Thursday, August 22, 2013

review of Leithart's "Between Babel and Beast"

Peter Leithart has written a thorough and nuanced book on empire and government from a Biblical perspective. I got a number of nuggets from the book-- from cool observations about a variety of Biblical texts to tweaks of my views on Christian political economy. 

Similar to my book on Christianity and political economy, Leithart has plenty to "offend" a lot of Christians (and non-Christians). His method/approach will bother many of those on the theological Left, although they would enjoy many of his conclusions. Those on the (Religious) Right will appreciate his approach to the Bible, but those motivated by foreign policy interests and what he labels "Americanism" will be challenged. In spreading discomfort, Leithart and I have much in common-- and presumably are in good company together. 

"My reading of Scripture will offend scholars whose political sympathies incline toward the left, but the reading of American history that occupies the latter half of this book will offend Christians whose political sympathies incline toward the right...For a generation, conservative Christians have accepted and taught a one-sidedly rosy view of America's Christian past, and in practice, Christians have confused 'restoring America' with promotion of God's kingdom and His justice." (p. x-xi)

Leithart sees empire as a complex and dynamic concept in the Bible (3). Part 1 lays out what the Bible says about empire as Babel and/or Beast. "Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms. In response to the rebellious imperialism of Babel, Yahweh calls Abraham...Empires may be Babels that impose a uniform political and cultural pattern...Beasts that devour the saints and drink their blood; or, in some cases, Guardians of the people of God. The Bible is not for or against 'empire' because it does not concede that empire in the singular is a useful category of political analysis." (xi)

Part 2 is devoted to "Americanism" (a phrase he borrows from David Gelernter who identifies it as the "fourth Biblical world religion" [58]): "the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy...I love America...but Americanism is different." (xi-xii) Part 3 describes Americanism in practice and expresses concerns about the present and the future as such policies play out through this worldview (xii-xiii).

Leithart describes the origins of Americanism: "Conceived by Luther, gestated by Calvin, he was born of the Puritan parents who begat America. It took three labors to bring him finally to birth-- the English Civil War from which American Puritans escaped, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War...American Christianity, like everything American, is new, a fresh Christian experience and form. It is Christianity unhaunted by Catholic past, Christianity detached from Christendom, the 'first experiment in Protestant social formation'." (57-58)

He gives details on the prominent leaders who saw America as a type of Israel (67) and lays out a handful of references to Moses (69-70; a topic developed in far greater detail by Bruce Feiler). His examples around the time of the Revolution are particularly noteworthy, quoting Jonathan Edwards about America as 'the last great act in the great drama of redemption' and seeing the battles with the French as the last battle that would usher in the millennium's new heaven and earth (72-73). In a word, in eschatological terms: "America is the already...the rest of the world is the not yet" (75).

The Civil War ups the ante further: a nationalistic and eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, especially of Stonewall Jackson and President Lincoln (whose death on Good Friday added more fuel to these fires). The War "forged [the country] into a single national unit by the war" and provided martyrs, sacred ground, totem flags, battle hymns, sacred texts, villains and heroes (77-79).

Leithart skewers the isolationist myth of simply modern/recent aspirations to American empire in chapters 5 and 6. Starting with a range of quotes (see, especially, 86-87), he provides this nugget from Mary Baker Eddy: "I believe strictly in the Monroe Doctrine, in our Constitution, and in the laws of God." (94) And then he lays out the many ways in which American pursuit of empire has played out in practice (97-109, 116-135), climaxing with funding the persecution of Christians (137). He also provides a nice little section on economic policy and "corporatism" / crony capitalism (126-128).

Leithart concludes Part II with this: "Christians do not try to check American power because American Christians are usually devotees of Americanism...Americanism is the de facto political theology for most American Christians." (110-111)

Part 3 opens with a useful compare/contrast with Europe (115): "Europe's secularization is its long retreat from Christendom...Americanism is impervious to secularization of the European variety because America was never part of Christendom to begin with. America has no established church to disestablish, no throne to disentangle from altar, and no altar either."

Leithart's conclusion (151-152): "As far as Christians are concerned, the only appropriate response is to repent of being Americanists. American churches need to...stop treating July 4 as a high holy day...the Church not American hegemony fulfills the hopes of Israel...Churches should not teach Christians to hate America, or to hate American power; but we must train disciples to hate injustice and violence even when perpetrated by our fellow citizens...The required repentance is profoundly painful. Americanism is so ingrained in our character, institutions, symbols, and practices that renouncing it will feel like repenting of being American. But the stakes...could not be higher. Unless Americans renounce this heresy, we will remain a Babel...and Babels easily slip or rush into bestiality."

Leithart also has a number of nuggets about particular passages. I look forward to adding his insights to my study notes: Gen 4 (p. 4); Gen 11 (4b-8); Gen 11-12:3 (8b-9, 12); Joseph in Gen 41 (13); end of Gen / begin of Ex (13b-14); II Kings 24-25 (26-29); Acts 2 (38); Rev 13 and Intro (45's FTN 25 and 111); and Rev 1:10, 4:3, 17:3, 21:9-10 (47).


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