Between Babel and Beast: A Conversation with Peter Leithart
Defending Constantine demonstrates the enduring relevance of the “Constantinian moment” of the fourth century. While recent scholarship has focused mainly on the negative results, Leithart swings the pendulum back, reminding us of all the good that God brought from this contested period of history.
Today, Peter joins me on the blog to talk about his new book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, another thought-provoking book destined to make people on all sides of the political realm a bit uncomfortable.
Trevin Wax: Your book Defending Constantine was a rehabilitation of sorts of the image of Constantine and the consequences of his reign. You consider this new book to be a “book-length footnote” that deals with contemporary issues of imperialism. What bothers you about recent treatments of “empire”?
Peter Leithart: My complaints are mostly against theologians and biblical scholars who write about empires and imperialism. They frequently treat “empire” simplistically as a single thing, as if every empire is exactly the same as every other. They ignore distinctions that are theologically and ethically relevant.
Most are unaware of the complex and subtle discussions of imperialism written by political scientists and historians.
- Political scientists have good reasons for distinguishing between “hegemony,” “imperialism” and “colonialism.”
- Historians like Anthony Padgen have shown that even in the modern age there have been different types of imperialism. 19th-century English imperialism was not the same as 16th-century Spanish imperialism, partly because the English learned from the sins and mistakes of their predecessors.
I’ve tried to acknowledge this complexity in my book by using the plural “empires” rather than “empire.”
Many people who write in this area also seem to assume an egalitarian ideal for international relations. They seem to want every nation to have the same amount of influence on the world. That is, at least, historically and politically naive; the world of nations has never functioned that way. It’s also not a Christian standard, though it sometimes presents itself as one. There’s a characteristically modern suspicion of authority lurking behind these analyses.
My complaints about biblical scholarship on empires is more specific. Most of the people who write on empires in the Bible acknowledge that the Bible doesn’t speak with a single voice. Some empires and emperors – Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus – are praised, some – Pharaoh, Babel – are condemned. That’s an accurate assessment, but then most go on implicitly to adopt the anti-imperial threads of the Bible as normative.
My aim was to take the complex surface portrait as normative. When I did this, I found that the Bible talks about a spectrum of different sorts of empires – some are Babelic empires that impose themselves on other nations, some are bestial empires that prey on the saints, and some are patrons of the church that God uses to advance His kingdom – like Cyrus’ Persian empire or the Roman empire of Constantine.
Trevin Wax: You speak of the gospel in terms of political, imperial language. Can you explain why you see the gospel in these terms? And how does this line up with the rival empires portrayed in the New Testament, specifically, Rome during the mid-first century and then Rome at the end of the first century?
Peter Leithart: That was partly rhetorical, to stir the pot. But I think those terms accurately translate Scripture.
Jesus preaches “the kingdom,” but the Greek word basileia was used in the first century to describe the Roman empire. It’s perfectly accurate to say that Jesus comes preaching the “empire of heaven.”
I think this is also valuable because it highlights the political dimensions of the gospel that have often been obscured in modern theology. When we describe the church as “God’s Abrahamic empire,” we can see more clearly how the church presents an alternative and rival to the political structures of the first century.
Finally, as a historical matter, highlighting the political dimensions of the gospel helps us understand why the Romans reacted to Christianity the way they did. They would have been quite happy to tolerate yet another middle eastern religion. What they could not tolerate was an invasion of an alien empire with its capital in heaven.
Trevin Wax: You affirm a type of American exceptionalism, but it differs from the street-level view among many conservatives. Can you explain the difference and why this distinction is important?
Peter Leithart: America is exceptional in all sorts of ways:
- It had a unique founding;
- it is one of the most deeply Christian nations that has ever existed;
- it is of course fabulously wealthy and powerful;
- its political and economic system have enabled human creativity and ingenuity to be unleashed as never before in human history.
- I am grateful for America’s tradition of hospitality to aliens from all over the world, and our real assistance to the poor and oppressed.
What I criticize in the book is “Americanism,” which is, as David Gelernter has said, one of the world’s great biblical religions. Americanism rarely exists in a pure form; most American Christians are Christians and Americanists at the same time.
