GREAT BEND, Kan. - Richard T. Hughes' book Christian America and the Kingdom of God (2009) argues for a course correction for American Christians. Hughes, a professor of religion at Messiah College, tackles some tough questions and answers them with refreshing clarity.
Here's the gist of the book: God's Kingdom does not depend on coercion, or force, but instead seeks to persuade people into the Kingdom of God through non-violence and love. On the other hand, earthly Kingdoms (e.g., the Roman Empire) depend on coercion to gain compliance. Human empires depend on "the sword" to maintain peace. The Kingdom of God does not depend on the sword for peace, but believes that peace is a byproduct of justice. After reading this book, I finally understand the bumper sticker: "If you want peace, work for justice."
Relax, Hughes says that America is clearly a Christian nation, culturally and ceremonially. Christianity is easily the most popular religion in the USA, and the founders of our country were Christians, although some were Deists. Stated differently, America is a de facto Christian nation.
Next, Hughes answers this question: Is America officially a Christian nation? No, America is not a Christian nation in a de jure sense. The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of God or Jesus Christ, but it does guarantee the free exercise of religion. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence makes no reference to Jesus Christ.
The Founders mention "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence, and this is a term of art worth explaining. Numerous Founding Father's -- Jefferson for sure -- were Deists, who believe that God is revealed through nature and reason, and that the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are obvious from nature. Some deists are "Christians" in one way or another, but often do not believe God intervenes miraculously in human affairs, but that God is like a watchmaker who set the watch into motion and lets the chips fall where they may.
Hughes identifies numerous errors in the thinking of certain American Christians today, particularly those he calls "latter day fundamentalists," although he says a lot of these errors started with the Puritans at Plymouth Rock.
The first error is the idea that America is "the New Israel." In other words, that America and America alone is the "Christian Chosen Nation," basically replacing Israel. The problem here is that many Americans buy into this, and thus believe the USA has the right to use force to expand it's territory, much like Israel did. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists supported the Bush Iraqi invasion in large numbers, in part because they believe we are the "New Israel" and have the right to use force just like Israel did under the era of human Kings in Israel.
A couple of problems here. Christianity is a universal religion, and although Israel more or less rejected Christianity, there is no reference in scripture to America or any other nation becoming the "Christian Chosen Nation." St. Paul makes clear that Christianity is for people of all nations, all colors. Unlike Judaism, Christianity is not "nation specific."
Hughes argues that Israel was doing just fine in the pre-King Israel days, when God was their King. (Judges 21:25) Instead, the Israelites wanted a human King, like other nations, and so Israel became a nation-state with a traditional King and that brought the power to coerce. Prior to this time, Israel had no human kingship and not much of a central government. I think Saul was the first human King for Israel.
Hughes indicates that the prophets in the Hebrew Bible from the 8th Century B.C. forward began to see how Israel going from "God-as-King" to a traditional nation-state with an earthly King was a mistake and led to violence and injustice. Stated differently, the prophets from the 8th century forward saw the error in Israel choosing force and coercion to survive, and instead favored a Kingdom of God theology to "beat their swords into plowshares" and seek peace through justice -- not the dagger.
The Puritans believed America was "the New Israel," but they didn't sit around worrying about the Second Coming of Christ much. But according to Hughes, evangelicals and fundamentalists today have a "rapture" theology that looks forward to Armageddon and the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, to many Christians, invading Iraq was a step toward that imminent return of Christ. Stated differently, if American wars in the Middle East quicken Christ's return to earth, bring it on.
Hughes argues that evangelicals and fundamentalists today believe that Israel, as the first chosen nation (America is the second) can basically "do no wrong," and we support Israel under any circumstances, even when it doesn't deserve it. This leads to America not being an honest broker in seeking a fair deal for displaced Palestinians, says Hughes.
This book reminded me of John F.Kennedy's haunting speech at American University a few months before he died.
Kennedy said lots of memorable things that day, but these two stand out: "The world knows that America will never start a war." And JFK was right, until the Iraqi invasion in 2003.
The second thing JFK said that day strikes me as relevant here: "What kind of peace do we seek? Not a 'Pax Americana' enforced on the world by American weapons of war." The term "Pax Americana" was a play on the phrase "Pax Romana" referring to the Roman Empire.
Is America the new Rome? I hope not, because every time Christians abandon the Kingdom of God approach (persuasion, not coercion), and seek earthly power (teaming up with any government), Christians become corrupted because they stop using persuasion and start acquiescing in the use of force. And the earthly Kings and politicians invariable "use" Christians to support their cause, to get their votes, says Hughes.
Hughes thinks the Anabaptists such as the Amish and Mennonites were smart to stay out of politics and have a more pure witness as a result. When Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire (313 A.D.), it might have helped him, but it didn't help the Church follow the Sermon on the Mount. Hughes argues that Kings and politicians always want the Christians on board so they can use them as soldiers to expand the Empire.
This book is a jewel, and my review doesn't begin to do it justice. But Hughes argues: 1) America is a Christian nation in culture and practice; 2) Officially, under the law and Constitution, America is not a Christian nation; 3) America is not "the New Israel," and Christianity is not nation-specific; 4) The Kingdom of God seeks to persuade, not coerce; 5) Earthly Kingdoms, in contrast, use coercion to gain compliance; and, 6) Every time Christians team up with Caesar, it corrupts Christianity.
The most controversial and tantalizing aspect of the book is the discussion of the question: "If America is truly a Christian nation, has our national behavior been Christlike?" The subsequent discussion of Indian removal, land theft, slavery, segregation, the Iraq invasion, and all the sad chapters in American history are unpleasant. America has done so many generous things, but the "sad chapters" in American history are like the crazy aunt in the basement that nobody wants to talk about.
As a Christian, I found this book very thought provoking, and very important. The "Pax Americana" approach is getting a lot of people killed, both Americans and others. Considering Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," is it even possible to have a fully Christian nation, since all nations use force?
This book is not likely to sell many copies. Authors who tell people what they don't want to hear don't hit the New York Times Bestseller List. I am proud to be an American and am eternally grateful for the opportunity America has given me and others. America is a wonderful and magical place. America has done spectacularly wonderful and generous things.
But Hughes book Christian America and the Kingdom of God deserves to be read and discussed by many.