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Archive Book Reviews Steven Wedgeworth

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective

Peter J. Leithart,
Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective,
Cascade Books, 2012.
Peter J. Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective is an explosion in a book. A scholarly feat, with each chapter boasting between 40 and 100 endnotes, some of which are miniature essays in themselves,[1] it also manages to succinctly lay out a Biblical theology of empire, along with an ecclesio-political vision of the church and its relationship to all of the nations of this world, but especially America.[2] In fact, a large part of Dr. Leithart’s book is a trenchant critique of American political history, tearing down the more traditional civic icons so that the cross can be raised in their place. Dr. Leithart is sure to say that he loves America (xii) and that this book is not meant to be a rejection of it. It is, rather, a rejection of America’s ideology, in favor of Dr. Leithart’s own reading of the Bible’s political theology, an “Abrahamic empire” which is fulfilled in Christ and the church (xi). And the striking conclusion is that it is the kingdoms of the earth who will end up being colonized.

The book can be divided topically into two. Part 1, “Empires in Scripture,” provides Dr. Leithart’s biblical theology of empire, as well as his controlling typology, which he applies, not only to other sections of the Scriptures, but to other eras of history, as well as our own. From this, he builds his foundational thesis that the visible or communal church is God’s heavenly imperium on earth (40, 52). The second thrust of the book deals with America, with Part 2, “Americanism”, explaining Dr. Leithart’s understanding of the American founding and its controlling heretical philosophy of the sacralized secular state. Part 3, “Between Babel and Beast,” negatively addresses more recent American politics and concludes with the application of his political theology to modern day Americans. As he says in the introduction, Dr. Leithart “expect[s] to offend many, perhaps everyone” (xi). He more than likely succeeds in this, but he has undeniably given the reader an exciting, if abrasive, read and a formidable, if highly controversial, intellectual argument.

A Biblical Theology of Empire

“Politically,” Dr. Leithart writes, “the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms” (xi). This is his basic paradigm for finding political theology in the Bible. But the reader needs to take special care in noting Dr. Leithart’s stipulated definition of “empire.” He says that he uses the term rather “loosely” to describe “certain formal political structures in which one people, kingdom, or nation exercises dominance over or otherwise leads and guides and shapes another nation or people” (155). This can be achieved either by violent force or political and diplomatic influence. Dr. Leithart even says that he uses the language of imperialism “to describe situations where one nation voluntarily submits itself to the leadership and protection of another nation and where the imperial nation does not ‘dominate’ the subordinate nation” (155). This is a broad definition indeed, and political scientists are likely to be very suspicious, if not outright annoyed. One could legitimately ask if this definition does not make all governments into empires, however small they might be, and Dr. Leithart basically admits that this is his understanding. The Genesis account of the Tower of Babel “tantalizingly suggests that imperial power– rule of a people or city by another– is inherent in political order” (4). So all politics, according to Dr. Leithart, are imperial politics; they are simply latent or active.[3]

Dr. Leithart does not leave us with such a general picture, however. He adds biblical typology to the discussion, stating that “the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms,” Babel, which is the image of centralized earthly power, and the “Abrahamic empire” created by God, which finds its eventual fulfillment in “Christ and the church” (xi).[4] Within the empires of the world, there are three basic types: “Babels, that impose a uniform political and cultural pattern on the world”, “Beasts that devour the saints”, and “Guardians of the people of God” (xi). This neat taxonomy is messied a bit when we later learn that Babel’s homogeneity is itself contrasted against the diverse empire of Persia (30). Also, Babels can exist as either “Guardians” or “Beasts” depending on their place in redemptive history. All of this is intriguing and even persuasive when developed within the canonical context. Some readers will, no doubt, be alarmed at the fact that Dr. Leithart continues to use these categories outside of the Biblical canon, freely applying them to American politics, even contemporary ones.

Still, Dr. Leithart’s biblical theology is imaginative and persuasive. He argues that the Abraham narrative in Genesis is directly parallel to the Babel narrative, pointing out the relationship between Joktan, whose descendants joined in the building of the tower, and Peleg, from whom Abram would come (9). Dr. Leithart also lists the ways in which the Abrahamic promises echo Babel. He is promised a “great name,” a “great and mighty nation,” to be the “father of kings,” as well as “land and a seed” (9). Additionally, Dr. Leithart points to Psalm 72:8-11. Isaiah 2:2-4, and Isaiah 60:10-11 as evidence that Abraham’s lineage was intended to be a world power. Israel and Babel are thus two “contrasting paths of political salvation” (12). And God’s empire, begun with the promise to Abraham, would eventually be “a peaceful international community gathered around Zion” (12).

