Leithart the Prophet to America?

Recently I reviewed Peter Leithart’s book Between Babel and Beast (Cascade, 2012). Well, only Part II: Americanism. Now I have finished the book. Part III is the title of the book. There Leithart indicts America for its foreign policy and behavior toward other nations and peoples. He says “For much of the last century, the United States has forged alliances with repressive despots. (150) ” He concludes that “Churches should…encourage Christians to discover ways to turn American power toward justice, peace and charity.” (152)

If Leithart were not who he is, a theologically conservative American Protestant (and possibly some kind of Christian Reconstructionist), he would be labeled (by Religious Right types and conservative evangelicals in general) a liberal liberationist critic America and dismissed as a “leftist.” Of course, he’s not that. But many of his criticisms of America echo ones found in the literature of Latin American liberation theologians. For example, he gives numerous examples of instances in which America has contributed to the overthrow (often violent) of democratically elected Latin American governments solely to protect “American interests” (viz., the interests of large American corporations). He doesn’t just throw these charges out there without supportive detail. Read the book.

I was somewhat disappointed that, at the end of the book, Leithart still does not outline his preferred arrangement of church and state. But one thing is clear from this book and Against Constantine (which I reviewed here earlier): he believes a main “job” of government (in the overall scheme of things including God) is to protect God’s people, the church. I will go out on a limb and say that I think he also believes government should listen to the church and follow its guidance in moral matters (and what isn’t a “moral matter”)? The question this raises, if I’m right, is “which church?”

I found Between Babel and Beast one of the most bracing and refreshing books on theopolitics I’ve read in a long time. One of the reasons is that Leithart cannot be dismissed as a nut case or “Yoderian” or liberationist or left-winger or America-hater or anything like that. He’s clearly not in those categories. He says what many of them say from a totally different platform.

Clearly, if Leithart is right, America is in danger of becoming a “beast” in the world. We are using our power to protect and serve our own interests often to the detriment of the common good of humanity and, ultimately, to the detriment of our own good insofar as God exists and is a God of justice.

Of all the books I have read in the past several years, this one strikes a chord with me most strongly. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Get it and read it. Let it speak to you. Share it with someone you know who believes in “American exceptionalism.”

I don’t know if Leithart is a prophet in the same category as Isaiah or Amos or John the Baptist (or Gregory of Nyssa or Chrysostom), but this book is prophetic. It (especially Parts II and III) ought to be required reading in every American church and Christian organization.

  • LexCro

    Dr. Olson,

    Thanks for this review! I will definitely be seeking this book out. Also, I’d like to commend you for your generous spirit. It is was clear from your review of “Defending Constantine” that you have trenchant disagreements with Leithart (as do I). But in reviewing “Between Beast and Babel” you are able to commend Leithart’s prophetic critique of and plea to the United States. It’s very easy to entirely disregard people just because we disagree them partially (especially on the internet!). Clearly, you have not done that. Thanks again for your most gracious spirit, Dr. Olson.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    He [Leithart] says “For much of the last century, the United States has forged alliances with repressive despots. (150) ” He concludes that “Churches should…encourage Christians to discover ways to turn American power toward justice, peace and charity.” (152)

    The US government has forged alliances with repressive despots (redundant) because it suited them (for good or ill). Wouldn’t be surprised to find that most of the alliances are for the (financial or military) well-being of the US. (We were allied with Bin Laden for a number of years!) I would say that the US has a capacity to care about the effects on the citizens of the foreign countries, but that care is not always prominent. (Can you think of a consequential country where it is mostly the case?)

    Sounds like Leithart wants to reform the government into an extension of the Church. This is misguided. Government is force, and to think that raw force is going to help the people get along better is lunacy. Our FLOTUS wants children to eat better, so her program uses force of law to make it happen by outlawing various foods in cafeterias. The POTUS wants income to be more evenly distributed, so he uses the force of law to take from some to give to others. The Church (even with good intentions) will be corrupted to the core if it takes that ring of government power. She will find that she is not wielding the power of the ring, but that she is being wielded by the ring. It will rot the Church to the core. Just look at how awfully it played out at the recent DNC when they wanted to remove “God” from the party platform, then brazenly broke their own rules to hustle Him back in – inciting many to loudly “boo” God! Methinks that the only way for Christians to positively impact what government does is to severely curtail what government does.

    • rogereolson

      So far I don’t see any evidence that Leithart wants the government to be an extension of the church. If that is the case, I am still looking for the proof. But what’s interesting is that you are doing exactly what he does in Between Babel and the Beast–criticizing the government. How does criticizing the government’s actions (too much or too little) “take that ring of government power?”

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I believe that it was the quote from page 152 (that we both cited) – that the Church (through its members) ought to steer the ship of State in a different direction. If the Church is the people, then how can such a plan not be seen as the State becoming an extension of the Church?

