N.T. Wright, Political Hack

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I have mixed feelings about N.T. Wright's work in theology and biblical studies. I think he's committed a great deal of excellent thought, and I think much of what he has to say has great apologetical value, particularly in response to radical and even somewhat mainstream Jesus revisionism (although I think there's some unhelpful revisionism in his own work). In theology in particular, I think he's majored on the minors and minored on the majors to a great extent. See my post from a couple days ago for D.A. Carson's in-depth interaction with Wright, which I think is right on. Whatever criticisms anyone might offer against Wright, it's very clear that his scholarly work is well-researched and responsible in most respects, and he deserves great recognition and respect for that.

But I'm disappointed to find that some of his public writing isn't in that same category. Richard Dawkins loses all rationality in his recent book critiquing theism and sounds like the internet atheist with no background in philosophy who confidently asserts philosophical howler after philosophical howler. So too it seems N.T. Wright can weigh in on politics in a way that doesn't speak well for his ability to maintain high standards in disciplines that aren't his specialty. He penned this piece in The Telegraph [hat tip: Mark Goodacre], which includes the following criticism of Tony Blair and George W. Bush:

With the disastrous escapade in Iraq, there was a sense of horror that the two world leaders who were most overtly Christian - Bush and Blair - should be lured into such a disastrous parody or caricature of the Christian imperialist, going around the world beating up Johnny foreigner and the infidel.

It's a shame someone like Wright could stoop to such a sophomoric portrayal of the motivation for invading Iraq. I wouldn't complain if he represented Blair and Bush fairly and then expressed disagreement with their reasoning. I'd disagree, but I wouldn't compare him with the likes of Dawkins.

Bush and Blair have both consistently affirmed Islam as a good religion (which is consistent with believing it to be wrong, as long as they simply mean that Muslims can be good citizens, which is exactly what they mean). Describing it as "a disastrous parody or caricature of the Christian imperialist, going around the world beating up Johnny foreigner and the infidel" is just disingenous and morally below the belt. It's drastically unfair to the reasons they gave to justify the invasion, and thus his own choice of words seems to apply to his own characterization of their actions. His description is indeed a caricature, a pretty childish one.

Even if some of the critics are right in their attribution of motives to these leaders, it still wouldn't be true that they did it simply to beat up on foreigners or to persecute infidels. Even if it's about Western interests in oil, revenge against Saddam Hussein, establishing Western control over the Middle East for self-interested reasons, and so on, that doesn't amount to wanting to beat up on people just because they're foreigners or members of another religion.

This doesn't lower my respect for Wright's academic work, of course, and I happen to know enough people in philosophy who say as ridiculous and petty things as this and yet somehow manage to put forward very intelligent and responsible academic work in their specialty. I do have to say, though, that it disappoints me to see someone with such respect as a teacher in the church making such indefensible and immoral statements about people he seems to view as fellow Christians.


Actually, being nearly completely ignorant outside of your specialized field is a serious problem. I'm reading a book right now on Christian Education that says outrageous things about economics and politics simply because it's pretty evident that the only people the author has read on those subjects have been other people writing in the field of Christian Education. As a result, while I'm getting a great deal out of reading the book, I can't offer it to anybody else because I don't have the time to write a companion critique that would probably be nearly as long as the original.

Ignorance outside your field is a problem, but this is more than just ignorance. It's mean-spiritedness based on a disingenuous caricature. There's ignorance involved, almost certainly willful ignorance and self-deception in order to generate a narrative structure for interpreting others' motivations. But that can't be the whole story, because that itself has to come from some prior desire to see someone in such a way and to want to ignore evidence to the contrary.

It's ironic that Wright so vigorous complains about people doing what he considers to be caricaturing Steve Chalke's view of the atonement when his caricature of these political leaders whom he considers Christian brothers is at least as bad as what he thinks they're doing to Chalke.

It sounded to me like Wright was just commenting on a common public perception of Blair and Bush, considering they outwardly practice their Christian Faith. It didn't come off to me like he was actually saying that's what they were doing. It seemed like he was saying that because they don't keep their faith in private, as a result in the publics eyes their motivation for world events is then tied to their religion, and unfortunately it lead to a sad caricature or parody (in the publics eyes).
Anyway that's how I read it.
Bryan L

I guess I can see how you got that, but in context it seems much more likely that "there was a sense of" is parallel to the "there was a sense of" in the next paragraph. He says there was a sense of these Christian political leaders being lured into going around and beating up people just because they want to be bullies and bigots, just as there was previously a sense that Blair was going to do something good and positive with his government. The way it reads to me is that Wright shared the latter sense, and thus it's reasonable to take him to be saying that he shares the former sense.