This divine right empire exists in seminal form throughout the Old Testament. It is never fully realized, not even in the polity of Israel. “Before they were ready for a fulfilled imperium of their own,” Dr. Leithart writes, “Israel must pass through a fiery furnace” (16). This period of testing and preparation runs through several different worldly empires. Dr. Leithart sees the various nations who defeat Israel as representing a chastening “rod” (16), a “refuge” for the true Israelites from their faithless counterparts (19), a messianic instrument used to bring about God’s plan of redemption (26), and an apocalyptic “beast” which persecutes the people of God (31). This section is important because it shows that, for Dr. Leithart, empires can be unequivocally good, so long as they protect and promote the interests of the people of God. The question of how this relates to the general welfare and “common good” of mankind is never explored in detail. Dr. Leithart assumes that this is all a part of the means of cosmic redemption, but the way in which it would benefit non-believers is left an open question.[5]

Empires only become intolerable when they become beasts, according to Dr. Leithart. A bestial empire is one that “slaughter(s) the saints” (33). These bestial empires will be divinely judged, bringing about a cataclysmic shift in political power. Dr. Leithart sees this as prophesied in Daniel 7 (32) but especially in John’s Apocalypse (44-47).  In fact, the New Testament takes us through several phases of empire, proclaiming the divine imperium through Jesus and the kingdom of God (34–37). This empire finds its initial earthly formation at Pentecost, the “inverted Babel” which signified the “ecclesial imperium” that can unite the nations through a shared confession. And this same empire is greatly accelerated at AD 70, when Jerusalem is judged and “the Julio-Claudian line of Roman emperors ended at the same time” (39). According to Dr. Leithart, both earthly Jerusalem and Rome were definitively conquered by the heavenly Jersualem, the Church, at AD 70, and it simply took until Constantine and his Christian successors for the world to finally be able to recognize this divine empire for what it was (60–63).

Sacrifice and the Eucharist are central for Dr. Leithart’s understanding of this divine empire. Whereas all earthly empires are founded on bloodshed, the divine empire subverts this by being founded on the blood of Christ. This founding sacrifice is, however, only a preliminary one for the kingdom of God, as it is ultimately against the church that Rome (and thus Babel) turns bestial. Rome “served as an agent for the spread of the gospel” (36). It did so unwittingly through being the “instrument for the reconciliation of the world” in its ordering the death of Christ (36). It also served this role by serving as a “protector, sponsor, and patron of the people of God” (42). In this vein, Dr. Leithart points out the positive role that Rome plays in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul’s use of Roman citizenship, and all of the friendly centurions. But finally, Rome “turned from protector to persecutor” and became beastly, and this too was part of the way it assisted the kingdom of God. In persecuting the saints, it actually brings about the apocalyptic judgment and the triumph of the church. “As the empire of God is founded in the death of innocent Jesus rather than in the death of His enemies, so it is furthered when the blood of saints is mingled with the blood of Jesus” (50).

For Dr. Leithart, AD 70 represents the ultimate act of imperial defeat and imperial victory, as God judges Rome and earthly Jerusalem for persecuting His people, and thereby equips the church to go out into the world as His empire. Through the early church’s “regular eucharistic celebrations,” it “refreshed its collective memory not only of Jesus’ sacrificial death, but also of the sacrificial deaths of those who suffered as Jesus did” (61). Through confession, liturgy, and martyrdom – all summed up in the Eucharist – the early church was able to finally conquer the Roman empire. This was achieved first through the emperor Constantine’s protection of the church, and then through the development of Christendom (61–63).

Dr. Leithart is also clear that he will continue to use his biblical typology when evaluating later world history. The “messiah” form of earthly empires is fulfilled, and so there will be no more Davids or Cyruses (nor, presumably, any Hezekiahs or Josiahs). These empires will not even properly be political refuges. “Since the first century, no empire has filled that role” (53). Apparently this aspect of biblical prophecy is definitively fulfilled, first in Christ and then in the church. But the other types, Babel and beast, continue. These empires have essentially two options insofar as they may relate to the empire of God. They may “bless” and come “under the church’s discipline” (53, 52) or they may be “cursed” (53). Bestial empires can expect quick judgment (53, 150).

We have complimented Dr. Leithart’s biblical theology, and this reflects our general agreement with his exegesis, except for a problematic unclearness about the ancient relation of Israel and the Gentile nations, and the one very significant issue of what appears to be an over-realized eschatology. Most traditional readings of the “kingdom of God” allow that it is often contrasted against the kingdoms of the world and that it is real and active among them, but they still maintain that it is invisible and spiritual. Neither Augustine’s civitas dei nor the Reformers’ “two kingdoms” looked for God’s “empire,” as such, to take temporal and spatial form on the earth until the end of history. They all insisted that the “Abrahamic empire” was, well, Abrahamic; it is a pilgrim empire looking forward to a promise that is not yet fulfilled. Dr. Leithart’s conception of the Abrahamic empire, however, finds true embodiment in AD 70. “The apostle did not expect an invisible heavenly reign, but hoped for ‘future political-religious outcomes.” “Some historical catastrophe … was just over the horizon” which would vindicate the church and demonstrate God’s political rule on earth (39). And this expectation of immanence was not wrong, but rather fulfilled in AD 70. From the rubble on the judgment of both Jerusalem and the “Julio-Claudian line,” the church, “constituted initially as a network of synagogues, inherited and expanded” the divine empire that had only previously existed in shadow form (40). Dr. Leithart is clear that this empire is not “a transhistorical aspiration, an ideal, or a sentiment of fellow feeling among nations” (52). It is not the invisible church. Rather, “it takes concrete form in a catholic church,” and that “eschatological empire” is “already founded” (52).