        It is not the criticizing of government’s actions that takes the ring of government power, but the use thereof. From Tolkien himself: “You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: and allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 121.)

        Or another for good measure: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ monarchy . . . Anyway, the proper study of man is anything but man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The medievals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that — after all only the fatal weakness of all good things in a bad corrupt unnatural world — is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way.”(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 63.)

  • icthusiast

    I suppose there is some danger in commenting on a topic like this from abroad, but here goes…

    It’s just gone 11 years since the twin towers came down. One of my abiding memories of that situation was the nonsense spouted by President Bush as he attempted to explain why it happened. “They hate us because of our freedom.” No, George, they hate the fact that you meddle in the world on the basis of “might equals right”. If you want one simple example, check out the story of the USS Vincennes and its aftermath.

    If this book can help America understand itself and how ikt is perceived in the world, I hope it gets a wide readership.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi ichusiast,
      I hate to take issue with your comment because you are correct in the over-meddling of the US. But President Bush was also correct. Why just this week, at least 3 US embassies were attacked – and some killed – because a few people in the US were putting a film together. This kind of expression is protected speech in America, but considered worthy of death in other countries. So they kill one of the US Ambassadors? The label of “nonsense” should be better directed at those who hate/kill. I hear that they are not particularly fond of certain cartoonists either – or of novelists (Rushdie) and desire to kill them as well. They really do hate us because of our freedoms (among other things).

      • icthusiast

        Hi Tim,

        The US, including its individual citizens, is ‘free’ to do many things because of its power. How it, and its individual citizens, choose to use that freedom is quite another thing. I absolutely condemn the violent acts perpetrated against US interests and personnel in recent days. But when you live in a global village and act in a completely insensitive manner towards the deeply held sensibilities of some of your ‘neighbours’, and refuse them the right to exercise the same freedoms you claim to cherish – whether it’s an individual making an offensive movie or a government exercising its freedom to overthrow a legitmitately elected regime, or to blow a passenger plane out of the sky and not only refuse to apologise but to award the crew combat medals – that is abuse of freedom.

        I live in a country where we enjoy all the same freedoms that so-called western democratic states offer and there are many other similar countries. Why is the US the greater target? Because it has a sad history of using its power to support its abuse of freedom, and to deny such freedoms to others.

        Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate the US. It’s a great country. I’ve had the privilege of visiting a couple of times. However, it does sadden me that, in my view, the greatest state which, rightly or wrongly, carries the label ‘Christian’ tarnishes the name of Christianity by failing to demonstrate love for neighbour, let alone live according to “love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.” I can’t help wondering how the world would be different today if 11 years ago the President of the US had a clearer insight into why 9/11 happened and set out to achieve reconciliation rather than retribution?

  • Joshua Wooden

    If only it were possible to require churches to actually read something. . . .

  • Mike Anderson

    I am not welcome to raise concerns about “American exceptionalism” in any of the theologically conservative, Bible-as-authority churches in my area. (Church groups that think the Bible is not our best authority, or that Christianity is compatible with anything and everything, these don’t appeal to me.) Too many friends and acquaintances speak as though God has a special covenant with America, and are turning toward reconstructionism & theonomy (which appeals mostly the Reformed), toward promises of a fresh outpouring of the Spirit when we the chosen bring God’s judgment upon the faithless, or simply toward the ideal of individual freedom as though God really was on the side of Ayn Rand. They see the judgement of God upon us for allowing abortion, homosexuality, and pornography, for not accepting leadership as men, for not fighting for our turf against “liberals,” evolutionists, Muslims, or territorial spirits. I think it is more likely that if the judgement of God is upon us, it is because we have not done good, sought justice, set straight the oppressor, judged for the orphan, nor pleaded for the widow (Isaiah 1:17). Perhaps if the judgement of God is upon us as a nation, it is that we no longer hear the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11). As I go from church group to church group and find only a few who see things as I do, but then read and hear testimonies of powerful encounters with God overseas (Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc.), I begin to wonder if it is easier to find God at work and commune with His people outside the United States and perhaps the Anglosphere. Or perhaps I just need to seek out the poor and downtroddened here on native soil.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Roger,
    This is clearly a dead thread, but I am hoping that you will at least read my comment. It seems to me that if one takes the political eschatology of scripture seriously one can only conclude that all current governments are part of “The Beast.” I’ve not read Leithart’s books, but scanning the conclusion of _Between…_ on Amazon I read his call for churches in America to repent and forge bonds that would prohibit Christian shedding of Christian blood stands as an indictment of the USA from its beginning. In that light, it seems odd to me that you can say “if Leithart is right, America is in danger of becoming a “beast” in the world. ” In danger of “becoming a ‘beast’”? The USA, like all other nations, is a kingdom of Satan, the Beast, and even more directly so than many because it was founded in the re-sacrifice of Christ in the slaughter of fellow Christians for sub-Christian purposes.


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