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.

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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."

Boyd also calls without apology for a renewed Christian commitment to nonviolence, citing the Anabaptist refrains of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Lee Camp. But Boyd's claims can't be dismissed as mere ranting of a Christian leftist. Rather, one senses that his are the expressions of a pastor's broken heart which, every once in a while, bubbles over into a kind of restrained, low-boil anger.

A Pietist by any Other Name
While there is much to appreciate in Boyd's exposure of the Religious Right's idolatries, the question becomes: Does Boyd swing back to the other extreme? No doubt he imagines that he is charting a third way, but there are at least three factors of his proposal that indicate it is simply pietism resurrected.

1. Boyd employs a number of distinctions that amount to nothing more than old-fashioned dualism. In particular, he paints a stark divide between "the kingdom of the sword" and the "kingdom of the Cross" and between the "kingdom of the world" and the kingdom of God. As he writes: "The contrast is … between two fundamentally different ways of life, two fundamentally different mindsets and belief systems, two fundamentally different loyalties."

While the difference between these is important—it's exactly what is forgotten in the God-and-country, Constantinian approach—Boyd's framing of an absolute dichotomy lacks insight. In particular, Boyd can't seem to imagine a good earthly kingdom, which indicates an inadequate theology of creation and an under-developed imagination. In the Book of Revelation, doesn't the heavenly city eventually make its way down to earth?

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Because of his dichotomy, Boyd must conclude that "no version of the kingdom of the world is closer to the kingdom of God than others." This saddles him with a strange sort of relativism that precludes any ability to judge whether one configuration of society is better than another. Boyd couldn't say, for instance, whether South Africa better reflected the kingdom of heaven during Apartheid or after Apartheid, or whether South Korea's democracy is a more just system than Kim Jong-il's tyranny. But can't we see in-breakings of the coming kingdom here and now, better in some places than others?

2. Boyd's stark dichotomies relegate politics to a realm basically untouched by the gospel. Though he draws heavily from Anabaptists, Boyd seems more Lutheran on this point, sketching a kind of two-kingdom picture that discusses politics with an apathetic "whatever"—or, more specifically, "however." In a number of places, Boyd remarks that however we decide to think about legal and ethical issues, what really matters is "our heart and motives."

He unpacks this with a curious exegesis of Jesus' calling of Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. Arguing from silence (a common ploy for Boyd) and noting the lack of commentary from Jesus about the men's political leanings, Boyd concludes that "Jesus invited them both to follow him as they were, prior to their transformation." Really? Couldn't he have been calling both of them to an entirely different, but common, politics?

Boyd's relegation of politics to a matter of indifference means that, ultimately, Christ's call to discipleship doesn't touch the public square. His constant refrain is simply to "vote your conscience"—which points to the persistent individualism that dominates his account. While Boyd is eloquent about what the church can do to embody a sacrificial, "power-under" love for the world, when it comes to politics, you're on your own.

3. Finally, Boyd promotes a rather naïve distinction between what he sees as government's ability to merely "control behavior" and the church's ability to "transform hearts." By the end of the book, this translates into a de-emphasis on systemic injustice and a renewed emphasis on conversion as the solution to social ills. "The goal of kingdom people," Boyd concludes, "must be to free the oppressor from his or her oppressed heart, which in turn frees those who are oppressed by them." He confidently claims, in Dickensian spirit, that "when hearts are transformed, behavior follows." One can almost see Scrooge making his way to the altar.

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Yet as Marx pointed out, transforming the hearts of capitalists doesn't do anything to disturb systems that foster oppression. Indeed, unless he's out to judge the salvation of others (which he won't, given his antipathy toward "judgment" of any sort), wouldn't Boyd have to concede that many American evangelicals with "transformed hearts" look like everything Boyd is against?

Ultimately, Boyd concludes that politics and government work on the "outside," but the Holy Spirit works on the "inside." I think he is wrong on both counts.

First, the practices associated with idolatrous nationalism don't just touch my "outside." In Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith mistakenly thought that no matter what Big Brother did to his body, it could never get to his inside—to his mind, his heart, his passions. Eventually, of course, it did. The chilling lesson of 1984 is that the machinations of the state can even shape what we love. Winston, you'll remember, ends up in love—with Big Brother.

Second, the Spirit's transformation of hearts is not the kind of magic that Boyd suggests. Rather, the Spirit works through material, embodied practices of sanctification and discipleship to form citizens of the kingdom of God. Without practices that "control behavior," the indwelling and transformative power of the Spirit often lies dormant. Without laws that challenge unfair systems, even Christians find it easy to overlook inequities.

So is Boyd simply inviting us back to pietism? I'm afraid so. My question is: Can evangelical thinking about cultural engagement leave behind the either/or of Constantinian triumphalism vs. pietistic retreat? To escape an oscillation between these two unbiblical extremes, we must nurture a more nuanced and creative political imagination.

James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College. His most recent book is Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic).

Related Elsewhere:

The Myth of a Christian Nation is available from and other book retailers.

Zondervan has more information on the book, including an excerpt and author interview.

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Woodland Hills Church has more information on the book, as well as downloadable audio of the sermon series on which the book is based. The church also has copies of coverage of the book in the mainstream media, including a New York Times front-page article.

"Out of Ur," the weblog of Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journal, ran excepts (1 | 2) of Boyd's book.

More about Greg Boyd and his other books is available from his website.

Smith's initial comments on Boyd's book, or rather, on The New York Times's coverage of it, received several comments at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank blog.

Today's Christian, a Christianity Today sister publication, also looks at Boyd's book in an article posted today.

Also posted today is an article on what evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges in politics for the next 50 years.