AD 70 allows Dr. Leithart to maintain that the eschatological kingdom of God has been realized on this earth already, and thus it is an alternate “quasi-political” (59) power. The church is only “quasi” political because it will allow its members to be citizens of other empires, and even to hold office and fight in their armies, but it still, nonetheless, is a “subversive force” against those empires (60). It seeks to ultimately bring all other empires into submission, through its “discipline” (52). Dr. Leithart even suggests that this international ecclesial empire would refuse to cooperate with earthly wars whenever they called for Christians to go to war against other Christians.[6] This is a counter-polis in the literal sense.[7]

The Rise and Fall of Christendom

Parts 2 and 3 move from the biblical theology into Dr. Leithart’s historical narrative and his very pointed critique of America. He moves quickly through the pre-history in order to get to America, but this brief section contains some of his most important and controlling assumptions about Christendom and secularism. The reader is told that the pre-Christian “hellenistic and Roman theorists attempted to give cosmological grounding to political order, and by doing so raised politics into the realm of metaphysics” (59). This gave a religious and intellectual foundation to the Babelic nature of Rome, and it accounted for the various forms of emperor worship and sacrifice. It was into this context that early church, first appearing to be “almost apolitical,” eventually subverted the earthly order and “burst the bonds of all prior political categories” (59).

The church’s sacramental life most effectively subverted Roman political life, especially when the emperor Constantine “simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice,” and “placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order” (61). The eucharist became the new unifying sacrifice for the empire, and the Christian martyrs replaced the old civic demigods, thus marking “the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war” (61). In fact, Dr. Leithart hints that the cult of the saints was as important in accomplishing this as anything else:

In her regular eucharistic celebrations, the church refreshed its collective memory not only of Jesus’ sacrificial death, but also of the sacrificial deaths of those who suffered as Jesus did. In refreshing her collective memory, the church also refreshed her collective determination to resist rulers or politics that claimed authority that belonged to her Lord (61–62).

This use of the martyrs did more than just invigorate the church, however. It also affected the non-believing empire. “Rome had either to tolerate Christians and acknowledge the competitive imperium of the church or to kill peaceable believers and risk exposure as fearful bullies” (62). This second option will invariably result in divine judgment for the empire, and so the early Christian church was a sort of political lose/lose situation for Rome.

Constantine’s Byzantium provides the mostly ideal historical form of “Christendom” for Dr. Leithart’s project, the ultimate triumph of the ecclesial empire over Babel. While it is true that the “Byzantine symphonia involved the church’s administrative and juridical ‘surrender’ to the empire,” and thus the magistrates often had charge over the officers of the church, this fact can be tolerated because “the church made its peace with the empire when, and only insofar as, the empire began to care for the church and submitted to the Lord Christ and His Kingdom” (63). Dr. Leithart does not see Constantinianism as the church selling out to the state, because the eucharist was still under the control of the church and therefore always subversive of the state. He summarizes this picture with the following:

At the heart of the project was the “state’s” recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity – a sacrificial center not controlled by the state – and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end. (63)

This happy Christendom was not able to long remain, however, for the eucharist was eventually distorted. Here enters de Lubac’s historical narrative: “The sacredness of the corpus mysticum migrated from the Eucharist to church to the state, which came to be viewed as a suprarational, geistliche community, an ethnic group with the soul of the church” (64). Dr. Leithart does not identify “Christendom” with the medieval papacy, nor with the Christian princes and knights. Rather, his ideal Christendom was the early eucharistic and liturgical community, which, while influential upon earthly political powers, was itself distinct from them. As it was assimilated into those powers, first by the Cluniac Papacy and then the “state-building kings of the early modern period,” Christendom was corrupted and became Joktanite (65). Dr. Leithart is no fan of the crusades or the infamous exclusions and internal violence of feudal Europe.

Now this history does diverge from most received accounts, and at a few points it borders on the outright mythical. Dr. Leithart has an ideal Byzantine Christendom, where the church was properly independent and prophetic, and in which there was no sacral violence or war. Even if it had, as Dr. Leithart admits, surrendered its “administrative and juridical” powers (asserting the existence of which is, of course, begging an enormous question) to the empire, it was still nevertheless, he contends, an “independent polity” (63). It took the medieval papacy, the Reformation, and the emergence of the early nation-states to fully bring this “Christendom” down. But how credible is this really? Surely there were instances of “Byzantiumism,” where sacred images and types, meant for the church, were applied to the empire; or where images and themes meant for the empire, were imported into the ministerium. Dr. Leithart admits that this happened sometimes, early on (62), but the implication is that this was the exception rather than the rule. But we know that the emperor was both head of state and head of the church in Byzantium, and so this distinction is very difficult to consistently make. After all, Constantine called the first great ecumenical council, and he was described as an angel when he made his appearance there.[8] Further, scholars of Late Antiquity have shown that the early church was as changed by its encounter with the Roman Empire as the Roman Empire was changed by its encounter with the church. Traditional Roman imperial symbols were transferred to the church, and the dioceses were typically based upon pre-existing governmental districts. Even the liturgical and cultic practices of the Christian church were “Romanized” to a certain extent.[9] The kinds of changes that Dr. Leithart critiques in the late Middle Ages and early modern era, which he believes are products of the marginalization of the eucharist, are in fact rooted in Byzantium.

Another surprising historical claim is that the re-sacralization of war had to wait for the 10th century Latins (64). Quoting James A. Brundage, Dr. Leithart states that “Gregory VII revolutionized the Christian view of warfare… and he was the principal inventor of the holy war idea in medieval Christendom” (64). This is seen as an unfortunate development, a product of a Joktanite church. But, as it happens, Emperor Heraclius in the early part of the 7th century called for a holy war against the Persians, and the Christians of late antiquity were often found engaging in domestic crusades of “holy” terrorism.[10] In fact, there were a number of official wars that can be reasonably considered “Byzantine crusades.”[11]  Sacralized war is deeply embedded in old Christendom, even the early Constantinian form; only with the Reformation does the original opposing pattern reassert itself in the rejection of crusades.

