Review: Christian America and the Kingdom of God (Final)

Note, this is the completed review, from the series. It is a housekeeping effort, but if you haven’t read either the review or the interview with the author, please do so. I have included some final thoughts at the end.

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I would like to thank the kind folks at the University of Illinois for this review copy.

The author, far from disparaging those sincere believers in the myth of the Christian nation, does his best to set guidelines, and to reinforce the idea that his goal is to call attention to what it means to move past America’s current civil religion to something more closely resembling the biblical ideal for the kingdom of God while acknowledging the Constitutional restriction on legalization of such a program.

Throughout this book, the reader will encounter the phrase “the myth of Christian America.” When I use the term myth, I don’t have in mind something that is fundamentally untrue. (p1)

This book does not argue that the United States should seek to become more faithful to the Christian religion or that the nation should embrace as its norm the biblical vision of the kingdom of God… But I do argue – and this is the third important thesis of this book – that Christians should behave in ways that are consistent with their profession of faith, especially in American’s public square.(p4)

Hughes, in the introduction, explores recent political history and the intrusion of this myth into the American political scene. He mentions the stark differences between the biblical ideal of the kingdom of God and what has been created in the American mindset. He does not shy away from naming names, such as Ann Coulter, taking time to compare her insistent statements that she is in line with the Judeo-Christian tradition and those of Tony Norman who concluded, “I can’t be a Christian in a world where Ann Coulter can call herself a Christian without fear of contradiction.” He sets the tone of the book as defending biblical Christianity against political, or civil, Christianity in these few chapters.

Hughes demands that attention of the conservative reader who would dismiss him but repeating that he is not undermining the Christian ideals of the country, nor the contributions of Christianity to the foundation of the United States. He does, briefly in the introduction, mention the legality of the Christian Nation status, giving snippets of evidence of moments in the past, defeated on legal grounds, or as part of passing fads, which attempted to re-clarify the notion of the nation. His exegesis of the Battle Hymn of the Republic is very much worth reading.

He ends the introduction in (again) acknowledging that the United States is a Christian Nation because it has become infused, nurtured,and culturally nourished with Christianity, but (again) seeks to measure the American idea of the Christian Nation with the Biblical Ideal of the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 1 finds the author examining Christian America as God’s Chosen People. He starts by recounting the most recent national example of Christianity – the massacre of the Amish children at Nickle Creek Mines which saw the family of the victims reach out repeatedly to the family of the murderer.

The author discusses the rate of biblical illiteracy in the American public, starting in the 1940’s when bibles were far outselling any other books, but only 50% of the American public could name a gospel (it is only 40% now), using this as a focal point in discussing the historical misconception of what a Christian Nation is.

In doing so, he starts with the earliest colonial history, and the propaganda used in previous generations to focus on the divine predestination of the colonies, especially, it seems, New England. He recounts the confusion of America’s purpose with Israel’s purpose, quoting actual bible verses (NRSV) as opposed to mentioning them in passing. He notes that many see the bible as an ‘undifferentiated’ document which blinds Americans to the idea of divine nationhood.

He starts the history of the myth of the Christian Nation with none other than my personal hero, William Tyndale, who saw England under the thumb of anti-biblical enforcers, and started to confuse the divine covenant in Deuteronomy with England’s status – calling for a covenant with God. He quotes briefly from Tyndale’s preface to Jonah, adding,

There Tyndale lamented that over the years, God had sent numerous prophets to proclaim repentance to England, but England reused to respond to those indictments. Now England, like Israel of old, was in danger of suffering the wrath of God.

He follows that line of thinking from Tyndale to the earliest settlers unto the present, including Billy Graham’s promise that if Americans turned to God, Communism would be kept at bay, and to D. James Kennedy’s insistence that American was both a chosen and a Christian nation.

Hughes then moves to accessing the claim, noting that some early founders rejected the notion that the United States was the new Israel, such as Roger Williams who founded the colony of Rhode Island. In this section, he notes many of the reasonings used in naming America either a chosen or a Christian nation, but I fear that he misses one. While he does note the strong confusion/connection seen by many between Israel and the United States, he fails also to note the strong belief among many quarters that the sole-purpose of the United States is to secure a defense of the physical state of Israel.

He writes concerning the many notions that he mentions,

This conflated view of the Bible therefore sustains the notion of the United States as a chosen nation, just as it sustains the erroneous but common designation of the United States as a Judeo-Christian nation.

