Author's Note: The following is the unedited version of an interview I gave to Liberty University Press. The official version can be found here. Feb. 18, 2014
Black History Month is a reminder to reflect on the heritage and contributions of the black community in America. To celebrate, we caught up with Ron Miller, author of “Sellout: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch” and associate dean of the Helms School of Government, to talk about faith, race, politics, and his writing process. Get your free Kindle or Nook sample of his book today!
Liberty University Press: As an author, what is the hardest part about the writing process for you?
Ron Miller: Getting started! I have dozens of topics about which I’d love to write, and which I believe would make great books, but it seems that when I have time, I don’t have the words, or when I have the words, I don’t have time! My daughter shared with me some advice a famous actress and writer gave her when she was struggling to get started on a screenplay, and it’s good advice for every current and aspiring writer – WRITE. Just write.
LUP: Why do you write?
Ron Miller: I write because I find my greatest expression and the most clarity when I sit down and put my thoughts into words. When I write, it disciplines me and calms me, because it allows me to bring structure and purpose to the musings of my mind. I also love the eloquence and elegance that flows from me when I write. I have been a speaker and a writer for most of my life, but writing is God’s gift to me, and mine to the world. I write because I am a writer.
LUP: Tell us about the title of your book.
Ron Miller: The title is all at once an expression of experience, an act of defiance and a double entendre! At various times in my life, when I have gone public with my conservatism, I have been called many names which my mother never gave me, and one of them is “sellout”. By making it the title of my book, I was being provocative and taking a stand of boldness, declaring that if being authentic and aligning all my thoughts, words and actions with my worldview makes me a “sellout”, then so be it. Finally, it has a double meaning in that my beliefs may make me a “sellout” in the political world, yet I am truly sold out to only one thing, and that is Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.
I would add that the subtitle, “Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch,” was suggested by a dear friend and political mentor of mine, and addresses the nature of the book, which is primarily a memoir, and my reflections on the prickly topic of black-white race relations in America – my “musings”, as it were. It is also my pushback on the “Uncle Tom” meme, since its use as a pejorative is totally disconnected from the actual portrayal of the character in the original novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I address that in the first chapter of the book. “Uncle Tom” is also one of those uninherited names I’ve lived with, but since I know the true nature of the original character as a noble, Christ-like figure, I embrace it!
LUP: How did your childhood impact your political and moral values?
Ron Miller: I was raised in a family that believed in Jesus Christ and the Bible, and although I strayed from both at one time in my life, the truth of Proverbs 22:6 rang true for me – “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” My grandfather was a particularly powerful influence in my life, even though the actual time we spent together wasn’t that much, since my father was a career Air Force NCO, and we lived the nomadic life of a military family. My grandfather and I couldn’t have been more different – he was a laborer whose muscled arms and thick, rough hands denoted a lifetime of hard work in the fields and the factories, and I was skinny, bookish and clumsy when it came to doing just about anything physical. Yet, we were both passionate about spiritual matters and politics – my grandfather led me to Christ and encouraged my interest in the public square, although it gave him fits that I eventually aligned myself with conservative politics!
Incidentally, another great childhood influence on my values was the Reverend Billy Graham, whose crusades were “must-watch” television for this elementary school boy thirsting to know God. I am one of that great number who owe my salvation to his unwavering execution of The Great Commission.
LUP: In your book, you discuss the decision to choose conservatism, in spite of growing up in a predominantly liberal black community. What influenced your decision to write about your experiences?
Ron Miller: The tension between my conservatism and a society, including my family, which presumes my blackness obligates me to be liberal, was the inspiration for many dinnertime conversations with friends over the years. My best friend, a colleague from my days as an Air Force intelligence officer, often told me I should write a book about my experiences, and when I started blogging in 2006, the number of voices clamoring for me to write a book grew. Eventually, life circumstances, namely unemployment, presented me with the time to write, and I took advantage of it.
Incidentally, I should mention here that the book was instrumental in bringing me to Liberty University. Because of it, I was invited to visit the campus in October 2010 as a guest speaker for a new student club, and I was awed by the modern, growing campus I witnessed, which resembled nothing I had imagined. Less than a year later, in May 2011, I returned for a book signing event at the Liberty University bookstore, and a friend whose son attends Liberty University and I paid the dean of the Helms School of Government a courtesy visit prior to the signing. The dean inquired about my possible interest in a new position within his department, I applied, and three months later, my family and I had moved to Lynchburg so I could begin my journey as a part of the Liberty University family. God is faithful!
LUP: Based on your experiences, do you believe the black community is predominantly liberal?
Ron Miller: No, I don’t believe it is, in practice, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that the political labels of “conservative” and “liberal” are inadequate to describe the black community, or my own worldview, for that matter. A simplified description would be that the black community has conservative values and liberal political allegiances, but even that isn’t nuanced enough.
Black people believe in family, personal responsibility, hard work, self-defense and self-reliance, values which would ostensibly be labeled “conservative.” But they also believe in community, charity and helping others in need, and our culture labels these values – incorrectly, I might add – as “liberal.” These are understandable, coming from a people who have a history of suffering, and therefore have empathy for the less fortunate.
Frankly, all these values, taken together, are thoroughly consistent with values espoused in the Bible, which transcends politics and labels.
In my opinion, much of the debate over the politics of the black community revolves around personalities, perceptions, and prescriptions more than anything else.
Black people with conservative values are reluctant to be affiliated with a political faction which embraces public figures they find objectionable, or who make controversial or intemperate public statements – “guilt by association” becomes a hindrance to identifying with those on the other side of the aisle. This, to me, is a weak excuse for not being true to your values, because there are objectionable people in all human institutions, but it’s there nonetheless.