Further, the notion of a divided Christendom which subsists at once imperfectly and locally as commonwealths, but perfectly and globally as an institutional church, was developed in the highest degree by the medieval Popes. The Byzantine ministerium was not an independent polity; the harmonia scheme was closer to later Protestant arrangements. What did come close to being an independent polity (or independent anarchy) were the monastic institutions of Byzantium, whose effects were largely evil. On his stated principles, it is not clear why Dr. Leithart opposes the Papacy as he does.

One of the chief culprits in Between Babel and Beast’s narrative of the historical fall is the Protestant Reformation.  Readers from Dr. Leithart’s own Reformed community are likely to be shocked by his mostly full embrace of the Radical Orthodoxy historical tale at this point.  For him, “The Reformation… inadvertently assisted in the migration of the mystic community from church to nation…” (65).

Prior to the Reformation and the wars that followed, the church could reasonably present herself as the imperium to which the kings and princes of Christendom were vassals.  After the Reformation, in the absence of a single church throughout Europe, the church’s authority was diminished and diffused.  The church was transformed from a Europe-wide or even worldwide body into a national entity, in many cases a department of state. (65)

He doesn’t think that this was wholly accidental.  The supposed displacement of the eucharist made some movement necessary, and the old Babelic power came back in full force.  “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center,” and thus its role in “Western political life had come full circle” (66).  “The church had been domesticated, and the holiness of the corpus mysticum was slowly, often deliberately, transferred to the state” (66).  And this sets the historical stage for the biggest Babel of them all, America.

Americanism

Thus far the history has been preparing us for the discussion of America and empire.  America is not Christendom, in Dr. Leithart’s view, but it is also not not Christendom.  It is a specific kind of post-Christendom, a product of all that has come before, but also a mirror of the ancient pre-Christian Babel which now advertises itself in Christendom language.  Dr. Leithart admits that there was a great deal of Biblical identification in the early stages of America, and he briefly mentions the Puritan and New England self-understanding of being an elect people and a holy nation.  But Dr. Leithart is not after Christian America.  No, for him the theology and religiosity was deeply flawed from the very beginning.  “The Puritan Founders of New England were orthodox Christians in all their theological beliefs, but they laid the foundations for Americanism because of their tendency toward a nationalist, an-ecclesial reading of Scripture, their enthusiasm for nationalist eschatology, and their privatization and individualization of the Eucharist” (66).

“Americanism” is Dr. Leithart’s great foil.  He gets the term from David Gelernter’s book of the same title, and he identifies “Americanism” as a political religion that is made up of a sense of divine election, a holy land, a universal creed, an optimistic eschatology, and a missionary disposition (66-83).  This religion is not Christianity, of course, but rather America itself.  “America doesn’t have, but is a mission” (xii).  “The creed it confesses is the truth and power of its own political institutions” (74).

Dr. Leithart locates the cause of Americanism in the church’s failure to be an independent prophetic voice and alternative eucharistic polis to the state.  This might surprise some commentators, like Ross Douthat, who had assumed that the church in America was precisely separate, and thus able to avoid being absorbed by the state.[12]  Instead, Dr. Leithart sees disestablishment and the separation of church and state as “Madison’s scheme” to proliferate sects and weaken the Christian witness (110).  Lacking a eucharistic and imperial identity, the church in America was quickly replaced by Americanism.

Dr. Leithart also argues that Americanism is imperialistic and has been from the start.  Based on an eschatology of universal progress, America has sought to export Americanism to all mankind.  This, unfortunately, has allowed us to justify, not just an empire of ideas, but an actual empire, through the use of force and war.  In fact, our wars are once again sacral wars.  “No American war can be anything but a cosmic battle of good and evil” (79).  “America invented total war” (81), but since it is a sort of crusade, Americans are always religiously devoted to it.  These are profound observations– but Dr. Leithart seems unaware that this phenomenon represents a decisive break from classical Protestantism.

Thus far Dr. Leithart’s presentation of Americanism has been exciting and compelling, if not necessarily airtight when it comes to all of the details.  Readers familiar with the zealous rhetoric of Wilsonianism, or Mitt Romney’s tagline: “I believe in America,” will resonate with Dr. Leithart’s presentation.  And the combination of liturgical theology and philosophical and legal history makes the portrait downright sexy in that theopolitical kind of way.  But when he moves into the concrete historical case of American empire, the argument gets considerably clumsier and overgeneralizing.  This is not because a case for early ambitions of American empire is so incredible, but rather because the sort of American empire that has existed does not always seem to fit the description of a disciple-making empire, converting others to its creed.  Sometimes it does look that way, but just as often, it looks like the more ordinary, dirty and bloody kind of empire.  And the causes of each skirmish, while potentially being eschatologically uniform, are just as likely to be complicated historical dilemmas and even ordinary political decisions.

