Book Review: “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Greg Boyd

Monday, August 23rd, 2010 at 7:16 pm

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America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Our founding fathers were Christians. America is a second Israel, a chosen nation to promote God’s message around the world. Christians in America need to take America back for God–we need to outlaw abortion, pass laws to protect the sanctity of marriage, and fight for Christian prayer in schools.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It certainly does to me–a homeschooled daughter of conservative Christians. My school textbooks read America as a Christian nation through and through–until the corrupt sixties destroyed everything. Admittedly, I generally took this story of history with a grain of salt–but I know plenty who had been raised on the secularly revisionist history of the US who now take this “Christian” version as gospel truth. To them, the call to “take America back for God” is THE calling of the American church.

Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation challenges these and other assertions of the “religious right.”

Boyd’s primary thesis is that Christians miss the point when they make political involvement central to faith. Boyd argues that there is a fundamental difference between the way “the kingdoms of the world” operate and the way “the kingdom of God” operates. The kingdoms of the world attempt to change behavior by exercising power over people; while the kingdom of God changes hearts as the church demonstrates what Boyd calls “power under” living–service and self-sacrifice, following the example of Christ in the cross. Boyd argues that when Christians emphasize politics (a “power over” approach), they dilute or pollute their Christian witness–and fail to walk in Christ-like “power under” love.

I have to say that this book was rather uncomfortable for me–pretty much all the way through. While Boyd states from the beginning that his beef is not merely with the “religious right” but with any political agenda that the church takes on as its own, 100% of his criticism is of the religious right. As a conservative, and one who would probably be lumped by pollsters into the category “the religious right”, I struggled against the temptation to be offended by Boyd’s one-sided criticisms of conservatives.

I spent at least the first three chapters “reserving judgment”. I wanted to hear Boyd out, to really listen to what he had to say. And I’m glad I did.

Boyd’s strength in this book is his clear emphasis on how the kingdom of God differs from the kingdom of the world–and that the primary concern of the Christian should be to exercise kingdom of God “power under” rather than kingdom of the world “power over”. He makes a wonderful point that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world are completely distinct–and should be kept completely distinct.

“To be sure, a version of the kindgdom of the world that effectively carries out law, order, and justice is indeed closer to God’s will for the kingdom of the world.… But no version of the kingdom of the world is closer to the kingdom of God than others because it does its job relatively well. For God’s kingdom looks like Jesus, and no amount of sword-wielding, however just it may be, can ever get a person, government, nation, or world closer to that. The kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world; it’s not something that any verison of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life.”
~Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation

Boyd does a good job, in my opinion, of urging Christians to see living in a Christ-like, others-serving, “power-under” manner as their primary call; rather than seeking political influence as their primary goal. What Boyd does less well is clearly articulate how a Christian might have a godly attitude towards and involvement in politics. That is, one could easily read Boyd and think that the only appropriate thing a Christian can do in relationship with politics is to quietly vote his or her conscience. While Boyd never explicitly says that a Christian could never campaign for a candidate or cause, run for office, or otherwise “move and shake” politically–that is the impression that this book gives.

Because I am not a huge fan of the “Christian nation” narrative made popular in works such as Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory, I was not particularly worried about or offended by Boyd’s alternate narrative which makes America out to be an almost completely secular nation (a la current secular revisionist history.) However, my reading on the subject (two excellent books on church and state and the founding of America are Jon Meacham’s American Gospel and Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith) suggests that the reality fell somewhere in between these two extremes. Again, since my presupposition (as well as my reading of history) falls somewhere between the two extremes, I took Boyd’s rendering with a grain of salt, just as I have with Marshal and Manuel’s. But I wonder if Boyd’s extreme secular interpretation fo history would drive away those who have fully bought into what Boyd calls the “Myth” of a christian nation–making them unable or unwilling to see his true thesis amidst their (partly justifiable) outrage.

I have tons more thoughts on The Myth of a Christian Nation–but I’m already running rather long. This book (and the book club with which I read it) challenged me greatly, changing my mind on some things, clarifying my thoughts on others, and encouraging me to search deeper on yet more. Even though I do not find myself agreeing with everything that Boyd has written (or perhaps because I do not agree with everything Boyd wrote), I am very glad that I read this book–and that I chose to hear Boyd out through the sections which I could have chosen to take deep offense at.

I encourage other readers to do the same. Read this book, choose to reserve judgment, choose to quell the offense you might be tempted to take, choose to search through and pray through Boyd’s thesis. Maybe Boyd will change your mind. Maybe he won’t. But I promise you that you’ll have a deeper and wider perspective on the kingdom of God and on how politics may or may not fit in that for having wrestled with Boyd’s arguments.

Rating:4 stars
Category: Religion and Politics
Synopsis: Boyd argues that “the quest for political power is destroying the church.”
Recommendation: Many may find this book offensive (I know I was definitely tempted to take offense)–but I think Boyd’s thesis is certainly worth grappling with. Christians (particularly those who are interested in politics) would do well to read this book and wrestle through the ideas found within.

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Reader Comments (1):

  1. bekahcubed says:

    On August 24, 2010 – 08:49
    Janet wrote:

    Sounds really good and engaging, even if parts tempt one to take offense. I’ve written off and on about my own discomfort with the “Christian Nation” narrative, and like you I tend to think the reality is probably somewhere in between.

    I picked up ‘God’s Politics,’ another critique of Christians and politics, at a library book sale. But I haven’t gotten myself psyched to take it on yet. I’m sure it’ll push many of my buttons. :-)

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