Imagine an American pastor standing up in front of his 5000-member mega church and announcing that America is not, and never was a “Christian” nation. Imagine (it’s not hard!) 1,000 of those people never going back to that church again, feeling that their pastor was possibly a false teacher and definitely un-American (possibly even anti-American) for saying such a thing.
Gregory A. Boyd’s (2005) book, The Myth of a Christian Nation is the written expansion of ideas that he originally preached to his congregation in the months preceding the 2004 National/Presidential elections in the United States. Boyd’s explanation of the impetus for the sermon series was his conviction that it was “necessary to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity” (p. 9).
According to Boyd, this was how his congregation responded to the sermon series upon which the book is based.
The response to this series was surprising, to say the least. For one thing, I had never received anything close to the amount of positive feedback I received throughout this sermon series. Some literally wept with gratitude saying that they had always felt like “outsiders” in the evangelical community for not “towing the conservative party line” on politics. Others reported that their eyes had been opened to how they had unwittingly allowed political and national agendas and issues to cloud their vision of the uniquely beautiful kingdom of God.
But I also have never received anything close to the amount of negative feedback I received throughout this sermon series. I felt as though I’d stuck a stick into a hornet’s nest! Indeed, approximately 20% of my congregation (roughly 1000 people) ended up leaving the church.
Many of the folks who left sincerely believed there was little ambiguity in how “true” Christian faith translates into politics. God is against abortion, so one should obviously vote for the “pro-life” candidate — and the preacher should say so. God is against homosexuality, so one should obviously vote for the candidate who supports the marriage amendment act — and a Bible-believing pastor should proclaim this. God is for personal freedom, so one should obviously vote for the candidate who will fulfill “America’s mission” to bring freedom to the world — and an American pastor such as myself should use my “God given authority and responsibility” to make this known. “It’s that simple,” I was told. To insist that it’s not that simple, some suggested, was to be (as I was variously described) a “liberal,” a “compromiser,” “wishy-washy,” “unpatriotic, “afraid to take a stand” or simply “on the side of Satan.” (Original Article Here)
I thought it would be a good time to do a review of this book since — once again, we’re months away from a Presidential election, and there is so much talk of what has happened, and what may yet happen to our “Christian” country if the wrong people get elected.
Central Thesis and Supporting Arguments
Boyd’s original pastoral concern was his perception that many American evangelicals “assume that espousing a certain political position is simply part of what it means to be a Christian” (p. 10). He concludes, therefore, that — “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry” (p. 11). Connected to Boyd’s conclusions are his observations that “many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the Kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues” (11). Boyd believes that all of this is based on what he calls “the longstanding foundational myth that America is a Christian nation” (p. 12). But he contends that “this foundational American myth is untrue,” and that “America is not now and never was a Christian nation” (p. 12). Are you sure you want to keep reading? Okay – press on, dear friend!
In order to support his final conclusion that America is not a Christian Nation, and never was one to begin with, Boyd lays out the following basic arguments:
Christians in Politics
This book is not about whether or not Christians should be involved in the political process. Boyd writes that his position is, “not [to] argue that those political positions are either wrong or right…nor…that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics” (p. 12). Instead, he “hopes to challenge the assumption that finding the right political path has anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God” (p. 12).
Who Shines the Light – Church or Nation?
Boyd also concludes that the interspersion of the Church’s role to be the light of the world with seeing America as the light of the world is a foundation for the myth. He concludes that those who “commingle the kingdom of God with finding the right political path” believe America “is a holy city ‘set on a hill,’ and the church’s job is to keep it shining” (p. 12).
