Ordained Servant Online

City on a Hill: Caesar's or God's?

Richard M. Gamble

A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State, by Darryl Hart. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006, 288 pages, $26.95.

Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, by David Gelernter. New York: Doubleday, 2007, 240 pages, $32.00.

On November 16, 2007, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani addressed the Federalist Society's twenty-fifth anniversary National Lawyers Convention in Washington, D.C. The program celebrated the "Shining City Upon a Hill: American Exceptionalism." In the spirit of the occasion, the former New York City mayor reaffirmed the popular notion of John Winthrop's vision of the American destiny. He intended to link his candidacy to Ronald Reagan—who often added the word "shining" to Winthrop's metaphor—unaware, perhaps, how much bipartisan support Winthrop's words have attracted over the years from Democrats John F. Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Mario Cuomo, and most recently John Kerry. Nevertheless, in quoting Winthrop, Giuliani unambiguously embraced America's "divinely inspired role in the world," a role that includes "mak[ing] sure that ... democracy and freedom [are] upheld, preserved, and expanded everywhere in the world."

The very ordinariness of Giuliani's speech makes it significant. This sort of misappropriation of a biblical metaphor has become invisible to most Americans, including Christians. The nation-state now owns the metaphor that Christ gave to his church. If a new book were to appear with the title A City Upon a Hill—as one recently has—how many people would assume for a moment that the book covered church history or offered an exegesis of Matthew 5? To a remarkable degree, the American identity has eclipsed the church's identity in the public imagination. In A Secular Faith, historian Darryl Hart takes up the confusion of church and state in modern America exemplified by Giuliani's speech. In his trademark way, Hart steps out of the unimaginative historical framework that arranges political and theological conflicts in America along a spectrum from "liberal" to "conservative." Instead of that conventional device, he works through a set of popular but largely unexamined "truisms" about the right ordering of church and state in America to show that these cultural presuppositions cut right across categories of liberal and conservative, fundamentalist and modernist, evangelical and mainline, postmillennialist and premillennialist, Catholic and Protestant. Underneath the public wrangling, adversaries within American Christianity and politics—such as Jim Wallis and Richard John Neuhaus—essentially agree about the church's mandate to transform the culture. Since Winthrop first "fused divine intentions for the church with human efforts to construct a just and harmonious society," Hart writes, Americans of all varieties have had the bad habit of measuring the church's success or failure by the degree to which it perpetuates Christendom, redeems politics, promotes public order and morality, gets a voice in the "public square," and sustains liberal democracy.

Hart's argument stands on the refreshingly countercultural premise that Jesus and the apostles founded Christianity to be an otherworldly, apolitical, and unavoidably divisive faith practiced largely in private by adherents who live "hyphenated" lives as citizens of two cities. Hart sees these attributes as normative for the Christian life. In its "classic formulations," he writes, Christianity "has very little to say about politics or the ordering of society." It has something to say, certainly, and its fundamental teachings have demonstrably had "implications for politics." But it offers no blueprint. Simply put, "the basic teachings of Christianity are virtually useless for resolving America's political disputes, thus significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the dilemma of how to relate Christianity and American politics." While ancient Israel had indeed been founded as a theocracy that fused cult and culture into a single whole, Christianity divided the state off into a separate, though legitimate, realm. The church, not the state, inherited Israel's status as the chosen nation. "Christianity," Hart writes, "separated what the Old Testament bound together." The secular state has no calling and no capacity to become the City of God. Its legitimacy as an institution in no way hinges on its being sanctified by the church. Separation helps maintain the integrity of both church and state by allowing each of them to fulfill its calling without transgressing or co-opting the other's. Unlike the Israelites of old, Christians are called to live a "double life" as exiles and strangers, often forced, as was the Apostle Paul, to choose between the conflicting demands of God and Caesar.

Hart finds American Christianity confused and distracted by its quest for political and cultural influence. Christians of all types distort and misconstrue their faith by substituting a new calling and mission for the church's biblical mandate. In their well-meaning but misguided quest to enhance Christianity's cultural and political relevance in the world, activist Christians end up trivializing their faith. They trivialize their spiritual liberty into demands for crèches in front of city hall and trivialize weighty biblical doctrine into merely good advice for upholding public morality. To those who sense that something is wrong with the dominant political theology in America, Hart reintroduces the possibility that Christianity was never meant to make a good civil religion. The secular realm usually finds its defenders among ideologues who fear that the church poses a grave threat to the health of the state. To a degree, Hart concurs. But he defends the secular realm primarily as a means to defend from politicization the church's higher calling.