America is, and always was, a unique kind of empire from Dr. Leithart’s point of view, and the controlling ideology is, and always was, Americanism.  Dr. Leithart points out that even “prior to 1850,” U.S. Marines had managed to land in 12 different countries, some of them on multiple occasions (97).  We had miniature corporate-imperial skirmishes during the Barbary Coast Wars (98-101) and in the South Pacific in 1813 (102-103).  “In short,” Dr. Leithart says, “freelance imperialism has been a recurring feature of American history” (103).  This observation is not aimed at 20th century politics (at least not yet), but rather at early 19th century ones, which is likely one of the reasons that Roger E. Olson says that Dr. Leithart sounds like “a liberal liberationist critic” and “a leftist.”  Dr. Olson, it should be noted, means that as a compliment.  Of course, Dr. Leithart had warned us of this possibility in his introduction.  “The reading of American history that occupies the latter half of this book will offend Christians whose political sympathies incline toward the right” (x).  In an era where most Evangelical Christians do have an unquestioned (and too-often unquestionable) allegiance to neo-conservative politics and something very much like (if not identical with) “Americanism,” Dr. Leithart’s critique is very important.  It is still, nonetheless, radical, and its virtue will ultimately be found in its truthfulness and accuracy.

Part 3 is Dr. Leithart’s treatment of the modern American empire, and it is just as critical.  America has fully emerged as a world-Babel, and its willingness to engage in total war to further its empire is hardly subtle.  Britain preceded Germany in bombing civilian targets, and the United States quickly joined in, using “napalm,” and “guided… by perfected radars,” the Americans killed “tens of thousands” at Dresden and then hundreds of thousand in Japan (130-131).  Dr. Leithart chronicles the U.S. bombing raids, noting that “900,000 Japanese civilians,” “1 million North Korean civilians,” “365,000 Vietnamese civilians,” along with many thousands of German, Cambodian, and Iraqi civilians have been killed by American bombs in the 20th century (132-133). All these points are excellent and here, Dr Leithart is at his incisive best.

This modern American empire is not quite the same as the 19th century one, however.  The 20th and 21st century American imperial actions have shifted from righteous Wilsonian projects to what Dr. Leithart dubs “realism.”  Pioneered by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, America changed the emphasis to “security” (120).  Even if it does not make actual converts, American empire must now “establish, ensure, and maintain the dominance of America” and preserve “American rule-making hegemony” (121).  This, along with various corporate interests (127) are the new driving ideology behind American empire.  To all this we can only say yea and amen. But at this point one might be tempted to ask whether this new shift is not actually an outright discontinuity or, perhaps a more basic question, whether such discontinuities might not reveal other, political and economic, motivating factors beyond a religious and eschatologically-infused self-image which might in fact be more traditional rhetorical ornament than historical cause.

Dr. Leithart wraps up his treatment of America by pointing out the alarming consistency with which it seems to sponsor anti-Christian persecution.  What mainstream media outlets have termed “the global war on Christians in the Muslim world,” Dr. Leithart sees as an example of a Babel flirting with beasts.  He highlights Christian persecution in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel, all countries that top the list of U.S. foreign aid recipients (138-148).  American Babel may not be a beast yet, but it does sponsor beasts, and Dr. Leithart believes that this will ultimately bring about its doom.  Just as the Apocalypse brought judgment upon Rome, so too the U.S. is in “a dangerous position” (150).  “Those who consort with beasts might become bestial, and beasts do not long survive” (150).

After all this, Dr. Leithart devotes just two pages to a conclusion and a surprisingly half-hearted application.  He does say, very strongly, that “American churches need to remove the flags from their podiums–and stop treating July 4 as a high holy day” (151), but he cannot bring himself to call the church to totally war against America:

Churches do not necessarily need to discourage Christians from participation in American government, or even the American military, though the churches should reserve the right to judge the justice of America’s wars and to forbid Christians from participating in unjust wars or oppressive policies.  Churches should instead encourage Christians to discover ways to turn American power toward justice, peace, and charity. (152).

The primary means of accomplishing this, in Dr. Leithart’s estimation, is martyrdom, both literal and figurative.  “The only power that can overcome the seemingly invincible omnipotence of a Babel or a Beast is the power of martyrdom, the power of witness to King Jesus to the point of loss or death” (152).  The two options seem to be an effective “prophetic” church ministry, centered around the eucharist no doubt, which actually converts America, or the actual death of martyrs which will then bring about supernatural and cataclysmic judgment upon America.  How this is anything different from the standard rhetoric of mainline liberal Protestantism is not apparent.  In either event, Dr. Leithart’s eschatology envisions the divine empire conquering all others.

Reflection and Critique

At this point the reader’s hair should be sufficiently blown back.  Between Babel and Beast is a radical book, having a radical view of history, a radical vision of politics, and a radical theology.  We have taken so much time in summarizing its various claims so as to prove that our representation is a fair one.  Some key features that make up Dr. Leithart’s project are the visible institutional church as counter-polis (his aggressive reinvention of Yoder and Hauerwas), a mostly-realized eschatology focusing on AD 70 as the historical emerging point of the divine empire on the earthly political scene, a Radical-Orthodox view of church history and the origin of the modern secular state, and the prophetic critique of Americanism as an idol.  All of this in less than 200 pages makes for both an impressively comprehensive theology and an exciting and engaging read.

There is much to commend in Dr. Leithart’s work.  His biblical presentation of empire is imaginative and compelling, his defense of Constantine is brilliant, and his critique of American political history is a much-needed counter to the idolatrous messianism which occupies too many Evangelical presentations.  Dr. Leithart does succeed in confounding both the theological Left and the political Right.  The Bible really is not an anti-imperial book, and America really is not the invincibly-righteous force for good in the world.  However, there are a number of major concerns as well, including dubious theological commitments, imbalanced and even inaccurate historical sketches, and objectionable ecclesio-political prescriptions.

