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Christian America and the Kingdom of God
By Richard T. Hughes; forward by Brian McLaren. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Cloth, 232 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-252-03285-1.

Reviewed by David C. Cramer, who has graduate degrees in philosophy and divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, currently teaches religion and philosophy at Bethel College (Indiana), has written various articles and book reviews for Philosophia ChristiPriscilla Papers, The Mennonite Quarterly ReviewEthics & Medicine and elsewhere, and is a regular participant in the Jesus Creed community.

I. Summary 

Richard Hughes describes the objective of his latest book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God, as follows:

While this book will point to the obvious truth that the notion of Christian America is alien to the United States Constitution, that is not the primary purpose of this text. Rather, this book will unpack the irony that the myth of Christian America is alien to the one book that Christians claim to prize more than any other–the Bible. It is alien to the New Testament, especially to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, and alien to significant sections of the Hebrew Bible as well, especially the Hebrew prophets who preached to Israel and Judah beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. (3)

To bolster this claim, Hughes offers four major theses or themes that drive the book:



  1. that “the notion of Christian America
    and the notion of the kingdom of God are polar opposites whose values
    could not be further apart,”
  2. “that Christian America so often behaves
    in such unchristian and even anti-Christian ways,”
  3. “that Christians should behave in ways
    that are consistent with the profession of faith, especially in America’s
    public square,” and
  4. “that biblical and theological
    illiteracy runs rampant in the United States, even in America’s churches,
    despite the frequent claims that America is a Christian nation” (3-4).

These themes are unpacked throughout the following five chapters
of the book (see bold below). In chapter
one, “Christian America as God’s Chosen People,”
Hughes begins by
describing the irony that in a nation that considers herself “Christian,”
theological and biblical illiteracy abounds. Hughes cites a number of reports
that indicate that the average American knows precious little of the basic
facts of the Bible–not to mention broader theological themes–and that even
evangelical Christians are not immune to this general biblical illiteracy. If
this illiteracy were not alarming enough, says Hughes, it is compounded by the
fact that American Christians have many misguided biblical assumptions, such as
equating the U.S. with God’s “chosen people” or assuming that contemporary
military and political strife in the Middle East will usher in Christ’s second
coming (and thus should be supported rather than condemned). According to
Hughes there are only two biblical motifs that could even possibly support such
claims: the Hebrew Bible notion of “God’s chosen people” and the New Testament
notion of the “kingdom of God.” Hughes thus spends the rest of the chapter
describing the historical development of the notion that the U.S. is “God’s
chosen people” and assessing this claim. Hughes offers three reasons for
rejecting the equation of the U.S. with “God’s chosen people”: first, “the
Bible is clear . . . that God selected Israel as his chosen nation, but the
Bible offers no evidence that God ever placed any other nation in that same
category” (25); second, the notion that America is God’s chosen nation is based
on circular reasoning (namely, the argument that “Because America is a
Christian nation,” it “should emulate ancient Israel,” and since it should
emulate ancient Israel, it “should be faithful to its role as a Christian
nation” [25]); and third, “precisely because the Hebrew notion of the chosen
people was national–even tribal–in scope and intent, any attempt to appropriate
that myth for national purposes today leads almost inevitably to behavior that
is alien to the universal purposes of the Christian gospel” (27).

After assessing the motif of “God’s chosen people” in
chapter one, Hughes shifts his focus to the second biblical motif, the kingdom
of God, in chapters two and three. According to Hughes, the biblical notion of
the kingdom of God is “marked by two primary attributes: (1) equity and justice
for all human beings, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the
dispossessed, and (2) a world governed by peace and goodwill for all human
beings” (32). In chapter two, “The
Witness of the Hebrew Bible,”
Hughes traces the development of the kingdom
of God theme throughout the Hebrew Bible (otherwise known to Christians as the
Old Testament), noting that while the term “kingdom of God” is a New Testament
one, the concept is ever present in the Hebrew Bible as well. Hughes begins his
narrative with 1 Samuel 8, where Israel asks God for a king, and God responds
by granting their request despite stating that in so asking Israel has rejected
God as her king. According to Hughes, this passage “is a crucially important
metaphor, suggesting that the kingdom of God would be both nonviolent and just,
while human government would inevitably practice both violence and oppression”
(34). Thus, while God uses the monarchy of Judah / Israel for his purposes,
ultimately the Hebrew prophets condemn the practices of the monarchy,
especially its violent warfare, military alliances, and fortified cities (35).
Hughes notes that when American Christians cite the Hebrew Bible in support of
U.S. military action, they ironically use the practices of the monarchy to
support their claims–precisely the practices that the Hebrew prophets condemn.
Moreover, Hughes notes that when Jesus appeals to the Hebrew Bible, it is “to
those radical Hebrew prophets who rejected war and oppression and proclaimed,
instead, nonviolence, peace, and justice” (36). According to Hughes, the
picture of the kingdom of God presented by the prophets and adopted by Jesus
and Paul is one of justice and peace, not one of “violence, war, and the
destruction of the enemies of the chosen people of God” (43). Hughes quotes
numerous passages from throughout the prophets that highlight and support this
claim.

