Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review of Kingdom Coming

This review of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism was published in the most recent issue of Modern Reformation. Sorry for the length....

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A self-described secular Jew and ardent urbanite, Michelle Goldberg takes her readers behind the scenes of a movement she has dubbed Christian Nationalism, a “totalistic political ideology” that begins with the idea that “the Bible is absolutely and literally true” and extrapolates from this “a total political program... a conflation of scripture and politics that sees America’s triumphs as confirmation of the truth of the Christian religion, and America’s struggles as part of a cosmic contest between God and the devil.” Christian Nationalism, Goldberg argues, “claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way.” The “ultimate goal” of this movement is not fairness but dominion: “The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule. That doesn’t mean that nonbelievers will be forced to convert. They’ll just have to learn their place.”

Although this reviewer’s usual reaction to reading the theologizing of atheists is similar to that of watching the blind juggle (i.e., amusement mixed with horror), I was both surprised and disturbed at the accuracy of Goldberg’s portrayal of Christian Nationalist leaders and the theology that compels them (surprised, because it’s not every day that I come across a Jew who can navigate the labyrinthine relationship between Tim LaHaye’s Dispensationalism, D. James Kennedy’s postmillennialism, and R.J. Rushdoony’s Reconstructionism; and disturbed, because she understands the relationship of eschatology to cultural vision more clearly than most Christians I know. More on this later…).

Among the topics Goldberg examines are Christian homeschooling and its importance for raising up the next generation of faithful conservative politicians and lobbyists, the revisionist history necessary to instill in us the myth of the evangelical piety of our nation’s Founding Fathers, the politics of homophobia, Intelligent Design, the elitism of faith-based initiatives for the poor, and the politics behind abstinence-only education. Goldberg points out the incredible irony of the fact that Christian Nationalism’s closest allies in these cultural battles are none other than Islamic fundamentalists. According to a story from The Washington Post (the headline of which read: “Islamic Bloc, Christian Right Team Up to Lobby U.N.”), “American evangelicals have made common cause with Islamists at the United Nations” to plot strategy on social issues. The lines defining good and evil, it seems, have been redrawn according to cultural, rather than religious, ideals. This is nothing new, of course. If many Protestant denominational distinctives have been sacrificed for the sake of waging a common cultural war, why stop there? Muslims, if anything, are certainly good in a fight.

Though the Jesus of Calvinism has been dubbed “The Transformer of Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr in his seminal work Christ and Culture, the degree to which the Geneva reformer (or for that matter, the second Person of the Trinity) advocated social transformation as belonging to the church’s mandate is still an open question. What is not open to debate, however, is the Christian Nationalists’ interpretation of Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples prior to his ascension to the Father’s right hand. Also closed is any discussion about the cultural content of that Commission, let alone the deeper issue of whether it contains such cultural content in the first place.

The Christian Nationalist political agenda, Goldberg points out, is essentially a baptized version of the talking points of the Grand Old Party. Though a robust critique of the movement’s underlying eschatology falls outside Goldberg’s purview or expertise—but she has plenty to say about its politics—it seems, to this reviewer anyway, that the differences between the politicized versions of pre- and postmillennialism pale in comparison to their glaring similarities. Both are consumed with power and the flexing of political muscle, and both are fearful of losing their influence and fading into cultural obscurity.

Throughout Kingdom Coming Goldberg both advocates a return to the rationalistic epistemology of the Enlightenment and assumes, somewhat na├»vely, that such “objective” thinking will forever cure religious mankind of the need to force our cunningly devised fables upon our neighbors. The notion, for instance, that an evangelical scientist can have anything meaningful to say about cosmic origins is absurd in Goldberg’s estimation. An atheist biologist, on the other hand, has no ideological axe to grind, and therefore may speak authoritatively without having to recuse herself due to a conflict of interest.

Aside from the biased nature of Goldberg’s pretended lack of bias, her overall point is certainly well-taken: Christianity has been co-opted and its true aims commandeered for political ends, and narrow ones at that. Conspicuous by its absence from Christian Nationalist rhetoric is any actual defense of their understanding of what a Christianized society would look like. Instead, with a “wink wink” here and a “nudge nudge” there, we are exhorted to elect officials who will restore godliness and Christian virtue to our once-glorious land. “Godliness,” of course, really means unbridled capitalism, and “Christian virtue” is code for maintaining U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror. But what about those Christians who don’t believe that America is under a national, conditional covenant with God like Israel was in time past? What about the thousands of sincere saints who don’t think the U.S. Constitution belongs in the ark of the covenant along with the tables of the Decalogue and Aaron’s rod that budded? And what about those believers whose eschatology precludes them from identifying the eternal concerns of the kingdom of Christ with the earthly affairs of the kingdom of man?

It is human nature to desire to unite with others of a like mind. What is often lacking is some banner or common cause to measure our like-mindedness and give us a reason to come together. While it is perfectly legitimate for fellow-citizens of the civil sphere to rally together for a social cause, or for brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate their unity in the gospel, what is altogether illegitimate is to collapse these two kingdoms into one (a mistake Calvin called a “Jewish folly”). When we label our unity “Christian” while defining it by the bullet points of a political party (on either side of the aisle), we sacralize the secular, trivialize the sacred, and misconstrue the nature of Christianity as a civil religion whose first great commandment can be swallowed by the second.

By Jason J. Stellman