The Myth of a Christian Nation

Funny that I read The Myth of a Christian Nation the week Jerry Falwell died, because Falwell, in his own inimitable way, personified the thesis expounded in Boyd's book.

I go back with Jerry Falwell to the early 1980s. I have often stated, somewhat facetiously, that I got my start as a writer by bashing Jerry Falwell. One incident in particular stands out in my mind. I had written an article in Liberty (subsequently reprinted in the Baltimore Jewish Times) in which I warned that much of the evangelical obsession and support of the Jewish nation was based on an eschatology that, among other things, predicted the death of millions of Jews, with those who survived converting to Christianity (deemed by many Jews as a fate worse than death!). When asked at a press conference about the issues presented in the article, Falwell stood before the group and, without blinking, declared that he knew nothing about any theology that taught that millions of Jews were going to be slaughtered in the end-time while the survivors all accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The only problem was that I got most of the article from a Bible commentary that Jerry Falwell himself had edited!

I don't dredge this up to judge Falwell, his heart, or his motives. I dredge it up because I believe it represents what should be by now painfully obvious, and that is, no matter how sincere and honest their motives, whenever Christians get heavily involved in the political process—all with the desire to make their respective nation more "Christian"—what happens is the reverse. Instead of the nonbelievers becoming more Christian, the Christians wind up acting more like nonbelievers. All through history that has been the case, and—as Jerry Falwell (who seemed to consistently transgress the commandment about bearing false witness) and others have shown—it's no different with the church today.

Hence the theme of Gregory Boyd's book, which presents a biblically based challenge to the take-no-prisoners Christian Right foray into politics. The irony is unmistakable: a Christian minister using the Bible to refute those who claim that the Bible gives them marching orders for "bringing America back to God." It was a stinging rebuke that didn't go unnoticed, either. In fact, when he first preached the sermon that became the germ of this book, 20 percent of his Minnesota congregation (about a thousand people) walked out of his church and never came back.

Boyd's thesis is simple: Nothing in the Bible, especially in the teachings and example of Jesus, calls on Christians to gain political hegemony. This "power over" model, as he calls it, is how earthly kingdoms, all under the dominion of Satan, work. It's the power of compulsion, the power of the sword, the power to force people into conformity. And, after all, that's how any government, even a "good" one, has to function. (I mean, who pays taxes out of love for the government? We pay because the IRS will put us in jail otherwise.) Coercion, even in the most benign governments, is the prevailing paradigm. It's hard to think of any nation that ever worked any other way or that possibly could work any other way.

In contrast, Boyd argues for what he calls the "power under" model as the overarching paradigm for "God's kingdom," the kingdom of Christ, which is formed when Christians, following the "self-sacrificing love" embodied by Jesus, win souls through love, not through the sword. Using Christ's words in Luke 22, when Jesus contrasts the Gentile rulers—who "exercise dominion" over their people—to His own followers, who were to minister and serve others, Boyd argues that this conservative evangelical foray into "power over" politics amounts to a betrayal of all that being a Christian stands for.

"The kingdom of the world," he writes, "is concerned with preserving law and order by force; the kingdom of God is concerned with establishing the rule of God through love."

He makes a compelling historical case, too, showing that, after the "conversion" of Constantine, the church gained worldly power, the precise kind of power that Christian Rightists of today could only drool over. Was the result, then, a reign of righteousness? Hardly. Instead it began the complete corruption of the church, which led to centuries of persecution, torture, wars, and suffering, all done in the name of Jesus Christ and, ostensibly, for the furtherance of righteousness and holiness.

Of course, as with any polemic, Dr. Boyd makes the distinctions much sharper and unambiguous than they often are, particularly in an area such as politics and faith, which are not always so easy to separate. And though, to his credit, he acknowledges these difficulties, acknowledging them isn't the same as resolving them, which he doesn't really do, no matter how hard he tries to toward the end of his book.

Let's be honest. His all-you-need-is-love paradigm wouldn't have stopped the Nazis or the Soviets, and wouldn't have ended slavery in the South, either. And, if loving Osama bin Laden would neutralize his jihad against the West, even atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would be effusively loving, to be sure.

Nevertheless, however simplistic his "power under" contra "power over" distinctions are, he still makes a crucial point. Where in the Great Commission are Christians called to gain political power and use that power to bring about a moral revival in their respective countries? Text and verse, please. The fact is the texts and verses aren't there, because that's not what Christians are called to do. And, besides, it never works anyway.

Indeed, after all the years of being in a position of political power, what has the Christian Right accomplished as far as bringing "America back to God"? Abortion is still legal, states are moving toward approving gay unions, and in many schools government-mandated group prayer is still not allowed. All this—after exercising political power for the past few decades. It doesn't seem to be working very well, and, if the past is any precursor to the future, even if the Christian Right gained all the political power it covets, America would be no more closer to God than it was in the "Golden Age" of a few hundred years back, when "Christian America" was butchering Native Americans and enslaving millions of Africans.

No, as has always been the case—Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) being the perfect example—the foray into politics changes the church more than the church changes politics. It's nice to have an influential and articulate voice like Dr. Gregory Boyd sounding the trumpet about this "evangelically incorrect" fact. The church he loves would be well-served to listen to him. However, as the exodus from his own congregation shows, it's not what many want to hear.

Clifford Goldstein, a former editor of Liberty, is now editor of the Adult Bible Study Guides, published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.