Also, he does refer, before the "there was a sense of", to the "disastrous escapade in Iraq", which I can't read in any way other than as an endorsement of viewing it as a disastrous escapade in Iraq, and once he's endorsed that if he goes on to say "there was a sense that" it seems reasonable to take that as a sense that he happens to share. Otherwise why mention it right after characterizing the very event we're talking about in such a negative way without qualifying it as other people's interpretation of the event?

He's done this elsewhere. In a piece in the On Faith section of the Washington Post, Wright says shockingly similar things to Michael Moore:


Here's an interesting perspective. Can it be that what Wright has criticized NT scholars of doing (not seeing their own perspective played out in their conclusions) is exactly what he has done, but in reverse? I think maybe:


Gilbert Meilaender wrote a critique of Wright on politics in First Things in February of this year. Check it out (subscription required):


Wow, he goes as far as saying that the WMD argument was a smokescreen for an intent to blame Saddam Hussein for 9/11? Then why didn't they ever really try to blame him for 9/11? Sure, they pointed out the very real links between Saddam Hussein and some high-up people in the structure of al Qaeda, but the point of that wasn't to blame him for 9/11 but to warn that he might help provide weaponry or funding for future attacks.

He also points out that we haven't invaded Zimbabwe, which is a good reason for thinking that the invasion or Iraq was not "going around the world beating up Johnny foreigner and the infidel". Zimbabwe would be a much easier target if that's all anyone wanted to do.

He also seems perfectly happy to attribute a might-is-right view in place of the view that the moral view behind one's actions is genuinely from moral truths. By that logic we might as well be moral relativists or moral nihilists. If no one could ever offer moral reasons for anything without being accused of acting from a might-is-right perspective, there's no chance for anyone ever to do what's right as long as someone else protests. That's nuts, and it's what I expect of unthoughtful introductory philosophy students at a level well below what I would expect Wright's level of understanding of philosophy would be.

I don't have a subscription to First Things, so I can't access that article.

Hmm ... here is how I take the original comment. Wright is saying that the horror is that two overtly Christian leaders, through the terrible events of 911, were lured, tricked, duped into performing actions which would be understood by many people as a Christian imperial adventure. The only thing he seems to attributes to the leaders is a lack forethought for what their actions would do to the worlds (and middle eastern) impressions of Christendom. Since they claim to be practicing Christians, perhaps they should have taken this into consideration.

Even if that's right, he does seem to be saying that what they're doing is a "caricature of the Christian imperialist, going around the world beating up Johnny foreigner and the infidel". Your reading of it and mine differ only in whether Bush and Blair are literal dupes in the sense of having been deceived into accepting an agenda they wouldn't have otherwise accepted or whether they are dupes in a looser sense in having accepted this view (that they know they accept) that Wright happens to think is equivalent to this ridiculous caricature of the Christian imperialist. In both cases, he's describing them in a way that seems so far removed from reality that I can't imagine anyone ever bringing themselves to think it, and yet he calls them duped.

I think the point he makes is that regardless of their motivation, their actions can easily support people who do in fact believe this is an Christian attack. From a Christian standpoint, this is deeply grievous as it maligns the Gospel on a world stage. Here is quick quote that shows this line of thinking perhaps more explicity:

"As long as we can be portrayed as the ‘Christian’ west attacking the ‘Muslim’ Middle East, everything we do is bound to be counter-productive. Not to realise this - and the architects of the present War on Terror have studiously ignored it - is culpable self-willed ignorance." - http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_War_On_Terror.htm

After reading that piece, I am more confirmed in my sense that Wright has a caricatured and unfair reading of the people he's criticizing.

He does seem to me to confuse (1) moral conviction that one is willing to insist on to the point of seeking justice via force and (2) thinking you're right merely because you have military force. The fact that everyone in power has thought of someone else as more primitive does not mean that wrongdoing is not wrongdoing nor that those with great power somehow fail to have great responsibility in dealing with great evil.

He seems to think military force is the only way the leaders he's criticizing have sought to deal with moral evil, and he seems to think they had no sense of any evil in the world before 9/11 and a sense of near-perfect moral achievement in the world before 9/11, which is complete nonsense.

He misrepresents the desire for a more democratic political system as the view that a democratic political system will solve every problem. The fact that it will not does not mean that it isn't worth pursuing. (Not to mention his reduction of principalities and powers to the human institutions that were very much not in the foreground of Paul's thought when he was speaking about these angelic powers and authorities.)

He offers an interpretation of the November elections in the U.S. that most of the people who voted for Democrats would not accept and that most Democratic politicians would not accept. None of those people see those elections as a distancing of the American people from the war on terrorism (which I note he calls "so-called", which is inexplicable to me unless he doesn't think there is any reality to the terrorist enemy). None of them see it as a distancing from anything except particular Bush policies such as involvement in Iraq. Some Republicans see it as an abandonment of a strong stance on the war on terrorism, and I happen to think that perception is accurate, but it's certainly not going to be endorsed by those who have supported the political realignment in this country.

