Friday, September 7, 2012

Between Babel and Beast: A Brief Review

In his latest book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, Peter Leithart provides a strong theological and historical case against the idolatry of what he calls Americanism, an "inherently expansionist faith" and ideology which "often sounds like Christianity, but does not."1 From beginning to end, Leithart defends his case that through the faith of Americanism, "the American nation takes the place of the church as the sacred community". One of the consequences of that faith, Leithart argues, is that they "read the Bible looking for types and shadows of America, and view the constitutional order as the novus ordo saeclorum, an eschatological form of social and political order."2

Leithart's views also prove to not be simplistic, but yet not overly complex either, which is a healthy balance for people new to this subject or new to Leithart's writing style. He makes numerous statements which will raise eyebrows among both fans and critics, but Leithart demonstrates that behind every raised eyebrow is a calculated attempt towards clarity, not ambiguity or exaggeration. Throughout the book, Leithart says things like "Insofar as we [the United States of America] want to make the world into our image, we are a Babel. We are not a beast, but we freely consort with beasts if it will serve our political ends. I wonder how long we can stay in the cage without taking on bestial habits ourselves."3 Leithart doesn't mince words, and so any reader should know what they're in for when statements like that are made. For those who are interested in the typological emphasis which is characteristic of Leithart's polemics, they certainly won't be disappointed either. One whopper of an example that raised my eyebrows the first time, is his contention that "Americanism is the monstrous Nephilim that people the earth when the sons of God intermarry the daughters of men. Americanist Christians are Joktanites who uncritically join Nimrod in building Babel."4 Them's fightin words.

Leithart is also very engaging in his presentation of both American history and world history. He discusses Egyptian, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Roman history. He provides detailed records of men and events in early American history as well, from Benjamin Franklin's "defensive imperialism" to the "expansionist republicanism" of James K. Polk's war against Mexico in 1846. And when discussing current events, the reader is left with a much more honest and transparent representation than the major media likes to present on the ten o'clock nightly news. How many Christians today take notice of publications such as the 1922 inaugural issue of Foreign Affairs (the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations), or the cooperation of Americanism with the IMF and World Bank? I don't know of many, and so, in my mind, Leithart presents a uniquely insightful angle from which to view current events.  

Leithart also discusses the relationship of Americanism with current events in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, Yemen, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. By no means would it be credible to charge Leithart as not knowing his history well. And it's because he knows his history very well that he can sort through all the clutter of liberal theology and media, but still contend for the optimistic eschatological form of social and political order taught in Holy Scripture. For instance, he is not shy about presenting an argument in favor of historic biblical patterns of social order and justice, particularly patterns pertaining to Christian leaders. Leithart calls Christian leaders to grow in maturity and influence to the degree that they hold public officials accountable to the "officers of God's imperium".5  He asks such bold questions as "When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated? When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?" St. Ambrose would be proud of Leithart's faithfulness.

But in order to avoid misunderstanding Leithart's case, it's important to recognize that before presenting those kinds of ecclesiastically-charged questions, he first establishes a strong theological argument about the primacy of God's imperium over the American imperium. According to Leithart, God's imperium consists of communing Christians around the world. And because it is God's imperium, and no one else's, Christians have an effect upon American politics whether they like it or not. But their effect will only be a blessing upon American politics if they are faithful witnesses of God's truth. Sadly enough, I believe his assessment is accurate in that "Christians do not try to check American power because American Christians are usually devotees of Americanism."6 "American Churches", Leithart contends, "cannot critique and confront American power because promotion of Americanism is what American churches stand for. Individual Christians do not have the virtues necessary to function as citizens of God's imperium because American churches have discipled them to function as citizens of the American imperium instead."7

Between Babel and Beast is, in my opinion, one of Leithart's most polemical contributions (and he has written quite a few, to be sure). But in the end, Leithart accomplishes with great precision what he set out to explain in the introduction:
Between Babel and Beast is written for Christians, and my main practical message is a simple one: Remember who you are, and to whom you belong. Remember that you belong to Jesus first and last; remember that the church, not America, is the body of Christ and the political hope of the future; remember that no matter how much it may have served the city of God, America is in itself part of the city of man; remember that the Eucharist is our sacrificial feast. It is good for Christians to be salted throughout our polity--in the White House and bureaucracies, in the military, in international institutions. But Christians in those positions are called to be salt. American churches have too long discipled Christians in Americanism, and that makes Christian involvement in the American polity far smoother than it ought to be. Churches must repent of our Americanism and begin to cultivate martyrs--believers who are martyrs in the original sense of "witness" and in the later sense of men and women ready to follow the Lamb all the way to an imperial cross.8

1.  Peter J. Leithart, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective [Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012] p. xii 
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid. p. xiii
4.  Ibid. pp. 82-83
5.  Ibid. p. 110
6.  Ibid.
7.  Ibid. p. 111
8.  Ibid. p. xiii

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