One of the most problematic features of Between Babel and Beast is the historical narrative and its decidedly dim view of the Protestant Reformation.  Almost exactly anticipating the argument of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation,[13] Dr. Leithart believes that the Reformation assisted the growth of the secular state by weakening the church and displacing the eucharistic testimony.  This is surprising, seeing that Dr. Leithart is a Presbyterian minister, but he definitely does not see the Reformation’s contribution to political theory as a good thing.  Rather than following Charles Taylor or W. J. Torrance Kirby in understanding early modernity and the Reformation as “the affirmation of ordinary life” and the opening up of a “culture of persuasion,”[14] Dr. Leithart continues to insist, we believe wrongly, that the Reformation mostly assisted Babelic violence.  We would retort that it was in fact the Reformation, through the Reformers’ two-kingdoms doctrine, which decisively desacralized violence. Luther expressly denies that there can be any such thing as a “crusade”; anyone familiar with even basic studies of Luther’s social doctrine will attest to this.  It was realized eschatology, primarily in secularist parody, which undid the evangelical achievement and resacralized violence.

By the time we get to Dr. Leithart’s portrait of America, which is mostly quite good, we are on far too shaky historical ground.  The ways in which Dr. Leithart sees American Christians transferring the biblical types from “the ecclesial imperium” to the “colony” (67) are not unique to America but all have precedent in early stages of Christendom.  Dr. Leithart complains that America was identified with Israel, but surely America was not the first to make this move.  Wasn‘t England believed to be mythically inhabited by giants that were eventually subdued and slain by the new Britons?[15]  Almost every medieval king with big plans fancied himself a David. Dr. Leithart also complains that John Foxes’ Book of Martyrs displaced the eucharistic cult of martyrs for American churches, allowing them to instead construct a new identity of national election, based on British national heroes (174).  But are we really to believe that this was so different in former eras?  National “patron saints” were almost always tied in with earthly politics.  Wasn’t the Roman Catholic Joan of Arc a nationalist martyr? And how does the Spanish Empire– as clerocratic and as eucharist-centered as the Byzantines, and of worldwide reach and legacy– get totally ignored in Dr. Leithart’s picture? Its historical sins, though not deserving of the Black Legend, were still many and serious; and this seems to falsify Dr Leithart’s rather simple historical account.  Spain ought to have at least come close to the holy ecclesiastical empire, given Dr. Leithart’s thesis, and yet in actual history they look as predictably (though certainly not eminently) Babelic as we’d expect any human affair to look.

Again, we find ourselves agreeing with much of Dr. Leithart’s criticisms of early American expansionism, but the problem is with the controlling philosophy of history.  For Dr. Leithart, this history is not the unfortunately ordinary business of sinful politicians grasping for power, but rather a religious product.  Americanism is portrayed as the central cause of all of the political and military actions.  And while we do again agree that something very much like Americanism did and does exist, we do not think Dr. Leithart has given the reader the full picture.  For instance, he states that “Americanist typology has no metapolitics, since the creed it confesses is the truth and power of its own political institutions” (74).  But this seems manifestly false.  America’s political philosophy, even perhaps its religious identity, is founded on certain metaphysical or metapolitical commitments, particularly human nature, natural law, and universal human rights.  Didn’t the founders hold certain truths to be “self-evident,” namely “that all men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”?  Doesn’t that qualify as a metapolitical foundation that goes beyond political institutions?  Dr. Leithart grants that, “One might argue, with some justice, that the ideals of liberty transcend America; they are universally human, and even America is judged, and sometimes found wanting by their measure (cf. the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement)” (75).  This doesn’t get Americanism quite off the hook for him, however, since America and its own existence is still always the measuring stick.  But this could merely be an historically unavoidable fact, with America as the first test-case, and a day could be envisioned, as many a worried conservative already does envision, when Americanist ideals about democracy and human rights are evaluated and executed by an international community, to which America is itself subject.  Such a scenario would not violate the concept of an Americanist empire of ideals, but it would actually contradict an actual American empire, and we could likely expect a very strong American reaction against such an Americanist internationalism.

The potential for Americanism to contradict actual political decisions of American political leaders is not only a future hypothetical.  That is exactly what happened when Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of the Cherokee Nation against the State of Georgia.   After all, hadn’t the Cherokees and other civilized tribes converted to Americanism?  Or at least, hadn’t they become catechumens?  And yet, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of them, President Jackson defied the ruling, along with the tenets of Americanism, and acted in a much more basely imperial fashion.  This is not a defense of America (quite the opposite), but it does show how Americanism did not actually account for all of our national sins.  What Dr. Leithart calls a “modulation” (106) is actually a contradictory event.  In fact, it is conceivable that Americanism could have prevented many of America’s more egregious sins, which gives us cause to wonder just how negatively we ought to define our terms.  A simple assumption that the same rules and policies ought to work for all men in all places is certainly foolish, but is this the same as assuming that all men desire freedom or that basic liberty is a universal natural right?

Speaking of which, would Dr. Leithart consider classical liberal political theory to itself be a competing religion?  It is fashionable to berate secularism, but fewer critics will actually speak up as to what aspects of modern liberalism they’d like undone.  Would Dr. Leithart like to see an established church, some sort of national creed, or a uniform liturgy?  He says that he wants the church to be an “independent imperium to itself” but this is not to be confused with a “private voluntary association,” nor is it to be conceived of simply as “the nation at prayer” (77).  And so what exactly is this “independent imperium”?  If it is not a “voluntary association” then it will surely require some sort of coercive force.  What role is the civil magistrate to play in all of this?  Would Dr. Leithart revive the old Scottish Presbyterian tenet of the magistrate as an executive arm of the ministry, a sort of subordination of state to church?