In addition, some conservative policy prescriptions and public pronouncements, while well-meaning, may come across as uncaring and exclusive, a combination of poor messaging by conservatives, effective adversarial messaging by liberals, and a failure to offer or adequately defend alternative solutions to people whose dependence on government aid is legitimate.
They are also not convinced of the veracity of solutions that don’t involve the force of the federal government, also understandable when you consider that the history of America is filled with examples of federal government intervention on behalf of the black community when its rights were being denied.
We need to learn how to speak to the whole person, not just to one’s intellect or common sense, and messaging which appeals to the heart is far more effective. It is also incorrect to assume that everyone receiving government assistance is not truly in need. For most of them, the fear of losing what they perceive as their only lifeline is real. We need to not only demonstrate that government aid is not effective in solving the problem of dependency, but that there are other, better alternatives that will not only meet the need, but help to raise people up out of their state of need.
LUP: Do you feel that your book helps to facilitate open dialogue about race and politics among the black community (and America in general)?
Ron Miller: I would like to think so, but I’m not so prideful or naïve as to believe that. Most of the people who buy the book are already sold on the story, judging from the reviews and the other books they read. Unfortunately, politics on both sides takes place in parallel “echo chambers” and most reading is driven by confirmation bias rather than seeking to understand one another.
What I think the book does is embolden other conservatives of color, and the confluence of the nation’s first black president and the ubiquity of social media has, strangely enough, brought black conservatives “out of the closet”, as it were, and into an organic nationwide network which continues to grow.
The past few years have seen more conservative blacks speaking out, and running for office, than ever before and, if nothing else, the rise of a competing political faction in the black community could spur a long-overdue discussion on what values and policies will do the most good for the black community which, in my opinion, has hit a plateau in its progress. There are a few policy prescriptions that could help facilitate individual or local initiative, but I think the best answers lie far away from Washington DC.
LUP: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Ron Miller: Black History Month, as envisioned by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, was intended to offset the pernicious indoctrination of the public school system of the day, which sought to portray black Americans as inferior to their white counterparts, and ignored the contributions of blacks to the growth of this nation. As such, it was a celebration of achievement and excellence, and I fully embrace its original intent.
In recent decades, however, it has become more about expressing grievances, exposing and pouring salt into old wounds, and exploiting emotions for the purposes of sowing divisiveness and advancing political agendas. It is less of a celebration and more of a pretext for confrontation, and that is regrettable.
Those who are truly interested in the foundations of black history ought to read Dr. Woodson’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” It not only describes the indoctrination I previously addressed and how to combat it, but it is also a call to action for the black community, and its message is, in my opinion, a conservative one – self-reliance, community based solutions, political independence, lessened dependence on the public sector, not just for aid but also as a source of employment and power, and the development of leaders and experts in business, education and other disciplines outside of politics. Dr. Woodson’s prescriptions have not lost their relevance, even though they were written 81 years ago.
LUP: What advice would you give for Christians interested in government work?
Ron Miller: Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”, and we need to put that truth into practice. This is the essence of a Biblical worldview; Christ is not just sovereign on Sundays, Wednesdays, or whenever you go to church, or during your private moments of prayer, devotion and Bible reading in your home. Christ is sovereign over all things and, to echo Nancy Pearcey, He is not just private truth, He is “total truth” and all things are subordinate to Him.
One of my favorite quotes comes from theologian Adam Kuyper, who declared, "Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
Politics seeks to compartmentalize us and tells us the lie that our faith belongs in a box on the shelf, and not in the public square. We need to take everything captive to Christ, and that includes our vocations, even government.
Doing so doesn’t mean you’re going to always fall on the side of one political party or the other. Christ is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, nor any other partisan designation, and to presume He favors one faction over another is offensive to Him. Don’t be fearful to speak and act on behalf of the poor because you are labeled “conservative.” Don’t hesitate to defend the unborn, whom God reveres as His image bearers, because you are labeled “liberal.” Put Him first and act based on His commands; that is the essence of being a good Christian in government.
Christians in government, to include political campaigns, punditry or education, must also reflect the fruit of the Spirit in their interaction with others. Too many self-proclaimed Christians are anxious, fearful or angry about events and people in the world, and their witness is corrupted because of it.
We have hope in Jesus Christ, we know that the world is headed for a collision with the Almighty, and we know the victory is already His. That in itself should be enough to give us confidence and calm, and should gently season our demeanor toward and conversations with others. Be at peace, and let your peace shine like a light, and you will draw others to you. Speak with humility and grace, and it will be returned to you.
LUP: Why is your book important in today's world?
Ron Miller: My approach in writing the book was to be a voice of calm and reason in an arena that favors noise and chaos, and my ultimate objective was to point those who read the book to an understanding that authenticity and wholeness come from surrendering everything to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.
When I concluded at a young age that my political allegiances placed me in conflict with Christ’s teachings, I had no choice but to change. It wasn’t a clear-cut choice, because politics is an imperfect vessel within which to contain the will and authority of God, but it was a step toward authenticity, which I continue to seek in my public and private life. Neither race nor politics, nor anything else, should come before Christ in the life of a Christian, and that is what I hope will be apparent to anyone who reads and comprehends my message.
Even the ultimate solution to the conundrum of race in America, as I present it in the final chapter of the book, is of Christ – forgive as we have been forgiven. There is no other way forward except the way paved for us by Christ, who forgave us even as we murdered Him on the cross. If Americans, black and white, could forgive in that manner, I know God would bless us. I pray I live to see that day.