While many Christians are perplexed by the seeming
discrepancies between the Old and New Testaments, in chapter three, “The Witness of the New Testament,” Hughes argues
that there is actually “great continuity between the vision of the kingdom of
God in the Hebrew prophets and the vision of the kingdom of God in the New
Testament (NT). And Jesus–the founder of the Christian religion and the
centerpiece of the NT text–stood squarely in that prophetic tradition” (51). But
according to Hughes, the NT also adds two important components to the biblical
understanding of the kingdom of God: (1) the paradoxical, “upside-down” nature
of the kingdom in which the poor and oppressed are exalted and the proud and
powerful are humbled, and (2) the kingdom as “a radical alternative to imperial
regimes” (52). Hughes takes a brief detour from his discussion of the NT text
to explore the ways the U.S. might be understood as a modern-day empire,
offering some telling quotes from top people in George W. Bush’s cabinet.
Hughes then returns to the NT, unpacking the Gospels’ understanding of the kingdom
of God (focusing primarily on Luke and the Sermon on the Mount), the Pauline
understanding of kingdom, and the way the kingdom motif is played out in
Revelation. Hughes finds that each of these sections of Scripture presents a
vision of the kingdom in continuity with the Hebrew prophets and with each
other, though they each come at it from their own distinct angle. So, for
example, Paul’s understanding of the Kingdom is predicated on the claim that
“Jesus is Lord,” which both undermines Rome’s claim of supremacy and offers a Christological,
kenotic vision of Kingdom living. Such a vision is radically egalitarian,
replacing worldly hierarchy with justice and equality for all. Hughes interacts
with Pauline passages, such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, that seem to continue
subjection within the Church but argues that such passages are “fundamentally
out of step with everything we know about Paul’s theology of social justice”
(78). So while the biblical text itself has some internal diversity, Hughes argues
that the kingdom vision of peace and justice shines through brightly and should
not be discarded because of certain passages that suggest otherwise. Hughes
finds the nonviolent witness of the early church as further support for the kingdom
message in Jesus and Paul. Finally, in Revelation Hughes finds violent
portrayals that seem to conflict with the kingdom vision, yet he argues that
“the overall message of Revelation remains enormously instructive, namely, that
the kingdom of God will finally triumph over the oppressive nations and empires
of the earth” (97). Hughes discusses William Stringfellow’s political analysis
of Revelation during the time of the Vietnam War, which “posed a direct and
frontal challenge to the notion of Christian America” by arguing that “America
stood in resolute opposition to the principles of the kingdom of God” (102),
but Hughes holds that discussion for a later chapter. In the meantime he
reflects on one last dimension of the NT vision of the kingdom: forgiveness and
grace.

After discussing the biblical materials, Hughes turns in his
last two chapters to a historical discussion of how so many Americans came to
view the U.S. as a Christian Nation. In chapter
four, “Why do we think of America as a Christian Nation?,”
Hughes begins
his historical survey with Emperors Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth
century who wedded Church and Empire. He argues that the legacy of this
marriage is embedded in the notion of Christian America. According to Hughes,
the early American settlers never completely shook of the church-state
arrangements of the European countries from which they came. Moreover, Hughes
argues that the strong Calvinism of the Puritans and other settlers only
reinforced the church-state union. However, this Calvinist vision of a
Christianized America was flatly rejected by America’s Founding Fathers, whose
Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution clearly call for religious
tolerance. Thus, Hughes finds it ironic that fundamentalists cite these
fundamentally secular documents and the Founders who authored them as support
for Christian America.

So how did America go from a country founded on religious
toleration to one defined by a Protestant Christian ethos? Hughes argues that
two important movements contributed largely to this shift: the Second Great
Awakening in the nineteenth century and the fundamentalist movement in the
twentieth. Though certain figures in the Awakening, such as Charles Finney,
instituted programs in line with the biblical kingdom vision, the cumulative
effect of the Awakening was to baptize the American myth of manifest destiny.
America became God’s instrument for inaugurating the kingdom on earth, despite
the fact that American foreign policy was in stark contrast with the NT kingdom
vision. Hughes concludes the chapter by discussing two other competing American
visions, the gospel of wealth and the social gospel, and argues that while the
latter is more in line with the NT than the former, both contributed to the
American myth of “messianic nationalism” (133).