Americanism has a way of reading the Bible (with America sometimes playing a prominent role in the biblical story as the “new Israel”), an eschatology (America is the “new order of the ages” and the “last best hope of mankind”), a doctrine of political salvation (everyone becomes like us, and all will be well), and, since the civil war, a view of sacrifice (American soldiers give their lives, and take the lives of enemies, to make the world peaceful and free).
For many American Christians, American exceptionalism involves some degree of adherence to Americanism. Americanism is a heresy; in certain respects it is simply idolatrous. Jesus, not James Madison, brought in the “new order of the ages.”
The practical effect of Americanism is that it blinds Christians to the real evils that America has perpetrated and also obscures the central importance of the church as God’s empire on earth. Americanism encourages Christians to support the American cause no matter what, because the future of the world depends on America. Even when we’re bombing civilians or sending billions of dollars in military aid to Muslim dictators, Christians still wave the flag and sing America’s praises. And for some Christians, criticism of America is almost tantamount to apostasy.
Trevin Wax: You describe the U.S. as a post-Christendom Christian nation. What do you mean by this description?
Peter Leithart: Christendom was a political system that officially subordinated political power to the purposes of God’s kingdom. In practice, Christendom was full of injustices and evil, but in theory it was a political system where theological convictions concerning salvation, the church, the Eucharist, and the future provided the framework for political life.
By the time the first English colonists settled in new England, that order had already collapsed in Europe because of the fracturing of the church at the Reformation. Even though the settlers wanted to establish a Christian polity, it was a new start. Unlike Europe, America has no memory of medieval Christendom – no cathedrals or monasteries or castles – and we never have. From the beginning, America was “post-Christendom” in that sense.
When we get to the late 18th century, we are again in a different cultural world. The American Founders were not trying to shape a political system within the political framework of Christendom. As secularists often point out, there are virtually no references to Christianity in the American Constitution. Even though most of the founders are Christians, their political outlook isn’t forged by the convictions of Christendom.
America is unthinkable apart from Christianity and Christendom; but our polity represents a fairly radical break from the Christian tradition. Oliver O’Donovan captures this when he says that the First Amendment marks the end of Christendom. We are a polity where the church is no longer recognized as having a central and essential public role.
Trevin Wax: What is the responsibility of pastors and church leaders in helping Christians understand their role as citizens of God’s kingdom who are also citizens of the United States? What are some wrong turns the Left and the Right take? What is the way forward?
Peter Leithart: The obvious things are the most important things: Teach the Bible, the whole Bible, and urge God’s people to obey it in all areas of their lives.
Negatively, teaching the Bible means teaching Christians that they are Christians first before they are Americans; it means teaching them that their Christian brothers in Iran and Iraq are closer “kin” than American unbelievers. Teaching the Bible means attacking the idolatries associated with Americanism. Teaching the Bible means teaching people not to kill, even if the American government says it’s OK.
Another obvious thing is to cultivate the communal life of the church, and that means putting the Lord’s Supper at the center of Christian worship. The Supper is where we who partake of one loaf are made into one body; by participation in the Supper, we are formed into God’s rival empire. I think festivity and ritual are crucial here.
Years ago, I saw a video of a July 4th celebration at a Baptist church. It was big and bombastic, probably the most raucous celebration of the year in that church. That is discipleship in Americanism. Do we have similar celebrations for Pentecost – the event when the Spirit broke through national, ethnic, and linguistic bounds?
Another obvious thing: Practice church discipline. Pastors need to be willing to enforce biblical standards, even if those biblical standards come into direct conflict with American interests and aims. According to the just war tradition to which I adhere, killing in war is just only if the war is just. When was the last time Christians judged an American war to be unjust? As Bill Cavanaugh says, the church needs to re-assert its authority to tell Christians when they can and cannot kill. We’ve ceded that authority to the state. One of the difficulties here is that the American church is absurdly fragmented. For its authority to be weighty, Christians need to be pursuing reconciliation.
The American church has too often formed Americanists rather than disciples. We should be aiming to raise people up to be martyrs in the original sense of the term, witnesses to Jesus who are willing to risk everything to remain faithful to Jesus.