Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Do We Seek the Conversion of Countries--or People?

I recently read evangelical historian Mark Noll's masterwork, America's God. Published in 2002 by Oxford, the book traces the relationship between Christianity and political life in America from a theological perspective. Or, to put it differently, America's God is theological history, albeit theological history of an entire country with a special emphasis on the intersection of Christian doctrine and political life.

Noll's central point is that Americans married Christianity and republican political philosophy to such an extent that it is now difficult to imagine American Christianity without its ties to the central idea of republicanism, that liberty and virtue go hand in hand, and the conceptual framework that emerges from such a principle, namely, that America's well-being and destiny are bound up in its adherence to a biblical creed. Some out there may have found it odd that some Christians, whose faith is anchored in a belief in a transcendent, other-worldly kingdom nonetheless profess a faith that is so closely connected to the establishment of a righteous political order on the earth. I can say on a personal level that my own understanding of this marriage was nowhere near as informed or developed as Noll's, but that I have often experienced a low-level queasiness in my gut when hearing talk of the need to build a biblical America or return this country to its righteous roots.

It is of course true that Christianity informs our country's heritage, and it is essential that Christians engage their culture and work for the application of truth and justice in their society. But this is a far cry from "vivifying, ennobling, and lending transcendence" (Noll's thesis phrase) to a political order that is not itself transcendent. Republicanism is of course a blessed system of government under which to live, and I am thankful on a daily basis that I do live in a republican society. And yet I am also uneasy about the error some among us make, that of deifying republicanism, of becoming so bound up in its ideals that we invest more in it--for the earthly "kingdom," so to speak--than we do in the kingdom not made by human hands. Though Noll does not so write so subjectively, as he prefers a more objective style that puts forth an argument with heavy evidence and a more detached prose, it is clear that my concerns mirror his own. We Christians must be good citizens on this earth, yes, but we must not let our faith grow so earthy that our country's spirituality--itself impossible to measure--concerns us more than evangelism and discipleship. America is not Israel. Our land is blessed in many ways by the hand of God, but it is foolish to assume that if we simply pass this law or defeat this one that we may then say that our nation has turned its back on sin and has become a righteous land once and for all. Figuring out national spirituality is a complex question, one better suited to Old Testament days than our own.

Sometimes it is as if we evangelicals have applied our sense of individual conversion on a national scale. It is as if we seek to convert America. We cannot do this. We are not a divinely led nation in the sense that Israel was, and thus we do not possess a spiritual identity in the same way that Israel did. Our country is a complex mix of good and bad, right and wrong, and a political theology that leads us to in some way "save" our country on a mass scale is bound to fail. Better for us to push ahead in our kingdom work, to labor with enthusiasm and energy to advance the kingdom and spread the gospel, and work for the application of truth and justice in our society. America is not saved yet--and in fact, she never will be. But there are millions--no, billions--out there who can be saved, and we need to focus our efforts on them.

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Anonymous Riley said...

Amen brother! I fear that too many American Christians are putting more hope in the government, or in their country than in Christ. It is sad that so few are looking forward to the heavenly kingdom because the earthly one, in America at least, is so comfortable. I encouraged a student in China this summer to hope in Christ instead of the Communist Party because (among other things) the Party is made up of sinful men and therefore can not meet our deepest needs. Interestingly, the same holds true for Americans.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Dad said...

I think, to a certain point, we must be interested in both. Many of us are not in the position to influence our nation, or to work for better laws, but a few believers might be in such a position. I'm thinking of William Wilberforce, (and others) the guy in England who worked for years to abolish slavery.

However, I do agree in general with your posts.

Al (Not Owen's dad or that other "Al".)

3:53 AM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Excellent post Owen. Really good stuff.

10:42 PM  

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