In his final chapter,
“A Fundamentalist Vision for Christian America: From the Scopes Trial to George
W. Bush,”
Hughes traces the legacy of twentieth century fundamentalism on
contemporary U.S. policy, offering scathing critiques along the way. Hughes
rehearses the well-known story of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies,
arguing that fundamentalism had an “antipluralist orientation” that “rendered
it ill equipped to cope with complexity, with paradoxical thinking, with nuance
and ambiguity, and with metaphoric and symbolic language” (137-38). Hughes
notes that while “significant segments of fundamentalism morphed into a kinder,
gentler form of the Christian faith” that “sought to recapture the spirit of
social concern that had characterized the Second Great Awakening”–i.e.,
evangelicalism–nevertheless, the “old-time fundamentalism reemerged in the
early 1970s” (150). Largely as a response to the enforcement of desegregation
laws at Christian schools such as Bob Jones, fundamentalists rallied to
“attempt to control the entire political process by electing to office
candidates who supported their so-called Christian agenda” (155). Eventually this
strategy drew in a large segment of the evangelical world as well, resulting in
the election of George W. Bush to two consecutive terms. Hughes argues that the
“courtship between the fundamentalists and George W. Bush” and the resulting
implementation of “Christian America” had disastrous effects on the nation and
the Church, such as Bush’s policy of preemptive war-making supported by so many
fundamentalist and evangelical Christians (160-61).

So how did so many American Christians come to support Bush’s
policies that stood in such opposition to the biblical witness? Hughes
concludes by suggesting three fundamental myths adopted by Bush and his
supporters: the myth of the chosen nation, the myth of the innocent nation, and
the myth of the millennial nation. Hughes strings together quote after quote by
Bush and his cabinet that pander to these myths, fusing biblical rhetoric with
the U.S. political and military agenda. Hughes states, “In this way, Christian
America–the nation so many wished to identify with the Prince of Peace–became
an agent of violence that turned the meaning of the Christian religion on its
head” (175). According to Hughes, such violent rhetoric and action is only
compounded by another fundamentalist myth: rapture theology. Hughes thus spends
the last few pages of the book discussing the ways rapture theology and its
resultant unyielding support for Israel have furthered the separation between
the biblical vision of the kingdom and the American notion of a Christian
nation. In conclusion, Hughes offers a poignant reflection on the contrasts
between these two visions, quoted here at length:

Jesus counseled
peace, but the [Roman] empire practiced violence. Jesus counseled humility, but
the empire engaged in a ruthless pursuit of power. Jesus counseled concern for
the poor, but the empire practiced exaltation of the rich. Jesus counseled
modesty, but the empire practiced extravagance. Jesus counseled simple living,
but the empire encouraged luxurious living for those with the means to embrace
that way of life. And while Jesus counseled forgiveness and love for one’s
enemies, the empire practiced vengeance.

            Like
that ancient empire, the United States abounds in Christian trappings. And yet
the United States embraces virtually all the values that have been common to
empires for centuries on end. It pays lip service to peace but thrives on
violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places
vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above
simplicity. In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus.

            How,
then, can we claim that the United States is a Christian nation? (185-86)

II. Analysis

In Christian America
and the Kingdom of God
, Richard Hughes offers a trenchant critique of the popular
notion of America as a Christian nation. This book is important for a number of
reasons, not least of which is that it moves the question of America’s status
as a Christian nation away from what key figures in American history believed (or claimed to believe) to the
more important question of how America has acted.
The important question isn’t so much whether the nation’s leaders have invoked
God’s name but rather what God’s name has been invoked for. Moreover, Hughes cuts through the vague and nebulous rhetoric
of American civil religion and gets straight to the heart of the matter: Does “Christian America” look and act like Christ? If not, then whatever good or
bad America may do in the world, it certainly doesn’t deserve the moniker of a
Christian nation.

It seems to me that Hughes’ general thesis is beyond dispute.
But I’m not so na?ve as to think that it therefore won’t be disputed! Some
might argue that in our fallen world we can’t expect an entire society to
follow Jesus’ precepts and example, so the fact that the U.S. doesn’t do so
shouldn’t count against its claim to be a Christian nation. However, even if
the antecedent of the previous sentence is true, its consequent doesn’t follow.
In other words, if in fact we can’t expect an entire society to follow Jesus’
teachings, then rather than supporting the claim that America is Christian, it
rules out such a claim in principle.
It in effect means that it is logically impossible for a society to be
Christian, and thus logically impossible for America to be a Christian nation.

