Between Babel and Beast, America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, by Peter Leithart ★★★★★
This is one of the better books I’ve read in a while, and so will spend more time than usual in offering a review. It is uncommon that I would order more copies of a book soon after completing it, in order to encourage others to read the book, but this book is an example of such a text. It is a must-read for Americans. I enjoy reading Leithart, even though our denomination (Presbyterian Church in America) has occasionally attempted to label him a heretic for his stance on federal vision, an entity that I’ve yet to have a competent theologian adequately define for me.
I’ve been interested in the dynamics and politics and religion since it is an election year, and the politicians are out-selling themselves. Some theonomists would argue that there is no difference between politics and religion (such as Rushdooney), since the only legitimate government is a Christian government that follows the civil law of Moses. Such will be the case when the saints alone rule the earth in their original condition absent of original sin. Until then, we must always differentiate between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Leithart asks a penetrating question as to how the kingdom(s) of man treats those of a Christian faith. Do the various nations of the world act against God’s kingdom or in support of it?
The introduction to the book first explains the purpose of Leithart writing the book. In a way, it is a sequel to another book he wrote titled “Constantine”. This book was reviewed by me previously. Before beginning the book, Leithart gently reminds the reader that he (assuming that the reader is an American Christian) is first and foremost a Christian, but also a reminder that America is a part of the city of man. He will elaborate on that much further in the book.
The first three chapters with their conclusion are a history of empires from a biblical perspective. Beginning with the first empire ever, Babel, Leithart outlines in the first chapter the evolution and children of Babel through the book of Genesis. Babel is not used in a particularly pejorative sense, but simply to define an institution that is the “city of man”, a political state or empire established on earth. Introduced in Genesis is also God’s imperium, God’s rule on earth, found in those faithful to Him. The promise to Abraham to build him into a great nation echoed that counter to the Babel that Abraham came out of. Chapter 2 continues with the children of God (Israel) being delivered from the Babel of Egypt. The allusions to the similarity of Abraham being called out of Ur were emphasized. Similarly, the call of the Jews out of Babylon/Persia back to the land of Israel was again likened to the exodus of Moses. Leithart spends much time in Daniel, first discussing how empires could be beasts (by mistreating God’s people) or not, such as Cyrus returning the Jews back to the homeland. Thus, the conclusion was that the Old Testament was not against empire, but against rival imperialisms, “rival visions for the political salvation of a human race”. The third chapter continues into the Roman empire, with both bad news (the execution of Christ and martyrdom of the saints) with good news, such as with Constantine and most of the emperors after him supporting the Christian church, and allowing it to behave freely. Good news included protections in the apostolic period, where Paul appealed frequently as a citizen of Rome, and Rome protected Paul, giving him free transport to Rome to build the church there.
Chapters 4 & 5 comprise a new section, titled “Americanism”. Chapter 4 (Heretic Nation) describes what it means to be American, holding “an assurance that the declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution establishes the best political order the world has ever seen, the last best hope of mankind… Our national self-consciousness is a “Messianic consciousness””. Chapter 4 is a lengthy chapter that I will inadequately summarize. Leithart discusses how with the rise of Constantine and eventually the fall of Rome, the struggle for identity of the roles of church and state have been prevailing themes. Church historians, including Eusebius, emphasized that Constantine was like another Moses, delivering the people of God. Thus a transformation occurred in how church and state regard each other. Such examples include Pope Gregory VII instituting the concept of a holy war. As national identities became more prominent in Europe, the state played on this notion, leading to many religious wars. The puritans sought delivery from this, sailing to America to form a new hope for man, a new world order, a nation that could be religiously free and beacon to the world; essentially, it was the formation of a new “Israel”, and puritan reading of scripture had a strong nationalist bent. Leithart offers many examples throughout American history of politicians likening America to the new “Israel”. Leithart continues, “Americans are today biblically illiterate, but biblical cadences continue to echo in our political rhetoric, setting the terms of our nation’s purpose and mission. It was no accident that President Bush memorialized the first anniversary of 9/11 with a Statue of Liberty speech full of intertextual links with the opening verses of John’s Gospel… Bush, like many American Christians, has so instinctively and viscerally identified Jesus with the spread of American-style liberty that he can hardly distinguish them.” American wars were referenced to “Americanist typology… “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Coming of the Lord,” … fighting and dying like Christ not to make men holy but “to make men free””. Concluding, “Sacrifice American style can only go on and on. For in Americanism, this fourth great biblical religion, there is no final sacrifice, no end to bloodshed until we have rid the world of evil until the American creed becomes the creed of humanity. In this too, we are a heretic nation”. Chapter 5, summarized briefly, mixes quotes that adamantly state that we are not an empire and we do not interfere with the affairs of other nations, with examples that prove that we do everything but that. Starting with Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s doctrine, speeches from Washington, he shows the extreme political hypocrisy. Sadly the examples of history do NOT start with our involvement in WWI like we are typically taught, but rather from the inception of our empire, with the war against the Barbary Pirates in 1803, to our involvement in conflicts in the Philippines in 1813, our treatment of the Indians, and our development of manifest destiny, all show our early and aggressive entanglements around the globe.