Two Kingdoms – Two Approaches to use of Power
Boyd actually begins the focus of his argument by showing that the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God employ discordant conceptual and operational uses of power. He describes the Kingdom of the world as the “kingdom of the sword.” For Boyd, this is shorthand for “the ability of those in power to inflict pain on those who threaten or defy their authority” (p. 18). This Kingdom’s operational use of power is to assert authority by wielding “power over” its subjects. Boyd writes: “Wherever a person or group exercises “power over” others – or tries to – there is a version of the kingdom of the world” (18). Expanding on this Boyd points out that inherent in the DNA of the kingdom of the world is the tendency to defend or advance one’s own people-group, nation, ethnicity, state, religion, ideology or political agenda. This seems to be an inescapable conclusion about America’s relationship to other nations where there has been perpetual conflict, demonstrating that it is aligned with the kingdom of the world more than the reign of God (See especially p. 47). Boyd is not suggesting that because all earthly Kingdoms are essentially “power over” models, that they are equally bad in their expression – but that they are equally satanic in their core alignment (gulp). He writes: “While a particular political ideology may be better than others at preserving justice, law, and order, we must never forget that even the best political ideology lies under the influence of a “power over” cosmic ruler who is working at cross-purposes to God” (p. 22).
By Contrast, the Kingdom of the Cross (Chapter 2) in Boyd’s view is the alternative to the power-over approach to the kingdom. It is the way of Jesus, and the ethos of His reign. The Kingdom of God is the antithesis of the kingdom of the world because it “advances by people lovingly placing themselves under others, in service to others, at cost to themselves” (p.31), rather than forcible subjugation to a system via coercion. Jesus incarnates his own Kingdom-way, and calls his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. In the end, this is Boyd’s major point. Unless the United States can demonstrate that its national paradigm is the cross and Lordship of Jesus (and all that the cross implies), then using the term “Christian Nation” is inappropriate. The slogans “in God we trust,” and “one nation under God” are not enough to claim that our nation is “Christian.” He writes: “The only people who can be meaningfully said to be “under God” in a kingdom-of-God way are those who are in fact manifesting the reign of God by mimicking Jesus’ love expressed on Calvary” (p. 151).
Keep God’s Kingdom Holy
Chapter three is an important chapter because Boyd reinforces the distinctiveness of God’s kingdom from all other kingdoms. He insists that as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we must “take care never to align any particular version of the kingdom of the world with the kingdom of God. We may firmly believe one version to be better than another, but we must not conclude that this better version is therefore closer to the kingdom of God than the worse version” (p.54). Thus, in Boyd’s view, to align a nation with the word “Christian” is to pervert the meaning of the word – and to desecrate God’s kingdom. For Boyd, the object is not to either preserve or pursue the idea of a Christian nation. A Christian can represent Jesus in any political system. He writes: “Our central job is not to solve the world’s problems. Our job is to draw our entire life from Christ and manifest that life to others. Nothing could be simpler—and nothing could be more challenging. Perhaps this partly explains why we have allowed ourselves to be so thoroughly co-opted by the world” (p. 64).
Church-State Morphed under Constantine
In chapter 4, Boyd makes his case that Christians learned to think differently about the Church’s relationship to the state under Emperor Constantine. Whole generations of Christians lost the concept of witness, and replaced it with the concept of conquering and ruling in the present world – often through control of government. To use Boyd’s analogy between cross and sword, this is where the Church put down the cross and picked up the sword and began to persecute detractors, heretics, and people of other faiths. According to Boyd, even Christians who otherwise shunned violence and persecution found that it came in handy when they were the ones vested with the power of the sword (government). He writes: “The militant, Constantinian mindset carried into the Protestant Reformation. So long as they remained a persecuted minority, Reformers generally decried the use of violence for religious purposes. But once given the power of the sword, most used it as relentlessly as it had previously been used against them” (p. 79). In Boyd’s understanding of what it means to be “Christian” – this is a point at which any Nation or even person loses the right to use that designation to describe their behavior toward others. This is a key to understanding a huge part of Boyd’s critique of the notion of America as Christian. American history is one of unending war and use of force – the power of the sword – against our enemies, and this is wholly antithetical to the way of Jesus. For Boyd, it cannot be Christianity, or a Christian world-view that causes our national leaders to employ the use of the sword. But that has not stopped America’s leaders from “Christianizing” the U.S. Military’s mission in the world. He writes: “This Christianization of military force was strongly reinforced when President George W. Bush depicted America as being on a holy “crusade” against “evildoers.” Elsewhere he said that America is the “light of the world,” which the “darkness” (that is, our national enemies) could not extinguish” (p. 109).