Moving on, he examines biblical passages for the understanding of a chosen nation, comparing the Old Testament and the New Testament, to show that Israel was chosen exclusively but that under the New Testament, ‘chosen’ applies to believers regardless of race, creed, or color.

He briefly discusses (p28) the outcome of confusing ‘chosen’ and then applying it in confusion to the United States. With the importation of the covenant view of the English people and the transference to the New England colonies, came the reliance upon the Hexateuch and it’s history if Israel’s invasion and war against the natives. In doing so, the New England Puritans (and the South African colonists) found justification for severe and inhumane crimes against the native population. Further, he mentions this rhetoric as it touched the American-Filipino War and the Iraqi War.

He doesn’t merely mention people form the past and then give an interpretation of their statements, but allows them to remain in their own words.

In Chapter 2, the author examines what it means to be the kingdom of God according to the Hebrew bible, but using the mission of Christ as the starting point. He makes the point,

Americans can claim their country as a Christian nation if they wish, but to make that argument stick, they must somehow make it square with the Bible.

From there, he goes on to examine the parallel visions of Israel as a biblical kingdom of God, noting Israel was never meant to exist as a kingdom, and became one only after a rebellion against God. He draws the distinction between Israel of the Hexateuch and that which developed after the Kingdom and through the prophetic writings against the backdrop of wars and waywardness by Israel. In doing so, he focuses on God’s repetitive focus on justice as His measurement of Israel’s obedience. For Hughes, a biblical kingdom of God is one which focuses justice (to the poor) and governed by peace and goodwill to all. (p32)

In his examination of the Witness of the Hebrew Bible, he notes the two visions of Israel – a warrior, vengeful and the other, a peacemaker. He calls attention to the fact that when Christ announced His mission (Luke 4.16-21), he omitted the phrase ‘vengeance of God’ from His quotation of Isaiah 61.1-2. This is a key point in his argument that the kingdom/rule of God/heaven which Christ established was one which developed in later prophetic writings.

To drive home the point, he shows that Christ fulfilled (incarnated as Crossan concluded p37) not passages from the warring manifesto of Israel’s history, but those passages related to a kingdom of peace and justice.

The  author does not hesitate to use biblical passages – without the added baggage of historical criticism or long winded commentaries. Further, he reveals his influences of John Dominic Crossan, Walter Brueggemann (who has lent his endorsement), and Gordon Brubacher.

Hughes concludes the chapter by pointing to the Maccabean period which began to see Israel’s mission not just to Israel – justice wasn’t merely for Israelites – but a new mission in which Israel was the light to the world.

In Chapter 3, Witness of the New Testament, the author sneaks in the imperialistic hermeneutic of Jesus/Paul vs. Empire, along with small amounts of historical criticism on the disputed books of Paul (although he in the end shows that it does not matter, as they are clearly Pauline and within Paul’s theology).

Nearly his intire premise is based on Crossen’s words that the principles of the kingdom of God and the those of human civilization are in tension and played out in the bible itself. He continues his previous theme of the paradox of the warring kingdom and kingdom with brings peace through justice, noting,

But in the New Testament, especially in the teachings of Jesus, the theme of paradox emerges full-blown.

His focus for this chapter is stated clearly in the words of Horsley who insisted on understanding Christ and the Gospels by understanding the context. By placing the New Testament in the sphere of the Roman Empire, with the intricacies of Augustine rule, he examines the United States as an imperialistic power, not from the very beginning of the country – but only as it has developed recently. He does not treat the history of the United States as a blight upon the world, but calls attention to the recent developments, since Vietnam, when the foreign policy of United States has taken on more of an imperialistic overtone.

He readily acknowledges that Americans find it difficult to place the United States within the framework of an imperial power (p53) but takes his time in developing the thought – not by ‘bashing’ this country but by showing the similarities of the last generation with that of Rome – which is important in understanding the New Testament and modern America. He generally starts in 1967, at the height of Vietnam, when a book was published calling for ‘welfare imperialism’ (p54).