Part III of the book, labeled between Babel and Beast, everything is attempted to be put into context of how Christians should view America. Chapter 6, American Babel, starts…”Europe’s secularization is its long retreat from Christendom, the disestablishment of the church, the decline of active Christianity, the migration of the holy from the church to the nation. Americanism is impervious to the secularization of the European variety because America was never part of Christendom to begin with”. The growing spirit of the importance of the American message in the world is then shown by Leithart in numerous historical examples, one example being that of John Foster Dulles, a very devout Christian, who helped form the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and felt it important for America to make the rules for how nations should behave with each other. In all points “American policy must establish, ensure, and maintain the dominance of America. Whether the dominance was of American ideals or America as a great power dictating the terms of a world made comparatively little difference”. Later, Leithart states “Anyone who thinks that apocalyptic political rhetoric is a thing of the past, or who thinks that Americans have given up thinking of ourselves as a messianic nation, … has not been listening carefully to the rhetoric of the war on terror. . . Americanism is a mythology that justifies American power and explains–sometimes explains away–American action… Scratch Americanist rhetoric and the reality beneath the skin is often un-American and undemocratic. These inconsistencies are perhaps inherent in Babelic imperialism: Babels call the nations to a glorious vision of a single tower and city and speak with a single lip, but the aim is finally to promote Babel’s interests and advance Babel’s power.” Many examples of America advancing their influence in the world contrary to the principles of our own state is given. Leithart offers a lengthy diatribe against our stated agreement from the 1923 Hague conference against using warfare, most notably aerial bombardment, as a means of inflicting injury on civilian populations. The offenses against warfare against civilians since 1923 are too numerous to mention, but perhaps one needs to be reminded of the true story of Kurt Vonnegut in Dresden at the end of WWII. It makes one want to weep. Chapter 7 finally asks whether America, as an empire (Babel), is a good empire, or an evil one (beast). He mentions how the US has done great good, mostly through our citizens (eg., Voice of the Martyrs, intervention on Afghan converts, etc.), something no other nation would have done. The tone quickly changes as to how much of our foreign aid has gone to nations who aggressively suppress Christianity. In effect, much of America’s actions seem to be detrimental to the kingdom of God (the church) on earth. He ends with sober admonitions, “we play with beasts, and our Americanist lenses do not allow us to see the danger. We fund our favorite beasts, then turn a blind eye when they devour the saints. It is a dangerous position, not only for the Christians who suffer at the hands of our allies but also for the United States. Those who consort with beasts might become bestial, and beasts do not long survive”. “As far as Christians are concerned the only appropriate response is to repent of being Americanists…”.
Unfortunately, most who read this book, or the summary that I offer, will either a) object vehemently to Leithart’s admonitions, feeling that he is unfair to the American experiment, or b) somehow feel that we are beyond or above this book. None of us are above the admonitions in this book. Americanism has pervaded us to the point of being beyond recognition. Leithart does not call us to leave the U.S. We cannot establish a haven elsewhere in the world as such an action is nothing more than repeating the error of our ancestors in coming to America. He is quite perceptive about identifying the political mis-thinking of much of the American church, and to that, we must give our undivided attention.
As a side note, Leithart does not hold to conspiracy theories, or a dark mind working behind everything. He would be the first to identify the crisis of Babel resulting from original sin, which is inescapable in this life. I would agree that Americanist ideology is the second tier above that, as Leithart identifies in this book. The corruption and influence of the trade and banking system is only subservient to the ideology of Americanism, whether it be to oppress poor nations by import tariffs or create wars to promote the military-industrial complex. Those who feel that the bankers control the world are naive to the ideologies that control the banking systems. Whatever your take on this book, the reader will find it thought provoking, and well organized. To Americanism, we must weep and repent.