Below is an interview conducted this week with the author of Christan America and the Kingdom of God:
Professor Hughes, first let me say what I an honor it is to host this interview. Let me say again, sir, what an honor it is for me to host this interview. Recently, while I attempt to keep my blog political free, I have been hit with the stark reality of just what the rhetoric in this country sounds like and I fear it will produce. This book, I believe is timely and speaks well to the needs of this country.
Can you tell us about yourself and what motivated you about this project?
Joel, thank you so much for your warm affirmation of this book. I grew up in the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell/Barton W. Stone) tradition in Texas. Our very reason for existence was what we called “the restoration of primitive Christianity,” and we routinely focused on forms and structures that we felt characterized the primitive church — how the early church worshiped, how it was organized, how and how often it celebrated the Lord’s Supper, etc. That’s the way we understood primitive Christianity. Then, during my second year of graduate school at Abilene Christian University, one of my professors put in my hands a book by the late Franklin H. Littell, entitled THE ANABAPTIST VIEW OF THE CHURCH. In that book, I discovered for the very first time a sixteenth-century Christian movement that also spoke of restoration of primitive Christianity, but virtually never defined it in terms of forms and structures. Rather, the essence of primitive Christianity, for them, was encapsulated in the question, “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus.” Over the years I have become more and more interested in this Anabaptist vision — a vision of social justice and peacemaking — and this book reflects that Anabaptist vision in many, many ways.
In the introduction, Brian McLaren writes that he does love this country. Throughout the book, you mention great contributions from people such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as other contributions made by the country itself. I sense in this book a deep love from you, mirroring Rev. McLaren’s, for this country. How would you describe your patriotism or love for this country?
Love for country should never be uncritical. I love my country for the many opportunities it has given to me. But at the same time, I realize that American capitalism inevitably breeds an almost permanent underclass for whom the kinds of opportunities I have enjoyed are remote at best. So love for country should affirm what is best about the country, while at the same time challenging the country to expand its blessings and opportunities to “the least of these.”
What is your hope for this country?
No nation, including the United States, can ever become the kingdom of God, simply because, as Reinhold Niebuhr taught us many years ago (MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY), all institutions, including all nations, are inevitably driven by self-interest. At the same time, I would hope that our people and our leaders could allow the biblical vision of the kingdom of God to inform both domestic and foreign policy. In other words, my dream for the United States is for a country that nurtures peace and pursues justice, especially for the least of these. But in order to achieve that dream, we have a very on long way to go.
Do you believe that it is possible to truly have a country devoted to the principles of the kingdom of God?
Probably not, simply because nations, as I said above, inevitably pursue their own self-interest and, for that reason, nations are inevitably tribal, while the kingdom of God is universal. As the same time, we may certainly hope that the biblical vision of the kingdom of God could at least INFORM the way this country does its business and the way it shapes its priorities. Let me give you an example. I believe that President Obama roots his call for health care reform precisely in that grand biblical vision. He understands that millions of poor people, even the working poor, have no health insurance, and therefore must endure sickness and suffering at a level that is foreign to most of us who are at least of the middle class. Obama’s compassion for the poor, it seems to me, stems directly from his own passion for the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.
Do you think that it is possible for conservative Christians to unite with political liberals to bring about some of the principles you outlined in the first 3 chapters of your book?
There have been times in the country’s history when conservative Christians have actually led in the fight to implement the principles of the kingdom of God. I’m thinking, for example, of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century that could never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the leadership of the evangelical Christian movement. Sadly, however, the rise of modernism (Darwin, higher criticism, the new psychology, etc.) in the early 20th century drove many conservative Christians to care far more for the private, interior life than for the common good. And that, it seems to me, is one of the great dividing lines that separates liberal Christians from conservative Christians today. Liberals often care more about the common good and the body politic, while many conservative Christians view the Christian religion as focusing on one’s private walk with Jesus. Can liberals and conservatives bridge that divide? I don’t know, but I know there is a swelling movement of conservative Christians that cares deeply about peace-making and social justice. I think, for example, of Jim Wallis’ Sojourners’ Movement, of Ron Sider’s Christians for Social Justice Movement, of Brian McLaren, or Tony Compolo, and many others. One can only hope that more and more evangelical Christians will discover how biblical these movements are and embrace them.
Can you tell us your favorite hermeneutic type? I thought that I might have picked up a bit of the imperialist and liberation methods?
My response will not seem very sophisticated, but it works. Clearly, one can prove virtually anything from the Bible. But a friend of mine. Dr. Thomas Olbricht, told me years ago that if one wants to really understand the messages of the biblical text, you’ve got to ask, “What are the themes in that text that crop up over and over and over and over again.” If one asks that question, one is not too likely to chase phantoms and shadows across the pages of the Bible. And if one asks that question, one discovers right away that central to the Bible’s concerns are peace-making and social justice. Indeed, if one removed from the New Testament, or from the eighth century prophets, for example, all the references to justice for the poor and loving one’s enemies. there wouldn’t be much left.
