The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church
by Gregory A. Boyd
224 pp.; $19.99
Replacing Rallies with Revivals
The unfolding story of American evangelicals' involvement in politics has a certain rhythm to it. Like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to another, evangelicals have swung from a kind of pietistic stance of withdrawal and suspicion to a strident, triumphalistic program for "taking America back for God."
The Myth of a Christian Nation, a new book by St. Paul pastor and former professor at Bethel College Greg Boyd, provides a sign that the pendulum might be headed back the other way.
But first we need to first appreciate the story thus far. Once upon a time, evangelicals considered the Great Commission their primary mission and calling. What mattered was eternity. What was most urgent was the salvation of souls. While evangelistic work was often attended by charity and acts of mercy, few evangelicals could justify expending energy on "worldly" tasks such as politics.
In the early 1970s, some influential voices began to argue that this understanding of the church's calling was truncated. In particular, Ron Sider and Jim Wallis argued for a more holistic approach to the gospel, noting that Jesus' model for ministry attended to concrete, "worldly" matters of poverty and illness as occasions for redemption (Luke 4:14-20).
At the same time, Richard Mouw, from a Reformed perspective, invited evangelicals to see the dualism of the status quo: that their concern with souls and eternity ignored God's affirmation of the goodness of bodies and the temporal world. By ignoring politics and culture, evangelicals were unwittingly giving over these spheres of creation to forces of distortion and destruction, rather than redemptively redirecting them. Mouw invited evangelicals to take up the cultural mandate as a complement to, and expression of, the Great Commission.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol. If Wallis, Sider, and Mouw were trying to pull evangelicals away from their isolationism, they likely didn't anticipate the way in which the pendulum would swing the other way. In fact, evangelicals today have became such zealous converts to the cultural mandate that one can argue it has nearly trumped the Great Commission. Christian leaders spend more time worrying about activist judges, Venezuelan dictators, and constitutional amendments than their forbears could ever have imagined. Devoting themselves to political strategizing and superintending the machinations of government, evangelicals have so embraced participation in the "earthly city" that one wonders whether they've lost their passport to the City of God. Or worse: Some suspect that evangelicals in America have collapsed the two, confusing the City of God with America as a city set on a hill.
And so we have Boyd's book.
Boyd's intervention into the discussion is welcome. He is bold (1,000 members of his congregation left after hearing the sermons that gave birth to the book), passionate, and discerning, while still attempting to be charitable. Boyd doesn't pull punches, denouncing the nationalistic "idolatry" of American evangelicalism, which often fuses the cross and the flag. "Because the myth that America is a Christian nation has led many to associate America with Christ," he writes in his introduction, "many now hear the Good News of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news. And whether justified or not, many people want nothing to do with it."