Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A gentle, firm attack on national mythologizing

When President Obama reached out to the global Muslim population in Cairo in June, his speech was littered with references to non-Christian Gods and stressed that "the United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam."

But the real subtext of the speech, as subsequently shown by members of both the American left and right -- to different aims, of course -- was to denounce the notion that America is a Christian nation chosen by God to spread the message of goodness and attack evil in its various guises.

It is this national mythologizing of a "chosen people" that Richard T. Hughes, distinguished professor of religion at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., sets out to attack in his serious inquiry, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 232 pages, $29.95).

Hughes busts the myth of America as a Christian nation by quoting widely from the Bible and showing how American actions since the founding of the republic have often contradicted the central scriptural teaching of peace on earth and goodwill to man.

From the earliest westward expansion that subjugated the Native Americans to the most recent "Axis of Evil" rhetoric of George W. Bush, Hughes shows that the seductive charm of the term "Kingdom of God" has mostly been misused to carry out actions that are against the Bible's spirit.

As a professor of religion, Hughes is ideally placed to bolster his claims with passages from the Bible. Nearly every page in the book has extensive quotes from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Hughes lays special importance on demonstrating how the Bible references "Kingdom of God" to mean an Arcadian paradise filled with love and justice, and not, as history as shown, a divinely ordained tool to justify the militaristic ambitions of those in power.

Such us-against-them rhetoric, Hughes laments, has gotten more strident in the aftermath of 9/11, even as American society becomes evermore culturally diverse. A proud Christian himself, Hughes is emphatic that true Christianity is removed from hubris and Jesus is best served by acceptance of, rather than discrimination against, the other.

A genuinely thought-provoking read, Christian America and the Kingdom of God makes one wonder if those who wage wars and bloodshed in the name of God do really know the holy canon.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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