened with all the historical-grammatical-exegetical work that Trueman sidesteps.

Third, Trueman has badly misread my argument. Nowhere did I say that crudity, subterfuge, and deception should become ethical norms for all Christians, displacing God’s commands or other New Testament ethical injunctions. Trueman admits that there can be situations in which Christians may be called to act similarly to Rahab. Yet those situations are exactly what I’m talking about. In my final paragraph, I assumed two things and made two things explicit. I assumed the truth of explicit commands from Scripture that Christians must follow (Ten Commandments, New Testament virtue/vice lists, the fruits of the Spirit, other imperative exhortations) and I assumed that despite this moral baseline, both Scripture and Christian history give examples of exceptions when circumstances or greater goods require unorthodox ethical judgments. I presupposed that the people making these exceptions are mature, spiritually-healthy Christians. I also made it explicit that these exceptional choices were necessary. Only in necessary circumstances may Christians resort to subterfuge and deception. Granted, negative world conditions means that those necessary circumstances may be far more frequent, but they are exceptional and necessary nonetheless. Finally, note that I never countenanced crudity simpliciter, vulgarity, or outright lying—let alone violence or vigilantism.3 I understand the Christian tradition regarding lying and the Ninth Commandment, as, for example, elaborated by the Westminster Confession of Faith, as well as debates surrounding that tradition. However, while all lies are deception, not every deception is a lie.

The exceptional need to deploy deception and even violence for good and noble ends is well-known in Western civilization and is often celebrated. Trueman himself is aware of this and has written on it. In a piece on morality and aesthetics in film from six years ago, Trueman writes, regarding the depiction of violence in classic Westerns, that such violence, “always served the larger cause of redemption.” He notes that “the reluctant acknowledgment of the need for violence to defeat inevitable evil, the ‘man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ mentality” drives these great films, which despite their depiction of redemptive violence, “assume a basic moral code.” Thus, the redemptive element in these films not only warrants their violence, but even made their characters beautiful to us and imprinted them, not as Nietzschean, but as beloved icons in the American psyche.

Fourth, we need not merely rely upon American Westerns or artistic film to learn these principles. Many Christians heroes calculated that subterfuge and deception were acceptable in urgent circumstances. After the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther acquiesced to being kidnapped by guards sent by Elector Frederick the Wise (disguised as highwaymen) and brought to the Wartburg Castle to be hidden for ten months to preserve his life. While he was there, Luther embraced a false identity by calling himself Junker Jörg (Knight George) and grew out his hair and beard. Yet this time was not wasted: not only was Luther’s life spared, but during this period he translated the Greek New Testament into the German vernacular. This was a monumental event that not only transformed Western Christianity by making the Bible accessible to the common man but revolutionized the German language. Would Trueman disparage Luther for his participation in political deception that not only preserved his life but served the redemptive purpose of a new German Bible?

What about William Wilberforce’s use of trickery and subterfuge to pass the Slave Trade Act (1807) abolishing the slave trade after eleven previous bills had failed? Or consider the scores of Christian missionaries who have deceptively smuggled Bibles into foreign nations when this was prohibited and severely punished? Would Trueman condemn these uses of deception by those in official political and ecclesiastical positions?

Trueman may not disagree with the above historical examples of Christians using deception—he may simply slot these under his qualification that “Christians may be called on to act similarly” to Rahab. Perhaps, then, Trueman and I agree more than we realize and the differences between our position is one of perspective or profession (the theologian vs. the political philosopher). I hope this is the case. Yet I reject Trueman’s characterization that I alone am the arbiter of “what time it is” and what Christians now must do—or as Trueman puts it, that I have “decided that America in 2024 is analogous to Jericho in redemptive history and worse than first-century Rome.” I am, after all, following Renn’s analysis of a world that has repudiated Christianity and its political, cultural, and moral inheritance and is turning to a pagan, post-Christian future overseen and directed by a tyrannical total state. Need we recount all the ways America is wicked and godless today? I suspect not.

