Christian America and the Kingdom of God
I had high hopes for this book. It is written by a senior scholar, published by a major university press, and touted by an impressive array of academic luminaries. To its credit, the book is well written and thought provoking, forcing readers to reflect seriously about serious matters, which is no small accomplishment. In the end, however, I was disappointed.
Hughes’ argument is straightforward. The kingdom of God embodies, at its core, the values of peace and justice. These perfect kingdom values are the yardstick by which all thinking Christians should measure political entities. The greatest political entities are empires, the “arch-villains” of the kingdom of God. America, an empire in much the same way that Rome and Babylon were empires, does not measure up. Therefore, all who espouse the idea of Christian America are seriously mistaken.
The polemical nature of Hughes’ book overshadows its scholarly patina. Acknowledging that America is a profoundly Christian nation (something he never explains fully), Hughes sets profundity aside to argue that it is a mockery and a sign of theological illiteracy when today’s religious conservatives use the phrase “Christian America,” because the two are polar opposites, radically different. The notion of Christian America, he insists, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
I found the book wanting in several ways, two of which I will emphasize. First, after acknowledging that “Christian America” might mean different things to different people, Hughes proceeds to hold everyone accountable to his definition – the phrase “Christian America” must equate America, qualitatively, with the kingdom of God. Christians, Hughes insists, ought to know better.
I concede some conservative Christians advocate ideas that are mistaken, imprudent, and even detrimental to their cause. But confusing America with the kingdom of God is no tone of their mistakes. An exception might be the theonomists, who are insignificant today and who Hughes never mentions. There are also those who believe America will be on God’s side in the end times, but being on God’s side and conflating America with the kingdom is not the same thing. I cannot recall ever reading a sustained argument in which someone conflates the United States with the kingdom of God. Nor, apparently, has Hughes. He never identifies who holds such a position, although everyone who utters “Christian America” is in his crosshairs. The dearth of evidence leaves Hughes to argue against a straw man (and, of course, he wins).
Implying that conservative Christians fuse America and the kingdom together makes them closet theocrats. This clever demagoguery “puffs up the otherness” of the opposition and exaggerates their strangeness.1 For this reason, Hughes is not a reliable guide to what conservative Christians really think. Better guides are Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, The Truth about Conservative Christians (2006), Christian Smith, Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want (2000), and Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (2007).
Christian Smith, for instance, explains what “Christian America” means to evangelicals– it has little to do with the kingdom of God. He writes:
For some, “Christian America” means religious freedom; for some it means a governmental structure of checks and balances; for others it means lots of faithful Christians in the population; for still others it means a small group of well-known historical leaders speaking and writing about the Creator, prayer, and morality; and for yet others it means religious references on political documents, regardless of the degree of Christian faithfulness of the authors.2
“It is a mistake,” Smith concludes, “to presume that all talk of a ‘Christian nation’ is a sure rhetorical indicator of the desire or intention to reestablish Christian domination of society, culture, and politics.”3
Richard John Neuhaus points out that recent use of the adjective “Christian” with regard to America is part and parcel of an identity battle. The battle is described cleverly by sociologist Peter Berger, who depicts the United States as a nation of Indians (among the world’s most religious people) governed by Swedes (the world’s least religious people). In response to the Swedes’ demand for greater secularization, the Indians remind us of Christianity’s role among the American people and culture. Neuhaus elaborates:
To say that America is a Christian nation is like saying it’s an English-speaking nation. There are not many people who speak the language well, but when they are speaking a language poorly, it is the English language they are speaking. There is, finally, no alternative to the English language, as there is no alternative to Christian America in a country where nearly 90 percent of the people think they are Christians.4
The phrase “Christian America” need not entail a qualitative judgment of governmental action and/or inaction. Recognizing the distinction between a polity and a people, a government and a society, most people use the phrase descriptively, in demographic terms and, more importantly, in cultural terms.5 “Cultures are defined,” Neuhaus argues, “by the most binding truths to which people adhere or claim to adhere.” Such binding truths, which are largely, although far from exclusively, Christian in the United States, inform a culture, shape its identity, and articulate its aspirations. “Christian America,” Neuhaus concludes, “signifies a description under the judgment of an aspiration.”6
The aspirational element of a culture is important because reality rarely lives up to the ideal. Neuhaus was not particularly fond of the phrase “Christian America” because
the quality of [American] Christianity leaves much to be desired. Much of American Christianity is, as critics rightly point out, fideistic, privatized, and subjectivized … Christian America is, all in all, second-rate Christianity. But then, unless one holds to an implausibly romantic view of the earliest Church, the world has never seen anything but Christianity that is, all things considered, second-rate.7
One final comment on this front: Hughes is acutely aware that conservative Christians are among the most patriotic of citizens – a reality susceptible to misinterpretation. Foes see this as some xenophobic “my country right or wrong,” but likely, close investigation would reveal such patriotism is rooted deeply in (1) sympathy for soldiers who serve the country, many of whom come from local congregations, (2) appreciation for religious liberty which, according to a recent report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, is not enjoyed by 70% of the world’s 6.8 billion people, and (3) a belief that certain quintessential American ideals are tied to Christianity – ideals such as human equality, ordered liberty, religious freedom, and the claim that nations are held accountable by a higher authority. Admittedly, these ideals have complicated intellectual origins, but in this country, those origins are related closely to Christianity. These ideals do not reflect the whole of Christianity, nor its essential parts, but they remain Christian in the minds of many.