The Bad Idea of “Taking Back” a Country for God
Boyd offers a stinging critique of the present value among many American Christians for “taking America back for God” in chapter 5. He refers to the patriotic merging of “God and Country” as a “tribalistic, militaristic, religious celebration” that is hardly “different from the one I had recently witnessed on television carried out by Taliban Muslims raising their guns as they joyfully praised Allah” (p. 88). Boyd believes that many American evangelicals are captivated by the belief that “if only we can get Christian people and Christian ideas to dominate the political landscape, we will have won the culture war and God will be glorified. It will be good for God and good for all Americans (indeed, for the world). For we, being the true people of God, know God’s will better than others and, thus, know better than pagans what is good for a nation” (p. 91). This, of course, leads many American Christians to see enemies of America as God’s enemies, and any American who does not agree with the “take America back” sentiment as a heretic, and an unpatriotic anti-American who is not aligned with God’s ideals. There is little doubt that the one thousand people who left Boyd’s church when he preached the sermon-series that was the basis for this book probably felt this way about Boyd. But Boyd’s question in response to all of it is simply, powerful, and convicting. He asks: “since we are called to mimic Jesus in all we do as citizens of the kingdom of God, we have to ask: When did Jesus ever act or talk like this?” (p. 91). This is the foundational idea behind Boyd’s insistence that “Christian Nation” is inappropriate language for America or any other country. He contends that if that’s what Jesus was after, he would have tried to accomplish that objective with Israel, and since he did not, there is no way there is precedent for Jesus approving of it for America (see pp. 91-91 for the longer argument).
America: Very Religious, Yes. Christian, No.
Boyd agrees that there is no getting around the fact that many of the founders of the United States were religious men and women, devout Christians, and extremely dedicated to their faith. But that is not the same thing as calling the nation that they birthed “Christian.” It is fair to say that many Christians were integrally involved in the founding of the U.S., but it is not fair, biblical, accurate, or true to say that they founded it as a Christian nation. For Boyd, the reason for the distinction between “religious” and “Christian” is simple but very important. He says: “We have argued that this notion is inaccurate for the simple reason that Christian means “Christlike,” and there never was a time when America as a nation has acted Christlike” (p. 107). For me, this is one of Boyd’s most convincing ideas. It is one thing to claim that Americans are very religious, that their founders were Church-going people who valued their Christian faith and who embedded elements of it into the way they set things up – but it is wholly different to call all of it (or much of it) “Christian” because it is not like Jesus. There is simply no way the teachings of Jesus would ever lead a group of people to form a country with a military, to kill their enemies, or to do any number of things that have been done by the U.S. over the course of her history. Religious people founded the U.S., but that is not the same thing as saying that it is a Christian nation.