He thinks the percentage of Muslims supporting al Qaeda ideology constitutes a minority. I'm not at all convinced of that. A majority of Muslims worldwide condones suicide bombing. It's not the predominant view among educated Muslims in the West, but it's much more common worldwide than Wright seems to think. I'm not sure it is a majority, but it might be, and it's certainly not such a minority that we should treat it as a marginal view among Muslims.

He is right, of course, that irrational rhetoric and unfair characterizations have led many Muslims to identify Christianity with military attacks on Muslims. However, the people who perpetuate that narrative and accept it so easily are the same ones who already identify the prevalence of pornography, drugs, and other social ills in the West are identified with the Christianity of the West. How the UK and US conduct the war on terrorism isn't going to affect that perception considerably, and they're already very clear distinction between Muslims who are good citizens and Muslims who are terrorists gets no play under the terrorist-sympathizers who control the Arabic-language media outlets like al-Jazeera.

Insisting that we do not bear the God-given responsibility to uphold justice with the sword (see Romans 13, for example) on the grounds that irrational and evil people will use such pursuit of justice as evidence of something bad is just catering to evil. It would be like refusing to arrest murderers on the grounds that the murderers' social narrative will then see such arrests as fuel for their narrative that poor people, black people, etc. are simply being put down by the rich people and their cops. Such an observation is not cause for not arresting and trying a murderer, which would actually be a sign of an inability to pursue justice.

It would be like opposing affirmative action merely on the ground that some people will see it as confirmation of their racist ideas (there may be good reasons to oppose affirmative action, but catering to racism is certainly not among them). If it turns out there are good reasons to elevate the marginalized to positions of greater influence (as I think there certainly was when affirmative action was first instituted), then the fact that it will lead to the perception that black people can't do it on their own is not sufficient for opposing the policy if justice requires it.

Interestingly, I would agree with almost everything he says in his positive last two sections. But of course so would Bush and Blair, who do not think God is on their side but rather simply think that they are trying to do what God would want them to do in seeking justice in the world. It isn't a matter of which side God is on but rather is a matter of how God would want the West to respond to terrorism. Bush and Blair are convinced, as I am, that the general policies they have sought to pursue are, in large part, in pursuit of justice, and that's what makes it true that they are seeking to do what God would want them to do.

Wright's attempt to portray that as if they are putting God on their side as if it's some competition between who has God favoring them is, to my mind, pretty disingenuous and at complete odds with how Blair and Bush see themselves and the relationship between their faith and their responsibilities as leaders. They see themselves as wanting to do what's right, and their willingness to bring God into the picture is merely their desire to do what God wants. When they conclude that they ought to do something, they identify that with what God would want, and thus they think that God wants them to do what they're doing. But you get the impression that Wright thinks they see everything they might do as always perfect just because God disapproves of anything the other side might do.

Likely we're oversimplifying both sides. My point tho was not if Wright was right .. just clarifying his argument. IE, he is not saying Bush and Blair are going on a Christian imperialist adventure, rather that they are perceived in the middle east as doing that which presents a definite challenge to the gospel as a result. Experts better than I should judge whether his claim is right (that people in the middle east have the perception).

I think he's saying a lot more than that people in the Middle East think this, though. The entire article seems to be written from the perspective of how the ordinary citizen of the UK (which Wright seems to be identifying with at least in very large part). He's talking about the move from Thatcher/Major to Blair as a breath of fresh air, with the expectation of things that move in a better direction (which already puts his cards on the table). The sense of horror he then speaks of at the Iraq "escapade" is clearly not a sense of Middle-Easterners' horror. It's a sense of British horror. He speaks in one paragraph of the British not knowing how to think about how faith could intersect with politics, and then he speaks of the sense one gets from looking at Iraq that Bush and Blair are on a mission to beat up Joe Foreigner and the infidel. This is in context not the perception of the Middle-Easterner. I just cannot see how this piece can be plausibly read from that perspective.

Here's another example of a common outside-one's-field kind of error: non-linguists on language issues who show an ignorance as bad as thinking Mexico isn't in North America.

I particularly like the suggestion that the war on terror is incoherent because 'terror' is an adjective or adverb. The worst part of this isn't even made clear in that post. It's true that 'terror' is a noun, but the war on terror isn't the war on the word 'terror'. It's the war on terror. The word 'terror' is a noun. Terror isn't a noun, because it isn't a part of speech. Only words are parts of speech. So the war on terror isn't a war on an adjective, an adverb, or a noun. It's a war on terror.

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