Hughes’ second claim is more troubling: the kingdom of God is the qualitative yardstick by which all thinking Christians should measure political entities. By that measure, America fails miserably. Hughes’ account of the kingdom of God is worthy of investigation, something beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say, he weaves together an Anabaptist view of the kingdom, something wholly spiritual and beyond the capacity of any nation to achieve, with the view of Jesus Seminar co-founder John Dominic Crossan, who emphasizes the non-coercive promotion of justice and reconciliation on Earth.
The assumption that the kingdom of God is the archetype for human kingdoms misunderstands politics, the art of the possible, fundamentally. Hughes succumbs to a temptation best described by Voltaire, allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. He becomes “a judge who would condemn a man, who has killed his assassin, because homicide is forbidden.” Such a judge, Voltaire proclaims, is a “poor reasoner.”8 Using a perfect standard to measure human endeavor is specious. When modifiers are only used qualitatively, then only Cleopatra is beautiful, only Shakespeare is a writer, and only Christ is a Christian. All other women are ugly, all other books rubbish, all other believers hypocrites. Where is the sober judgment?
Hughes’ use of God’s kingdom as an archetype is odd given that even he acknowledges that “no nation can possibly measure up to the standards of the kingdom of God” (4). Such an admission coincides with the account of politics held by most Christians, an account that began with Augustine, passed through many hands such as Calvin, and runs like this: government is a gift of God for the sake of order in a fallen world. It is given the power of the sword to restrain evil. Governments, because they are earthly institutions run by fallen human beings, ought not use the sword to institute a utopia on Earth—perfect peace and perfect justice are beyond their reach. But governments ought, to the degree possible, be a force for peace and justice in the world.
Without the rule of an all-perfect Messiah, earthly politics entails managing ambiguity and complexity as well as trial and tragedy. Our present circumstance is fraught with tension for Christians, a tension that exists because God’s kingdom is both “already present” and “not yet fully present.” The former adds a radical element to Christianity, the latter cautions us against a starry-eyed idealism that threatens to undermine earthly good and in the end causes harm. The ensuing moral realism frees us to hold governments accountable for hubris, indifference, and injustice, while praising them for achieving the relative good that remains possible in our post-lapsarian state.
Sensible judgment requires recognizing we are fallen people living in a broken world. President Obama got it right: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” Why? Because “evil does exist in the world.”9 America, like every other nation, will not always get it right. “We are fallible,” Obama acknowledged. “We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.”10
But even if we accept the judgment of the New Yorker that the current Iraqi war and the Vietnam War “were conceived in sin,” “fatally compromised by deceptions,” and “abetted by profound geostrategic misjudgments,” we ought not denigrate the nation’s effort to do good in the world.11 Over the last seven decades, America was instrumental in halting barbaric fascism in World War II, stood firm against communist regimes that murdered nearly 100 million people systematically (see Stéphane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism, [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999]), and protected Korean and Kuwaiti allies against armed aggressors. These examples represent notable achievements from a list that easilycould be much longer.
I would agree with Hughes that all citizens ought to have an acute sense of the wages of war; they are almost incalculable. Yet, often America has gone to war because the wages of not doing so are even more devastating. As a result, America has done more good than harm; it is a shame Hughes is unwilling to acknowledge it. It is also a shame he and his friends employ Nazi fascism to taint opponents. Hughes dedicates the book to Frank Littell, who accused William F. Buckley Jr. of being a “fellow traveler” of fascism, and applauds William Stringfellow, who compared America’s moral identity with Nazi Germany, suggesting both are in some way demonic.12 Hughes, in a not-so-subtle manner, implies the same about George W. Bush and the United States. Such hyperbole is not only tiresome but an insult to the millions who lost their lives at the hands of a truly evil regime.
Hughes has produced a provocative book in an effort to eradicate the phrase “Christian America” from the lips of conservative Christians. This book will not achieve that end. His use of the modifier “Christian” solely in a purist, qualitative manner fails to address the descriptive and aspirational sense in which most conservative Christians use it. Moreover, one can agree America is not above reproach without overlooking the relative good the nation has done in our broken world. In the end, a more accurate representation of conservative Christian thinking and a more judicious application of kingdom values would have provided a more helpful analysis.
Cite this article
- Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, The Truth about Conservative Christians:What They Think and What TheyBelieve (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 66.
- Christian Smith, Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley: University of California Press,2000), 36.
- Ibid., 37.
- Richard John Neuhaus, “The End of Abortion and the Meanings of ‘Christian America,’” First Things 114(June/July 2001): 72.
- Richard John Neuhaus, “Contract and Covenant: In Search of American Identity,” at the Bradley Symposium on “What Are We Today? American Character and Identity in the 21st Century” (Washington, D.C.May 3, 2007).
- Richard John Neuhaus, “The End of Abortion,” 72, 74.
- Ibid., 73.
- Voltaire, The Philosophical Dictionary, selected and translated by H. I. Woolf (New York: Knopf, 1924), 130.
- Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture (Oslo, Norway, December 10, 2009).
- Hendrik Hertzberg, “The Fifth War,” The New Yorker 85 (November 30, 2009): 23.
- See William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word Books,1973), esp. 32-33.