But I would be cautious about making so strong a claim, for I
can think of at least one society that is intended to follow Jesus’ teachings
and example: the Church. The claim that a society can’t follow Jesus is based
on the common but unjustified dichotomization between “personal” and “social”
ethics, in which Jesus supposedly had much to say about the former and little
about the latter. Such a dualistic ethic in Jesus’ teaching has to my mind
demonstrably been refuted by the work of the late John Howard Yoder, most
famously in The Politics of Jesus but
also in his lesser known works, such as The
Original Revolution
, The Priestly
Kingdom
, Body Politics, and For the Nations. (Parenthetically, those
who dismiss Yoder as “sectarian” based on their [mis]understanding of his
argument in The Politics of Jesus
should read his other works where he works out more fully how the church’s
commitment to Jesus’ nonviolent model can serve as an active witness to and
engagement with secular society.) The dualism in Jesus’ teaching is not between
personal and social but between belief and unbelief. The believing church,
then, will look like Jesus, while the unbelieving world will not. So if one is
to claim that a particular nation such as America is fundamentally constituted
by belief (i.e., that it is “Christian”), then one will have to face Hughes’
challenge head on: Why doesn’t America look and act like Jesus? Moreover, in as
much as America is a representational democracy (another myth that I will nevertheless
concede for the sake of argument), then its collective action does in some
sense reflect back on the wishes and desires of its individual constituents. So
in as much as Hughes is correct that the U.S. “pays lip service to peace but
thrives on violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility,
places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury
above simplicity,” then we can only say that such anti-Christian ideals and
behaviors do in fact reflect on the will of the people. Which leads us again to
Hughes’ closing question: “How, then, can we claim that the United States is a
Christian nation?”

Suffice it to say that I am in general agreement with
Hughes’ thesis. However, as an evangelical I am a bit less comfortable with
some of the moves he makes in the book to support his general thesis. In the
remainder of my analysis I discuss three of these concerns (see bold below). First, Hughes argues that one of the
major problems with Americans in general and Bible-believing evangelicals in
particular is their general lack of biblical knowledge. So far, so good. It
seems that the solution would be a more comprehensive understanding of the
Bible. Once one understands the whole Bible, then one will clearly see the
biblical vision of the kingdom that Hughes presents. Hughes seems to suggest as
much by spending chapters two and three on the witness of the Bible, but he
then argues that the problem with many Christians is not so much their lack of
biblical knowledge but is rather that they take the entire Bible as authoritative. For Hughes, the Bible contains
internal diversity, bearing “witness to the principles of the kingdom of God,
on the one hand, and the principles of civilization, on the other” (83). Hughes
thus writes that

Christians finally must choose:
Will they pledge their allegiance to the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing
but the Bible, or will they pledge their allegiance to the principles of the
kingdom of God? Will they pledge their allegiance to the Bible, the whole
Bible, and nothing but the Bible, or will they pledge their allegiance to the
radical teachings of Jesus? (83)

So apparently the problem isn’t so much that American Christians
are biblically illiterate. It is rather that they don’t adhere to Hughes’ canon
within the canon. Hughes, of course, may very well be correct in identifying
the primary biblical motifs that should drive Christian practice, but he will
need a better justification for his emphasis on the kingdom and Jesus’
teachings if he hopes to persuade evangelicals.

The above discussion leads to a second and related question: Who is Hughes’ intended audience? His
choice of who to have write the forward might lead us to believe that he hopes
to persuade evangelicals–at least those of us emerging ones on the fringes who
frequent blogs like Jesus Creed!–but his biblical hermeneutic shows no
awareness of or appreciation for evangelical sensibilities. Indeed, he
frequently and favorably cites biblical scholars whose methodology and theology
are suspect to most evangelicals. Consider, for example, his reliance on such NT
scholarship in his discussion of Revelation:

When one considers that
Revelation’s portrayal of divinely sponsored vengeance, violence, and
retribution is so out of line with the dominant picture of the kingdom of God
that we find elsewhere in the New Testament, one is force to return again to
John Dominic Crossan’s observation that the struggle between human
civilization, on the one hand, and the kingdom of God, on the other, “is depicted
inside the Bible itself. . . . The
Christian Bible forces us to witness the struggle of these two transcendental
visions within its own pages and to
ask ourselves as Christians how we
decide between them.” Crossan’s conclusion bears repeating: “We are bound to whichever of these visions
was incarnated by and in the historical Jesus.”
(97, quoting from Crossan’s
God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then
and Now
, 94-95)