Fifth and finally, Trueman doubles down on the Nietzschean characterization: admitting that “crude memes, subterfuge, and even deception” may be necessary and prudent is, according to Trueman, “a transvaluation of Christian values if ever there was one.” Yet this is to misunderstand Nietzsche’s concept of transvaluation. For Nietzsche, the transvaluation of values was as much an historical description as a moral or metaphysical one. It was the transformation that Christianity affected upon the pre-Socratic ideal of the strong and noble esthlos (Genealogy, First Essay, §5)—those humans who mastered both themselves and lesser men, who reached divine-like heights in their heroic acts, and who embodied Being itself. Such men and their virtues are rare, suitable only for a few, and they had arisen in an aristocratic moral universe in which “the good” (esthloi) and “the bad” (kakoi) were opposite values and human types according to the conventions of the Greek city.

Yet this order was turned on its head by Christianity, which eviscerated the conventional gods and morals of the city, replacing them with a transcendent God and universal ethic applicable and accessible to all. Good versus evil replaced good versus bad, and so the ancient noble archetype was superseded by a slave morality that elevated the lowly and humbled the exalted. The result was an equality that paved the way for democracy and, in turn, mediocrity and degeneracy. While Nietzsche despised Platonism and Christianity for these transformations, he respected their strength and genius in accomplishing a world-altering paradigm. He knew as well there was no going back to a pre-Socratic era; history could not walk backwards like crabs. Besides, Christianity was not all bad: its spirituality had deepened man, and its universality had paved the way for a new universal, master race. Thus, Nietzsche, as a “free spirit” preparing the way for the philosophers of the future, sought his own transvaluation of Christian values—a transvaluation of both the moral and the political, since for Nietzsche, these were the same.

My comments about Christian use of subterfuge and deception, therefore, are not a transvaluation of Christian moral and political values since they are not supportive of Nietzsche’s future philosophers, and they presuppose Christian theological doctrines and a moral framework of “good vs. evil”: that God exists and is the paragon of goodness, that Christians should befriend God and oppose the evils of the world, and that our moral conduct, while guided by God’s commands, must ultimately be fitting to the good ends for which we strive.

This is not a utilitarian or consequentialist ethic; nor can it be reduced to the maxim that “the ends justify the means,” often wielded as a slur to silence debate. A better way to articulate it is that the means must be appropriate and proportional to accomplish the ends. If our ethical imperatives are so categorically and moralistically rigid that they prevent us from doing the good that God commands of us, then a re-evaluation of our ethical theory is in order. Christian moral action that achieves the ends to which God directs us is what is truly honorable, not sincerely and dutifully following a compendium of biblical ethical injunctions. Scripture, Christian history, and Christian moral thought all attest to this dimension of Christian ethics that I am highlighting.

While Trueman’s accusations of Nietzscheanism are incorrect, he is not wrong that we can learn from Nietzsche. In an article reviewing Sue Prideaux’s book I Am Dynamite! A Life of Nietzsche, Trueman claims that Christians should read Nietzsche because “he is the man who calls the Enlightenment’s bluff in a devastating manner; and … his understanding of human psychology is oddly consistent with certain strands of Christian thought, much as it would have disgusted him to have that pointed out.” Trueman contends that Christians should read Nietzsche for his teaching on ressentiment and for his willingness to confront the cold and stark realities of a world where God is dead. Regarding ressentiment, Trueman notes Nietzsche’s view that it is “the seething resentment and anger which slaves have for their masters” that “slowly but surely works to give weakness the moral high-ground.” Ethical language thus becomes “manipulative,” disguising “bids for power by the weak over the strong.” For Trueman the value of Nietzsche’s analysis is that it raises “the question of self-awareness and self-criticism when it comes to ethical engagement” and that therefore we must “reflect on why the concerns are being expressed and what kind of language and moral logic is being used.” Trueman notes that “(a)ny Calvinist…should have no problem” in detecting this kind of manipulation “not simply in others, but above all in themselves.” He concludes by noting that

Indeed, nothing is more manipulative in Christians circles than the cynical deployment of the language of godliness to make ourselves feel more important than we are and to disarm and delegitimize opponents and to cover or justify unacceptable behaviour with a patina of piety.

