The Myth of a Christian Nation
by Greg Boyd
It is not often that one hears of a preacher who managed to lose 20 percent of a congregation with a series of sermons. Yet this is what happened when Gregory A. Boyd delivered the series of sermons that would eventually be published under the title The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.
The message Boyd proclaims in his book could be described as similar to the message of one itinerant preacher who roamed the Mediterranean world two thousand years ago—radical, offensive, countercultural, and paradigm-shifting. And as with that ancient message, the reader is left with only two choices: to respond or to ignore.
Boyd begins by describing the myth that, by his account, most evangelical Christians believe—the myth that the United States is a Christian nation. This myth is affirmed in the way Christians describe America—that it is a Christian nation, that God is on America's side, and that the kingdom of God that Christians are called to advance is about “taking America back for God” (13). Boyd's hope is to “challenge the assumption that finding the right political path has anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God” (2). The belief in this myth has caused Christians to eschew the “radically countercultural mandate of the kingdom of God…[inclining] us to Christianize many pagan aspects of our culture” (13). What ensues is an odd mix of Christian belief and secular belief, with the greater emphasis generally being placed on that which is secular.
With this foundation, Boyd contrasts the two kingdoms—the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God as he attempts to lay bare the underlying assumptions of each kingdom. He does so by organizing these main contrasting elements under five headings (47ff):
- A Contrast of Trusts: Who is it that each kingdom trusts? In the kingdom of the world, there is a strong emphasis on a “power-over” approach that uses the sword to force others into submission. In the kingdom of God the emphasis is placed on a “power-under” approach demonstrated by service in genuine love for the other.
- A Contrast of Aims: What is it that each kingdom is trying to accomplish? “The kingdom of the world seeks to control behavior,” promoting and protecting self-interest above all else. The kingdom of God “seeks to transform lives from the inside out.” The kingdom of God is characterized by a denial of the self and investment in the value of the other, in the care for the other, in love for the other.
- A Contrast of Scopes: How does each kingdom seek to identify itself? The kingdom of the world is most interested in the preservation and propagation of its country, its culture, and its ideologies. Such an interest inherently breeds conflict between individuals, countries, cultures, and ideologies because each “camp” believes it alone has the answer. The kingdom of God knows only one identity—that of belonging to Christ. Though each member of the kingdom of God is externally a member of a kingdom of the world, they are only defined by the transcendent love of Jesus that is for all people, everywhere.
- A Contrast of Responses: How does each kingdom respond to perceived injustice? The kingdom of the world takes what is taken from them—an “eye for an eye”—with little regard for the well-being of the other. The kingdom of God, with its interest in the transformation of lives, returns evil with love, and looks to respond to injustice in self-sacrificial ways concerned only with the well-being of the other, including the enemy.
- A Contrast of Battles: Against whom does each kingdom fight? The kingdom of the world fights battles against those whom they feel are infringing upon their individualistic rights, against those who stand in opposition to them. The kingdom of God, since it is called to love its enemy, battles against the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NRSV).
Each individual is a member of one these two kingdoms—the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of God—for as Boyd continually states, one cannot belong to both. And this, according to Boyd's rendering, is what the church is attempting to do in the present age—to occupy a space in both kingdoms assuming that an amalgamation of the kingdoms is the purest form of “being in the world and not of the world.”
Boyd sees this demonstrated in the church's desire to co-opt its moral code onto the lives of those who do not claim Christ as their savior, or even as some type of moral guide for life. Just as Christ demonstrated in his ministry, serving others does not mean one forces a certain moral code on those who seemingly lack morals, but instead focuses on loving others so deeply that their lives are transformed from the inside out. The Christian's “unique calling as kingdom people is not to come up with God's opinion of the right solution to [every] issue…[but] to simply replicate Christ's sacrificial love in service to the world” (65).
This “Calvary-quality” love, as Boyd refers to it, is so difficult to pursue because it goes against everything for which the kingdom of the world advocates. This love makes all of the avenues of establishing the Christian's “morally superior” way extraneous, and places the focus on the “power-under” approach Boyd believes is most Christlike. He writes, “When Jesus was crucified, it looked as if he were losing” (105). But the Christian's task is to “believe that, however much it looks like we may be losing, God will use our Calvary-quality acts of service to redeem the world and build his kingdom” (105).
In essence, Boyd is not advocating for faith to be expressed in the relative power a Christian can achieve in this world by pursuing the avenues established in the kingdom of the world. Instead, he advocates faith expressed in an approach to life that places as its center social justice, self-sacrifice, and transformational love. His desire is to see the myth of a Christian nation exposed for what it is—an erroneous attempt to place the cloak of Christianity onto a pagan society. Once the cloak is shed, and America exposed for what it really is, the “power-under,” “Calvary-quality” love will be able to take deep roots in the soil of this nation. Boyd writes,
Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn't so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing! (115)
Boyd's approach is radical, and at times offensive to American sensibilities. But his challenge is one that cannot be ignored, for in this book he crafts an argument that—while divisive—is biblically sound and places at the center Christ's call to “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
That is the gospel—the gospel to which all Christian are called, whether Jew, Greek, American, African, liberal, or conservative. It is a call to you and me to return to where we find true life, in the pursuit of the kingdom of God.
For these reasons, The Myth of a Christian Nation demands a response. Will we ignore it or accept it? To which kingdom will we belong?