He examines the imperialistic hermeneutic through the eyes of Matthew, Luke, Paul, and John’s Apocalypse. In his examination of Matthew’s gospel, he examines the Beatitudes, applying the ‘poor in spirit’ to the actual poor, ignoring other common interpretations. Moving to Matthew 25.31-46, he ignores the complete rest of the bible to rely upon this sole scene of Final Judgment claiming that the only thing that matters before Christ is the ‘compassion for the dispossesses is the fundamental criterion for entry into the kingdom of God.’ (p68) While this might be distracting to more theologically conservative readers, it is a common misconception among many bible readers. (It is not the authors intention to establish a plan of salvation for his readers.)

In his examination of the kingdom of God in the Pauline corpus, he takes a cue from the New Perspective of Paul in trying to rid Christianity from the burden of Luther’s view of Paul, Law and Grace. (p73). He calls attention to the fact that Paul sees all powers and authorities as evil and something to be destroyed by Christ during the consummation. (p76). In moving to the disputed letters, while he does allow for modern scholarship and traditional views of authorship, I believe he fails in understanding the situation which required the letters. He uses Philemon as his base for Paul’s view on slavery, noting that in other (disputed) letters, Paul does not recommend the abolition of slavery as he does in the case of Onesimus.

One of the author’s most powerful quotes can be found on page 83,

Those Christians who read the Bible in a flat, uncritical fashion risk placing the bible above the biblical vision of the kingdom of God, above the teachings of Jesus, and even above God himself. In this way, the Bible becomes the idol that sustains injustice, violence, and war. And in an ironic sort of way, the Bible becomes the text that can also sustain the traditional vision of Christian America.

His treatment of Revelation falls completely in line with the imperialistic hermeneutic, taking a preterist understanding of John’s words, and seeing them as a response to Christian persecution at the end of the first century. He then continues what he started at the beginning of the chapter, placing the United States in line with the biblical Babylon – not from the start of the United States, but as it has developed in the past few decades.

The Fourth Chapter is not for the feint of heart when it comes to American History. In it, Hughes takes us through the good and the bad of the myth of the Christian Nation to show us that people have interpreted America’s purpose through the lens of the Gospel many times for ill-gotten gains. From manifest destiny to the Gospel of Wealth, the author recounts a harrowing tale of the confusion of the the United States and the kingdom of God.

He picks up his theme from the previous chapter, again comparing the United States to Rome, but this time, Christian Rome (c391) in which the State used the Church for its purposes. He moves to Reformation Europe and the influence of Calvinism upon the founders of the New England Colonies, and to a lesser extent, the Middle Colonies. He gives Calvin good marks for his attempt at establishing a theocracy, but readily admits to the misuse of his doctrine by subsequent followers.

Hughes balances the Christianity of the Founding Fathers with the Deism of many among their number, concluding that even their Deism grew as a child from American Christianity. In examining the two founding documents, the author is able to shed light on the Deism in the Declaration and the absolute secularized Constitution. His quotes from the most influential Founders, from Deists like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to deeply religious men as the Calvinist John Witherspoon bringing to light not a line of demarcation among the religionists and the deists, but a unity in the belief that government should be by reason, and not ‘by revelation.’

He then launches into the familiar rehearsal of American history – from the destruction of the Native population at the hands of the Puritans, to slavery, to the enslavement of the poor through the idea that poverty is a result of sin. He does note two movements, one of which he examines in this chapter, the Second Great Awakening. He notes that between the time of the Revolution and this revival, only about 4 to 7% of Americans were church goers. Giving high marks to Charles G. Finny, he notes that by and large, this revivalist movement was centered on truly creating a Christian nation – not through legal means, but by ridding American society of social injustices, such as slavery.

He spends the rest of the chapter recounting those who had used the revival movement to attempt to spread American Imperialist idea first across the continent and then across the oceans into Asia. His recounting of history is one not easily found in modern American History books, or easy to be read, especially in light of 1930’s German rhetoric. He does connect the two, but I believe that if the reader truly knows his or her history, and can read the material, well documented, with an open mind, the reader can then see certain world-wide ramifications of 19th century, and early 20th century attempts and justification of Christian America.

In the fifth and final chapter, Hughes culminates his vision of a Christian America and his retelling of the history of ‘Christian’ America with the developments of both Christian and political fundamentalism in the last century.

While he deals masterfully with the pre-WWII rise of a pacifist fundamentalist version of Christian – those who just gave up participating in the civics of this country – and spends quality time with the rise of the Religious Right since the 1970’s, he skips some of the most important points, and that of the Red Scare and Christian American. While it is not detrimental to his argument, there are key events in the intervening years between WWII and the late 70’s which produced tactics used by many today.