It is therefore surprising that Trueman’s response to my defense of politically-active Christians was to scold me for my ethical imprudence even while declining to engage in substantive debate. Ironically, while we are not “pop Nietzscheans,” the true Nietzschean in this debate is Trueman himself. Perhaps Dr. Trueman would be slower to use the term “Nietzschean” as an unsubstantiated slur had he listened more closely to Nietzsche, and to himself.

Image Credit: Internet

Show 3 footnotes
  1. Critics included Andrew Walker, Justin Taylor, Neil Shenvi, Ryan Hurd, Samuel Perry, and John Grove.
  2. I have done that elsewhere on various topics.
  3. “Crude memes” was a reference to the soyjak memes that are unrefined and coarse.
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Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

3 thoughts on “The Ends Justify the Memes

  1. Ben, Forgive me, but this whole argument is getting silly. Trueman wrote, what, a 1000 words? They were directed at no-one in particular. It read like a blog post. He was not presenting a formal argument. He was not putting forth a political theology. He simply pointed out that there is a danger on the right that conservative Christians might be tempted to embrace and coined a term accordingly. Really controversial stuff…

    You then wrote a substantial critique to said “blog post” that repeatedly misrepresented him and made some laughable assumptions. You wrote as if you had been personally attacked and it showed. “Trueman’s faith is too small and anemic for the political…” Really? You gathered that from a 1000 word blog post? You wrote “Why does Trueman reactively label any concern over the political by Christians today as fleshly and debased?” Talk about a straw man! Yes, the man who wrote the most influential evangelical critique of the culture this century thinks we shouldn’t be concerned by the political… Give me a break..

    So Trueman, having now been personally attacked, responds with another blog-lile post — btw you didn’t link His response here — and you now fault him for not responding with a substantive argument? Why would he? This isn’t a formal debate. He doesn’t owe you that. He simply attempted to offer some clarity in self-defense after you so poorly misheard and misrepresented him. You feel somewhat attacked after He offered some slight pushback and now wish to play the victim?

    The manipulation here is thick. Your final paragraph is telling. Here you are the persecuted sage and the big bad “slur-using” Trueman is the bully. However your articles tell a different story. Ben, in the words of Father Zosima, “do not lie to yourself.”

    1. Well said. To add on to this, just because Ben says that he didn’t attempt to engage with scripture doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have!

  2. I don’t often agree with Trueman’s articles that I’ve read, but I agree with the one cited above. To be specific, I will be addressing point #2 from the above article.

    Trueman’s complaint that Crenshaw does not seriously engage with the Scriptures is exactly what needed to be said regardless of Crenshaw’s intentions. It isn’t the Protestant traditions that are our canon, it is the Scriptures. If we want to avoid elevating those traditions on pedestals that are too close to the pedestal on which we put the Scriptures, we would then speak of the Scriptural basis for those traditions. After all, those traditions are not our canon, they are possible guides.

    Also, though Trueman didn’t offer any serous exegetical support for his points, he did engage the Scriptures adequately for the points he made. In short, Crenshaw’s articles, nor do the other ones that are posted here, compare and contrasts the contexts of those traditions with the contexts of the Scriptures as well as the context of our current times. And thus in promoting Christian Nationalism and the necessary means to accomplish that goal, Christian Nationalisms supports take what was said and done in those traditions without context and thus implying that what was said and done provide absolute principles. The Protestant traditions were written during the time of Christendom, not during Rome’s empire or today’s time period. Regarding the former context, It is unlikely that those who contributed to the Protestant traditions would have said and done the same things the Protestant Traditions said and did during the times of the Apostles because the Apostles gave them no grounds for saying and doing so. And that is despite the fact that the negative view faced by the Christiania’s who lived during the times of the Apostles were much more negative than the negative view in America now. And though there are important contextual differences between the times of the Apostles from the times of the Protestant traditions, there seems to be little to no reason to believe why that should cause us not to follow the words and examples of the Apostles.

    Those promoting Christian Nationalism have yet to give us adequate Biblical grounds for following words and examples of the Apostles.

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