Saturday, 21 January 2017

Between Babel and Beast, by Peter Leithart

Peter J Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, 2012 Wipf and Stock

This book, which explores American religious identity in a political context, is intended in the author's mind to be a sort of sequel to his book Defending Constantine. I think perhaps he could have made a little more of this connection, as there is a big jump between the Emperor St. Constantine and the American republic.

Leithart begins his book with Genesis. He identifies Babel as a focus of human energy against divine purposes. In building Babel, the first empire, Nimrod and his people were seeking a kind if immortality, to preserve their identity forever. In response to Babel God introduced his own empire by calling Abraham to form a great nation which would be a blessing to all people. Some of the Babelic empires became 'Beast' empires, which were characterised by their hostility to the people of God. Yet God also raised up empires like those of Cyrus which respected and protected God's people. These took a new form when rulers like St. Constantine converted to the Christian faith. The Church is also called to be an empire, a transnational empire that interpenetrates human kingdoms.

Leithart argues that in the USA, a new form of empire emerged, one that was ostensibly secular, but messianic in its pretensions to be the Kingdom of God. He calls it 'Americanism' and describes it as an heresy. It holds that America has a destiny to transform the world in it's own image and to realize the kingdom of God on Earth through its own policies. This politicization of the Kingdom displaces the role of the Church. He therefore describes the USA as an 'Heretic Nation.' While he believes that America has in many ways been a great nation, he sees it as acting foremost in her own interests and not the interests of the Kingdom of God, therefore the claims of Americanism are false. He also points out that many of the countries that America has supported have been persecutors of Christians, citing Egypt, Pakistan and even Israel, which has shown a mild but definite hostility to the growth of Christianity in her borders. America may not be a Beast empire, but she is a friend of Beasts.

I felt slightly cheated after reading this book. Leithart reserves all his engagement with other writers to the endnotes. When I took my PhD, I was told in no uncertain terms that moving significant areas of discussion to the footnotes (to evade the word limits) was frowned upon. An example of a key piece of discussion is Leithart's critique of Stephen H. Webb's American Providence (on my reading list!), which looks at this very subject, yet offers a positive view of 'Americanism.' Why not place this material in the main text? Most of the people who read this book are educated people who will want to see how Leithart defends his views and interacts with other writers.

There is something of a lack of perspective in this book. Leithart makes no attempt to compare the 'American empire' with other empires such as the British Empire or the Habsburgs. He talks about the Orthodox symphony of church and state, but a more obvious context would be the kingdoms of Western Christendom, whose political philosophy he does not explore. Our author never considers the possibility that there might be similarities between 'Americanism' and the religious and political identities of countries such as France or Russia. He should have at least explored this possibility.

Leithart describes Americanism as an heresy, which seems to imply that it is a theological doctrine like justification by faith or soul sleep. I am not so sure it can be seen as equivalent. I do not think Americanism is a coherent political ideology, let alone a theological position. I think it possibly works more on the level of political metaphor or rhetorical device. It might have been helpful of him to have said something about the eschatological view of Postmillennialism (which I believe he holds to) and how it relates to the political sphere.

I am always wary when theologians write about politics, especially when they are pastors or priests. They have a tendency to be somewhat idealistic and naieve when it comes to politics. It is all well to complain of the USA supporting nations that persecute Christians, but can the USA really afford to risk losing key strategic allies? I am sure the USA could do more to support persecuted Christians, but at the same time she must take a realistic foreign policy.

I think this is an insightful book, but it could have been longer, broader and deeper.

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