We also have to press the practical side to all of this.  Dr. Leithart is clear that the “church” of which he speaks is a “historical form of international community” (52).  He wants to see it, in the here and now, begin to assert “quasi-political” power on earth.  This causes Roger Olson to speculate that “he also believes government should listen to the church and follow its guidance in moral matters (and what isn’t a ‘moral matter’)?”  So naturally, the next question that must be asked, which Dr. Olson does indeed ask, is “which church?”  This is an inescapable question, and one that directly reveals the utopian nature of Dr. Leithart’s ecclesiology.  After all, there will always have to be particular and “concrete” clergymen who represent this “church.”  We can assume that these will not be limited to any one denomination, and Dr. Leithart has repeatedly said that his vision is an international one. This international but institutional catholic church, it might be pointed out, does not in fact exist, and since the 4th century, never really has.  To what would he have us look?

Dr. Leithart is too critical of the papacy to go back to the Middle Ages, and so our most likely example is the early Byzantine Christendom of a collegium of patriarchs, though the emperor’s role would still need to be defined.[16]  This church would be constituted primarily by the Eucharist, and so we can assume that Dr. Leithart would currently admit all “orthodox” eucharistic communities.  What would that look like now? The boundaries are still fuzzy, but we can at least picture Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and a whole host of Protestant, Anabaptist, and modern Evangelical groups.  It would not be terribly surprising if Dr. Leithart were also charitable enough to include the various Nestorian and Monophysite churches of the East, as well as more exotic branches of Pentecostalism.  This would be quite the international eucharistic community!  But what would they ever be able to say to the kings and princes of the world?  Just picture Katherine Jefferts Schori, Desmond Tutu, Joel Osteen, Patriarch Kirill, Fred Luter, Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren, Jeremiah Wright, and Cardinal Dolan– all working in committee, and all with coercive power.

Somewhat predictably for a Presbyterian, Dr. Leithart suggests excommunication as an ecclesiastical means of influencing politics.  “When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?” (110), he asks.  And so the various churches of America, and the world, could foreseeably make a declaration concerning politics and then discipline any politicians who refused to comply.  This would require that the politicians be members of these various churches and politically, not just privately or personally, subject to their discipline in the first place- a rather tall order, and not a very appealing one.  It would also require that the churches share a certain understanding of church discipline and agree to respect one another’s jurisdictions, an even taller order.

The only scenario left is the apocalyptic one.  In several places, Dr. Leithart offers up martyrdom as the primary way that the church conquers Babel.  “The only power that can overcome the seemingly invincible omnipotence of a Babel or a Beast is the power of martyrdom, the power of witness to King Jesus to the point of loss and death” (152).  And this will entail actual martyrdom, not just the general “witness-bearing” kind more regularly bandied about among Western theologians.  No, it is not a stretch to imagine, upon actually seeing this world-wide counter-empire, defying their commercial and military orders, that the various empires of the world would actually start killing people.  And that’s where the utopian project also takes on a survivalist element.  Are we really back to the old doctrine of dominion by cataclysm?

Conclusion

Between Babel and Beast has a useful and intriguing read of Scripture, though it does suffer from an over realized eschatology.  This trait then seems to drive the book’s ecclesiology and history.  The “eschatological empire” is “already founded” (52), and so everything else must be recreated as well.  But AD 70 does not obviously appear to be the point at which the Roman empire, even the anti-Christian form of it, came to its demise.  To say that it was “the beginning of the end” begs the question, and much of Dr. Leithart’s subsequent description of Byzantium is romanticized and historically unfounded.

This historical narrative is the most muddled part of the book, and the treatment of the Reformation’s political theology is egregiously wrong, like most of Radical Orthodoxy’s historical narratives.  It all appears shoehorned to fit a preconceived and untenable notion of the fall and rise of the secular state.  But if the concrete history did not in fact play out as Dr. Leithart claims, then the various religious ideas and rituals also were not the causes.

Between Babel and Beast is correct in its critique of Americanism, and this is where the book is most important, though it takes the messianism of American political rhetoric too much at face value and ignores the deeper conditions of American imperialism and the real discontinuities between its phases.  If America is “a nation of Indians governed by Swedes,” as the saying goes, the point is that the civil religion is manufactured for the masses, but the elites, who run the show, don’t believe it.

With this imbalanced theology and history, Dr. Leithart’s prescriptions cannot help but suffer, and they do come across sounding like a sort of Liberation Theology.  To aim at a counter-political and international ministerial empire that asserts influence and even dominance over the civil magistrates of the world is a complete departure from classical Protestantism.  The striking paradox is that Dr. Leithart’s envisioned ecclesiology would necessarily do everything he critiques, supposing it did not content itself to only celebrate the eucharist but also involved itself in specific political actions.  Due to its realized eschatology, it would resacralize violence.  It would require a certain amount of ideological uniformity; it would wage wars to end all wars.  But this is not actually a political threat, since the whole thing has no practical possibility of being enacted. This means in the end, Dr. Leithart is really left hoping for apocalypse (as most utopians must) to do the work of undoing modernity, and then for subsequent reconstruction led by Mad Max magistrates subservient to disciplinarian bishops of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz.  This takes us nowhere.