It is this chapter which many conservatives will find difficult to digest, Hughes tackles the rise of the Religious Right, a very active political force, comparing it to the rise of fundamentalism that existed pre-WWI. In doing so, he fails to handle sincere Christian believers with the sensitivity that he has shown before. His acoustic statements about fundamentalists can be placed on large segments of evangelicals and even Catholics. While those of us who may have heard his type of rhetoric before understand his point, the very crowd that he is trying to reach may be turned off a bit by his demeanor; however, if the fundamentalist, evangelical, and occasional Catholic can move past that, and place it in context, then this is a fine conclusion to this book.

The subject matter he presents will be portrayed  as the ’same, tired, liberal’ rhetoric, but it is truth nevertheless. From the influx at the beginning of last century of Catholics, and non Anglo-Saxon, immigrants from Eastern Europe, to the same immigration problems in the 70’s, but this time from war torn area in Asia and the Middle East, Hughes explores the nativist reaction to the rise of multiculturalism. Attaching the debates at the turn of the century of biblical inerrancy and thus, evolution, to these reactions, Hughes presents a fair, even if indigestible, portrait of the beginning of the fundamentalist movement. He then brings in the rapture mentality, and the history of Darby-Scofield-Lindsey-LeHaye, showcasing Darby’s creation of dispensationalism and how it has effected the conservative Christian’s political mind.

After an examination of the use of Christian rhetoric by the previous American President and his administration, Hughes then moves on to examine the three American myths of nationhood – the chosen nation, the innocent nation, and the millennial nation. In doing so, he takes his time to develop the path of thought which led to, and has since used, each notion of the nation to capitalize on political gain. Most telling, and harrowing is his telling of the myth of the millennial nation, in which we can read from the words of modern American leaders the drive to destruction and the believe that the Rapture will secretly whisk Christians away no matter who starts the war. While he pays no attention to historical notions of eschatology, he does bring to light the destructive force of recent reinterpretations of End Time events and how they have fueled, and continue to fuel, American foreign policy. His concludes with a discussion of this, adding,

When all is said and done, rapture theology is little more than the myth of Christian American writ in violent, apocalyptic terms.

He provides 17 pages of end notes for support and further reading.

Hughes writes with great care not to offend the patriotic American, but to influence the Christian into approaching Christian America not in the lit of the warring nation of Israel, but in the light of the kingdom of God as found in the Prophets and in the New Testament. It is quite simply a call to (de)arms, and frankly, if someone was looking for a reason to avoid both major political parties, and to form a third, a Christian one, this would be the book which would be at the nucleus of such an enterprise. This book should be given to every Christian member in political office and to every politically active Christian. Hughes has constructed a Christian political manifesto by deconstructing the myth of the Christian nation currently in the minds of far too many. He does not dismiss the many contributions of Christians to the American way of life, nor does he call for the end of religion on the public square; instead, in this book, a Christian will find a right course of action in approaching the political scene.

For those of who you cannot understand the idea that Conservative Christians are Liberal politically, this is the book for you.

You can the interview here.

Some final thoughts – this week, if you have been following along, we have examined the civil religion of America. There exists a deep divide in the body of Christ – not over doctrine, but politics. For many, Liberalism is satanic. For Liberals, conservatism is akin to selfishness and fascism. (I speak of those who claim the name of Christ.) Conservatives do no believe that Liberals are Christians; Liberals do not believe Conservatives are Christians. Each claim the Founders as their own – ignoring the real Founder of our (spiritual) Nation, Christ Himself. People have taken this country as idolized it, without questioning the outcome and effects on foreign relations, foreign missions, and dialogue.

The Body of Christ is not meant to be divided over something so trivial as politics. I saw trivial, because in a world in which billions are starving, in which the Church can serve the most good, we argue about political party affiliation in the United States. Trivial, don’t you think?

I hope that my readers, conservative and liberal, will take a moment to read this book. If you approach it with presuppositions, Liberal or Conservative, you will find something to argue against. I believe that the author presents a fair picture of the founding of this country and the religious wars which are engulfing it today. Can we make this a Christian nation? No, not through laws or any kind. But, the more we fight amongst ourselves, the more we see the chance to become that city set on a hill which is our mandate – our mandate as the Church.

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