The Wrong Paradigm
Aside from Boyd’s conclusion in chapter 7 that having a “Christian nation” would actually be harmful to our witness for Jesus, in Chapter 8 he insists that “One nation under God” is not a slogan that belongs to the U.S. or any nation other than Old-Testament Israel. To clarify, he writes: “When the theocratic-sounding slogan “one nation under God” is taken too seriously, it makes people think of America along the lines of Israel and the Old Testament rather than Jesus and the New Testament” (p. 148). This is perhaps why many Americans refer to the religious ideals of our founders as “Judeo-Christian” in order to embrace some of the attributes of Israel as explanations for why the U.S. has acted in particular ways (e.g., capital punishment, military conquest, ten commandments carved into buildings, etc.). But again, Boyd contends that these are religious actions, and not Christian actions. Jesus stopped an execution that was seemingly being carried out on biblical grounds (Jn. 8:1-11), told his disciples to put their swords away, and insisted that his objectives did not include military action (Mat. 26:52, Jn. 18:36), and insisted that he was the embodiment of God’s law, and wanted it to be written on the hearts of his followers (Mat. 5:17, Heb. 10:16). Boyd’s conclusion is that America is very religious, and that there is a national religion that is embedded in U.S. History – but it is not Christianity. According to Boyd, America’s religion is “the religion of American democracy” (p. 150). It has all the marks of a religion borrowed from themes and ideas in the Bible, but it is not the religion of the Bible or of Jesus. Boyd writes: “Like all religions, this religion has its own distinctive, theologized, revisionist history (for instance, the “manifest destiny” doctrine whereby God destined Europeans to conquer the land). It has its own distinctive message of salvation (political freedom), its own “set apart” people group (America and its allies), its own creed (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”), its own distinctive enemies (all who resist freedom and who are against America), its own distinctive symbol (the flag), and its own distinctive god (the national deity we are “under,” who favors our causes and helps us win our battles)” (p. 150). But Boyd contends that using these ideas to form a “Christian” nation are inappropriate because the theocratic program in the Old Testament is over. It is not something Jesus was advocating, and therefore any attempt to forge a country that is called a “Christian” nation based on theocratic ideas is fundamentally un-Christian. That is, it is not what Jesus envisioned or commanded (see pp. 151-152 for the longer argument).
A Violent Christian Nation?
Central to Boyd’s conclusions about America being “Christian” is the issue of violence (chapter 9). In simple terms Boyd contends that American history is not painted with the colors of love for enemies, but of war, violence, and bloodshed – and these things are not Christian. This is difficult for many America-loving Christians to accept (especially if God is on our side). But Boyd is not suggesting that the U.S., or any nation for that matter should not have a military, or that the U.S. should not defend itself or other nations from other nations in times of war. But for Boyd, there are lines between what a nation may do and what followers of Jesus may do. There are points at which these lines do not overlap. Boyd’s conclusion is that the biggest reason on a practical level that the U.S. simply cannot call itself “Christian” is that it prosecutes wars against national enemies, and this is plainly contrary to the teaching of Jesus. It is what “power-over” kingdoms do. They use the sword. As someone who served in the military, this was a very difficult idea for me, but it is too obvious in the teaching of Jesus to ignore. There is a very helpful section in this chapter dealing with issues of self-defense (of home, family, and friends) and Christians serving in the military. These can and should be read by any group seeking to seriously dialogue about these issues as followers of Jesus.
Boyd’s Conclusions and My Reflections
In the end, Boyd agrees that America is a religious nation, but firmly denies that this is the same thing as calling it a Christian nation. There were Christians involved in the founding of the nation, and their Christian ideals can be seen in many of their actions and policies, but other contrasting ideals are equally present. Further, he does not want the U.S. to be a Christian nation because his theology of the Kingdom of God negates the possibility of such a thing. America’s religion is not Christianity. It is American Democracy, and it will use the nomenclature of Christianity (or Judaism, or whatever) if that advances the cause. Christians should be suspicious of the U.S. or any nation calling itself Christian, and should protect the word “Christian” from being used to describe anything other than “Like Jesus” or “Christ-like,” which America – as a nation – is not. This not the same as saying “there are no Christians in America” or “America wasn’t founded by people who believed in Jesus.” It is simply to say that America’s national identity, whether in the past or present, is not an example of Christianity.
I will say that the book was both refreshing and difficult for me to read, but in the end I had to agree with the bulk of Boyd’s conclusions. I am an American boy. I’m a veteran. I was a registered Republican for almost 20 years, and I tended to conflate the idea of being an American and a Christian (as though they were interchangeable terms). I also held strongly to the notion that America was founded as a Christian country. I’ll let you sort out your own responses to Boyd’s conclusions, but my sense is that he is functioning much more like a prophet than a false teacher in his teaching and in his book. What say you?