ReThink everything you thought you Knew

The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church

Myth of a Christian Nation book coverAuthor: Gregory A. Boyd

Publisher: Zondervan (2007)

Topic: Christians and Culture: What’s the relationship between the Kingdom of God, politics and American culture?

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Description: Arguing from Scripture and history, Dr. Boyd makes a compelling case that whenever the church gets too close to any political or national ideology, it is disastrous for the church and harmful to society. Dr. Boyd contends that the American Evangelical Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the political right (and in some cases by the political left) and exposes how this is harming the church’s unique calling to build the kingdom of God. In the course of his argument, Dr. Boyd challenges some of the most deeply held convictions of evangelical Christians in America – for example, that America is, or ever was, “a Christian nation” or that Christians ought to be trying to “take America back for God.”

Greg’s story behind the writing of The Myth of a Christian Nation: Like many other evangelical pastors, in the months leading up to the 2004 election I felt increasing pressure from a number of right wing political and religious sources as well as from a some people in my own congregation to “shepherd” my “flock” in voting for “the right candidate” and “the right position” on a variety of issues. Among other things, I and my board were asked to have our church sign various petitions and make various pledges, to hand out leaflets after our church services, draw attention to various political happenings during our regular church announcements, and so on. And increasingly, some in my church began to grow irate because of our refusal to participate in any of these activities. Some suspected it was because we were cowardly and “didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

In April of 2004, as the religious “buzz” about the upcoming election was escalating, I felt it was necessary to preach a sermon series that would provide the biblical explanation for why our church was not joining in the rising chorus of political activity. I also decided this would serve as a good opportunity to expose the danger of associating the Christian faith too closely with any political party or nationalistic ideology. I had touched on this topic in the past, but never as deeply, clearly and persistently as I did during this sermon series. The series was entitled “The Cross and the Sword” and it forms the foundation of this present book.

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.”

The intensity and scope of this emotional reaction — in a church that has usually been identified as “left of center” by other evangelicals in our area — confirmed my deepest concern about the evangelical church in America, the very thing that led me to preach this series in the first place. In a word, I believe we evangelicals have to a frightful degree fused the kingdom of God with our preferred version of the kingdom of the world (our nation, government, politics, etc.). Rather than centering our understanding of the kingdom on the person of Jesus Christ – who, incidentally, never allowed himself to get pulled into the many political disputes of his day – many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom to be polluted with nationalistic and political ideals, agendas and issues. The kingdom of God, many believe, is about “taking America back for God,” voting for “the Christian candidate,” outlawing abortion, outlawing gay marriage, winning the culture war, defending political freedom at home and abroad, keeping “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, fighting for prayer in our public schools and at pubic events, fighting to have the Ten Commandments displayed in governmental buildings, and things of that sort.

What gives this understanding of the kingdom of God such strong emotional force is the long standing myth that America is a “Christian nation.” From the start, Americans have been inclined to believe that God’s will was manifested in the founding of our country and is yet manifested in the global activity of our nation. Throughout our history, most Americans have confidently assumed our nation’s causes and wars were righteous and just and that God was “on our side.” In our minds, and often in our churches, the cross and the national flag have gone hand in hand. Consequently, the conservative church has, to a large extent at least, tended to view itself as the religious guardian of all that is godly in our culture. America is a holy city “set on a hill,” and the church’s job is to keep it shining.

My experience with my sermon series made it painfully clear to me that this foundational American myth, with its understanding of the Church as the national guardian, is still alive and well in the evangelical community – and not just in its most fundamentalist fringes. Indeed, the reaction to my sermon series has led me to suspect that this myth is possibly being embraced more intensely and widely now than in most times in the past precisely because evangelicals sense that it’s now being threatened. The understanding of America as a “Christian” nation, with all that accompanies this myth, is losing its grip on the collective national psyche. As America is becoming increasingly pluralistic and secularized, the civil religion of Christianity is losing force. And this, understandably, is producing serious consternation among those who identify themselves within the tradition of the nation’s religious guardians.

The book The Myth of a Christian Nation was based on (but goes well beyond) “The Cross and the Sword” sermon series I preached back in 2004. Since its publication, the national and international response has basically repeated the response I got in my own congregation. On the one hand, I have had thousands — and I mean thousands — of e-mails, letters and phone calls from people thanking me for expressing something they’ve felt on some level for years. Many of these positive responses have come from former church-goers who gave up on Christianity precisely because of its political involvement. But I’ve also gone a good bit of hostile feedback from conservative evangelicals who feel I’m leading the flock astray.

My prayer is that this book helps people get a clearer vision of the unique and beautiful Kingdom of God and to differentiate it from the ugliness of all versions of the kingdom of the world.

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