The problem isn’t so much that Hughes utilizes scholarship
from non-evangelicals–though I believe his arguments would have profited from
interaction with N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington III, and even Scot McKnight–but
is rather that he seems to uncritically appropriate their work for his own. My
issue with Crossan’s analysis isn’t that it is unevangelical per se but that, on this score at least,
it is far too simplistic. It’s easy to find seeming contradictions within
Scripture and then to settle the matter by decided which side of the
contradiction to accept and which to discard. It is much more difficult to
appreciate the internal diversity of the text without simply discarding the
portions one doesn’t like. I am again reminded of The Politics of Jesus, where Yoder critically but sympathetically
engages the most difficult passages of Scripture for his thesis: the wars of
YHWH, the seemingly hierarchal household codes in Paul and Peter, the teaching
on submission to authorities in Romans 13, and even the war of the Lamb in
Revelation. In each of these instances Yoder was able to creatively but
faithfully engage these difficult texts in ways that drew out their
implications for his view. In contrast, Hughes, following Crossan and others,
discards these passages as cultural relics rather than considering how they too
might be Spirit-inspired texts.

If biblical scholarship isn’t Hughes’ forte, social-historical
analysis surely is. Whatever one may think of chapters 2 and 3, then, chapters
1, 4, and 5 are virtually required reading for those interested in this
discussion. Even here, though, I believe Hughes makes it a bit too easy on
himself, which leads to my third and
final critique. By telling the story of Christian America from the angle of
fundamentalism, Hughes has a relatively easy target. However, is it not possible
that the rather obvious plank in fundamentalism’s eye might overshadow the less
obvious but still quite plankish object in eye of mainstream Protestantism? In
his analysis Hughes takes the branch of the fundamentalist-modernist
controversy that leads from William Jennings Bryan to the Moral Majority and
directly to the policies of George W. Bush. But it seems that the other branch
leading from Rauschenbusch to the Niebuhrs and right up to Barack Obama buys
into the myths of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny every bit as
much as the fundamentalists. (To be fair, it should be noted that earlier
Hughes does briefly discuss Rauschenbusch [132-43] and that this book was
likely near its completion before Obama was on the national stage. Still, these
concessions don’t negate the general point.) Indeed, this latter branch might
be even more sinister for being less obvious. When, rather than celebrating
American militarism–as many fundamentalists do–we instead soberly accept it as
a regrettable necessity, doesn’t our very claim to its necessity make it all the more idolatrous?

It thus baffles me how progressive evangelicals like the
author of the forward can lament America’s legacy

of land-theft and attempted
genocide of our native peoples . . . of slavery too long defended before
finally overthrown . . . of an expansionist tendency that wasn’t satisfied once
we reached from Atlantic to Pacific, but that tempted us to extend our control
to Hawaii and the Philippines–and later to Vietnam and Iraq (xi-xii)

and at the same time openly endorse any presidential candidate, as the author of the forward did in the
last presidential race. If there is anything that Hughes’ book should teach us,
it is to be suspicious of the pretensions of those in power–those who “call
themselves Benefactors” (Lk. 22:25)–whether liberal or conservative or
otherwise. Obama may be more apologetic about American foreign policy than
Bush, but he shows no signs of radically changing the course of Bush’s expansionist
policies. If anything, Obama’s sober tone toward American foreign policy embeds
the myth of America as the chosen, millennial nation deeper into the American
Christian’s psyche than Bush’s quainter “shoot ’em up” cowboy approach. I’m
confident Hughes would agree with my analysis here, but I think his book would
have been far more interesting and challenging to his readership had he taken
on the mainline as well as the fundamentalists. 

By way of conclusion, let me reiterate that Christian America and the Kingdom of God
is an important work that should be carefully digested by those in the Jesus Creed
community and beyond. I might also suggest that this more critical work be
supplemented with a more constructive work, such as Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation or
Yoder’s For the Nations, each of
which lays a foundation for integrally Christian engagement in the public
sphere–of how to be in the U.S. but not of it.

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome.

QUESTIONS: Do you
believe the “kingdom of God” is the primary motif that should guide Christian
practice? What do you do with seemingly competing biblical motifs? In what ways
is the Kingdom of God motif compatible or incompatible with American
militarism? How should this affect our understanding of America as a Christian
nation?

 

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