Instead, we believe that we should closely follow another of Dr. Leithart’s suggestions, found in his recent article at First Things.  Theologians do need to get out of the basement and start engaging with other scholarly disciplines, and they need to do this in a way that will be deemed credible by those other disciplines. Theology should primarily be exegesis of the great Book, in a way which sheds light on all other books rather than erases them. Theologians should read historians, and vice versa.  Biblical anthropologists should read Freud and Weber.  But then, how did we get a Freud and Weber in the first place? How did we get the very tools of exegesis upon which the developed practice depends? It was in large part through the modern Protestant university and, to use an objectionable term, modernity.  The differentiation of modern civil society and of the modern mind, the direct creation of the Protestant State which Dr. Leithart decries, was necessary for a real liberation of human life.  In fact, nowhere will one find more “interdisciplinary” scholarship than in the 18th and 19th centuries– in the Protestant world.

We are firmly convinced that, should this alternate academic future happen, the result will not be theologians and clerics having to “take over” every other discipline, but rather theologically-informed and religiously-committed businessmen, scientists, and even statesmen following their vocations and building a world.  In this way, Christendom will not have to rely on an external calamity, but an internal regeneration.  Grace will not have to destroy nature, but can rather restore it. That sort of Mere Christendom, in which the spiritual Kingdom of God is reflected in the visible kingdoms of men, ought to be our goal.


[1] In fact, some of these endnotes, like the very first one, contain the most scholarly heavy lifting.  The very thorny question of the definition of “empire” is really only answered in detail there.

[2] Dr. Leithart engages with an impressive range of scholarly sources, as his project really is huge in scope, but his primary influences are familiar by now.  The Biblical theology is mostly provided by James B. Jordan, though Dr. Leithart has his own original readings as well.  The “eucharistic history” comes from Henri de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum, while the “eucharistic politics” are mostly supplied by William Cavanaugh.  Of course, Dr. Leithart is also deeply influenced by Cornelius Van Til, John Milbank, N T Wright, and John Howard Yoder.  Once these thinkers are forced into conversation with one another, and after Dr. Leithart adds his particular talent of provocative and engaging prose, all with a pointed relevance for contemporary politics and theology, the end result is, for better and for worse, a tour de force of theological innovation.  It should also be noted that Between Babel and Beast is essentially part 3 in Dr. Leithart’s ongoing theopolitical series, with Against Christianity and Defending Constantine as precursors.

[3] This sort of definition does seem to do away with any moral high ground among earthly politics.  Every nation is guilty of being empire under this paradigm.  The only questions are over size and means.

[4] This “Abrahamic empire” goes through various phases of developments.  It is an invisible pilgrim-empire at the outset, but it becomes a visible polity in Israel, a scattered exilic notion during captivity, and then a reunited and international counter-polis in the visible church.

[5] In previous writings, Dr. Leithart has maintained a skeptical disposition towards natural law and other aspects of general and common revelation relating to politics.  But until he can explain how the imperial church’s conquest is actually good for the world, he leaves the reader with obvious worries.  In an era when political theory is very concerned with Radical Islam, Dr. Leithart will need to anticipate these worries and demonstrate how his project is not a Christian equivalent.

[6] He states this in calling for “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtue of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood” (152).

[7] Like most such ecclesiological visions, he seems to think that the “real” magistrates or public heads of Christendom should be the members of the ministerium. He does not seem to be positing a corpus christianorum, a multitude underlying all Christian commonwealths, who although having magistrates as secular representatives can resist them in extreme cases under the leadership of a lesser magistrate. Although it might seem that having an transnational body over and above secular sovereignties might be the road to peace, it’s an idea which has been tried before and was not a success– it was called Papacy. Its modern form is the UN, and that hasn’t proven to be such a success either. We should rather look to the corpus christianorum expressing itself in  civil society, rather than collegia of clerics, for the way to world peace.

[8] Eusebius writes, in his Life of Constantine 3.10, “at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones.”

[9] see for example Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity (W.W. Norton and Co., 1989) 84, 122, 143-148; Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 1-26; and Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2006) 123-128.

[10] See Thomas Szigorich, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), which shows how the Islamic practice of violent martyrdom had deep roots in Christian late antiquity; see also Brent D Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine, (Cambridge University Press, 2011); and most importantly, Michael Gaddis’ There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire, (University of California Press, 2005).

[11] See Geoffrey Regan, First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

[12] Douthat’s Bad Religion (Free Press, 2012) argues that United States became a “nation of heretics” only after the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic congregations lost their traditional orthodoxy.  For Mr. Douthat, the separation of church and state was precisely what allowed the church “to recover the subversive power of its early centuries” (13).

[13] See Peter Escalante’s interaction with that book here, as well as Carl Trueman’s two part review here and here.

[14] See Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1992) 211-302 and Torrance Kirby’s “A Reformed Culture of Persuasion: John Calvin’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ and the Theological Origins of the Public Sphere” in Calvin @ 500:Theology, History, and Practice ed. Richard R. Topping and John A. Vissers (Pickwick Publications, 2011) 52-66

[15] see Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain Bk 1

[16] Dr. Leithart should also anticipate the obvious parallel of Islamism.  Most Christian readers will simply assume that Islamism is “out of the question,” but if the theories are equivalent in political structure, then the connection is legitimate.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 replies on “Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective”

Thanks, Steven. Your review itself was heavy lifting enough for such a one as myself. Would you recommend “Unintended Reformation” prior to reading the Leithart book?

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