Who are your theological and/or political influences?
As I said in response to your first question, 16th-century Anabaptist has exerted a profound influence on my thinking. But so has Luther. Many people find that odd since Luther and the Anabaptists were poles apart — in many ways, mortal enemies — in the sixteenth century. But if one takes Luther and the Anabaptists together, one gets a glimpse of what some have called “the full gospel.” Luther lifted up the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, while the Anabaptists lifted up the doctrine of sanctification. These two themes, it seems to me, are the two indispensable poles of the Christian gospel, the two sides of the same gospel coin.
The people who have most shaped me politically are people who seem to be in some sense at least in sync with this two great biblical visions. For example, Howard Zinn has exerted a powerful influence over my political thinking, even though he is a secular Jew and not a Christian. But the questions Zinn brings to American history are questions that ask about peace-making and social justice. I have long thought that if Jesus were to write a history of the United States, he would write a book very much like Zinn’s A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.
I would quickly add that William Stringfellow has exerted a profound influence on my thinking as well, especially with the argument he develops in his book, AN ETHIC FOR CHRISTIANS AND OTHER ALIENS IN A STRANGE LAND, namely, that THE biblical topic is politics — not the political struggles between two parties like Republicans and Democrats, but the ongoing political struggle between the kingdom of God, on the one hand, and the nations of this earth, on the other.
In your book, you have mentioned a lot of the Religious Right leaders of the fast few generations. Seeing that many of them are passing on now, do you see new leaders emerging, rather, do you see a small collection of leaders emerging, or do you see it fracturing like it during the 2008 election?
Jim Wallis has suggested in his most recent book that the Religious Right is coming to an end and is being replaced with a new generation that doesn’t care about the older generation’s issues. He may be right, but only time can tell. Frankly, it seems to me that the Religious Right is re-emerging with a vengeance. The election of Barack Obama has re-energized many people of the Religious Right, and they are joining hands with reactionaries of all sorts to undermine not only Obama but all kinds of progressive issues. Interestingly, Newt Gingrich appears to be picking up the mantle that Jerry Falwell laid down when he recently passed away.
Professor, this book was published this year, and I assume finished late last year. If you could write an epilogue, what would you include?
An epilogue could well focus on the health care debate — an issue that clearly reveals how profoundly unchristian “Christian America” really is. The biblical vision of the kingdom of God calls on Christians to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to heal the suffering. Remember Matthew 25 where those kinds of questions are really the only criteria for entering the kingdom of God, and the health care debate fits beautifully into the struggle between the sheep and the goats that we find depicted in Matthew 25.
I might also include the current flap in the state of Texas over the role Christianity should play in the history books adopted for the school children of that state. The Texas Board of Education has appointed six “experts” to offer advice on what should be included in those books and what should not. The Rev. Peter Marshall of Peter Marshall ministries is one of those “experts,” and he recommends omitting entirely from the history books Texas school children should read the story of Cesar Chavez on the grounds that he is not the kind of role-model we want for our children. For my money, however, few people in American history have embodied the biblical vision of the kingdom of God more fully than Chavez. Marshall also wants to leave out the story of Anne Hutchinson on the grounds that she accomplished nothing except getting herself banished from the Bay Colony. Really? Anne Hutchinson spoke powerfully for oppressed women in the Bay Colony, and in that way, embodied the biblical vision of the kingdom.
If you could give once piece of advice to both the President and recognized leaders of the Religious Left and Right, what would it be?
Pay serious attention to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God and its heavy emphasis on peace-making and social justice.
Professor Hughes, again, let me thank you for this interview and for writing this book. Is there anything you would like to add?
Yes, and it’s this, Joel, that it seems to me that the widespread failure of the American church to embrace and embody the biblical vision of the kingdom of God can finally be traced to abysmal ignorance of the biblical text. I’m honestly not sure most Christians ever read the Bible at all. Most Christians, it seems to me, learn most of what they know about the Christian religion from their pastors, and many of them are abysmally ignorant as well. Steven Prothero in his book, RELIGIOUS LITERACY: WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW — AND DOESN’T, documents that appalling extent of that illiteracy, and for that reason, his book is of utmost importance. I may be naive, but I would like to think that if most Christians could just understand the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, they would take it seriously and seek to live it out. That means that one of the most urgent tasks facing the church today is the task of educating its people.
I want to take another moment – if political and religious conservatives are mystified how religious conservatives can be political moderates or liberals, read this book. What Hughes has done is not merely to write a book, but to write a mission statement. Read it.