If A Secular Faith succeeds only in making Christians more self-conscious about how they think and speak, more alert when politicians appropriate the church's metaphors, more likely to return to first principles when they defend their model of the church, then Hart will have made a significant contribution to maintaining the integrity of both church and state. He may even open the modern Christian's imagination to the possibility that the much-criticized secular state carves out the very environment in which the church is freest to be the church. As for those who care more about a robust Americanism than a healthy church, Hart invites them to "find another religion."

David Gelernter has done just that. In Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, Gelernter preaches a utilitarian religion powerful enough to remake the world in America's image. More than a civil religion or ordinary patriotism, the "American Religion" offers broken humanity nothing less than "a theological idea of great depth and beauty and power." He begins with two alleged "facts" about the American national identity that throughout the book never rise above the level of assertion: "America is a biblical republic" and "Americanism [is] a biblical religion." By "biblical," Gelernter means that Americanism is an extension of both Judaism and Christianity, and of a particularly vigorous Old Testament brand of Christianity in the form of Puritanism. By "Americanism" he means "the idea that liberty, equality, and democracy were ordained by God for all mankind, and that America is a new promised land richly blessed by and deeply indebted to God."

He argues that these incontrovertible facts about the American identity are "supported by mountains of evidence." That Americans since the first settlers have defined themselves in biblical terms as God's new Israel or even as the Messiah among nations is impossible to miss in countless sermons and speeches and poems spanning four hundred years. Showing that Americans have talked this way about themselves is easy. Showing whether Americans ought to have done so would require a more sophisticated theological and historical analysis than Gelernter bothers with. John Winthrop's or Abraham Lincoln's or Woodrow Wilson's appropriation of the Bible proves nothing about the legitimacy or wisdom of that use. Whether a statesman such as Lincoln ought to have transferred biblical metaphors for Israel and the church to the American nation-state requires some principle of judgment other than habit and utility. By the book's end Gelernter merely proves that from the time of the first settlers in New England, Americans have said these sorts of things about themselves, not that they ought to have said these things, not that the nation is indeed a biblical republic or Americanism a biblical religion.

Gelernter's religion of Americanism—which, for reasons he never makes clear, supposedly carries for Jews and Christians no danger of blasphemy or idolatry—comes complete with its own creed ("liberty, democracy, and equality"); its own prophets (John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson); its own sacred scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's speeches, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic); and its own Great Commission (to spread the creed to all the world), along with its own version of the new birth and the new covenant and a bit of mystical ecstasy thrown in. Belief in God, however, is optional: "You can believe in Americanism without believing in God—so long as you believe in man" (20). His use of redemptive imagery is unmistakable: America truly is the "city set upon a hill," the "light of the world," and a nation called to set the captives free.

Americanism thrives on precisely the kind and degree of confusion of church and state that Hart tries so meticulously to sort out. Indeed, Hart's careful dichotomizing between these institutions would prove lethal to Gelernter's entire argument. For Gelernter there need be no inherent tension between Caesar and God, between being in the world but not of it, between being an American and being a Christian. He would never concede Hart's premise that the United States could in some sense be more "biblical" by being more secular. He sets up a false opposition between a wholly biblical republic and an aggressively atheistic secularism, as if these are the only options available to America. Unintentionally, he reminds Christians that the most momentous conflict, now as always, rages between true religion and false religion, not between the church and the secular state. While Hart emphasizes both Jesus' teaching that his kingdom is not of this world and Christianity's otherworldly character, Gelernter believes "'America' is an idea that results from focusing the Bible and Judeo-Christian faith like a spotlight's beam on the problems of this life (not the next) in the modern world, in a modern nation." "In America," he emphasizes, "religion must be political, is in fact political; in America religion concerns the citizen and the city."

In Augustine's City of God (XIX.17), the North African bishop reflected at length on what the earthly city and the heavenly city can and cannot have in common. Despite their opposed loves, the two cities temporarily share a common need to pursue "the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life." In matters of worship, however, the two cities occupy no common ground, and "the heavenly city has been compelled in this matter to dissent, and to become obnoxious to those who think differently, and to stand the brunt of their anger and hatred and persecutions...." Darryl Hart's A Secular Faith brings a timely reminder of this Augustinian and biblical insight and calls the church to an urgent self-examination of just how much of its calling and identity it may have surrendered to the state. David Gelernter's Americanism shows Christians just how real and urgent the problem is becoming. Transformed into a religion, the nation-state demands the very worship that Christians must never render to it. If ever pushed to this extremity of false worship, faithful Christians in America would be compelled to dissent. How doubly tragic if Christians themselves blessed and nurtured this idolatry.

Richard M. Gamble, a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan, is Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Professor of History and Political Science at Hillsdale College. Ordained Servant, January 2008.

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