Is “Kingdom of God” the New “Heritage”?

You’ve heard it before: Defenders of Confederate monuments insist their intentions are not to foster racism, but only to celebrate their heritage. The other side (including me) argues that the historical baggage of these statues is simply too heavy. Even if Confederate heritage-lovers don’t mean to be racist, that’s what the statues and flags have come to mean. Today, I wonder if we have a new, evangelical version of this dilemma. A key phrase in evangelical culture seems utterly benign to many smart, well-meaning evangelicals. But it terrifies the rest of us.

So here’s the tough question of the day: Is the “Kingdom of God” the evangelical version of “heritage?”

A couple of days ago, Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer defended the phrase at Christianity Today. When a federal judge appointee declared that she wanted to work for the “Kingdom of God,” a few senators blanched. Would she use her taxpayer-funded position of power to impose theocratic rule?

Stetzer protested. The senators, he claimed, were imposing an anti-Constitutional religious test for office. Plus, the senators seemed remarkably ignorant about evangelical culture. As Stetzer explained,

The “Kingdom of God” (something that I too am deeply committed to) does not conflict with our ability to work faithfully in the public square with integrity and honor. In fact, our “dogma” may actually benefit society, for it brings certain values which work towards the good of people and society. People do say that they are motivated for public service in part because of their faith. Religion is not a hindrance to a proper functioning marketplace and governmental system; rather, it brings with it inherent moral and ethical codes which seek a better tomorrow for all of us today.

We’ve seen this before. Many secular progressive types (like me) recoiled in horror when Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos revealed her scheme to use her job to further the “Kingdom of God.” Her plan, some assumed, is to impose a Handmaid’s-Tale horror show of theocratic rule on school and society. Activist groups protested that Queen Betsy’s vision was to overturn constitutional separation of church and state and impose religious beliefs as public policy.

As evangelical intellectuals have pointed out, such assumptions are a misreading of evangelical culture. In the Reformed heartland of Michigan, working for the Kingdom of God can have a lot of different meanings. At Calvin College, for example, as Abram Van Engen explained, the phrase is not about imposing theocracy. As Van Engen put it,

Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy. What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation.

Sounds wonderful. But the dilemma remains. If a federal judge or an education secretary announce they are working to establish “God’s Kingdom,” it doesn’t sound as if they are dedicated to such things. It sounds—to the rest of us—like an explanation why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump. It sounds like a declaration of war on the secularization that has made such strides over the past fifty years. It sounds like an effort to wind the clock back to an imagined past in which evangelical values were imposed on everyone as simply “American” values.

I know this is hard for evangelical intellectuals to hear. They don’t like to think of their religious beliefs as dictatorial, chauvinistic, or theocratic. And, to be fair, I sincerely believe that for many evangelicals, their desire to further the Kingdom of God really is none of those things. Historically, however, as I’m arguing in my new book about evangelical higher education, evangelicalism in America has always been tangled inextricably with such unsavory themes, with a deep-seated assumption that the real America is Christian America.

As our ugly battles over “heritage” have made clear, the baggage of history isn’t something we can simply ignore. Just as evangelicals need to understand that telling someone you love them but they’re going to hell is not usually taken as anything but a hateful attack, so evangelicals need to realize that their traditional jargon sounds scary to the rest of us.

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6 Comments

  1. Patrick

     /  September 10, 2017

    This is a very thought-provoking comparison. However, given that “kingdom of heaven” / “kingdom of God” was one of the central themes of Jesus’ ministry (being recorded in the New Testament around 100 times); and given that “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a central part of “the Lord’s Prayer,” prayed every day by countless Christians for thousands of years; and given that “kingdom of God” is a phrase used by essentially all Christians who have engaged in political discussion in America over the years (according to Martin Luther King, Jr., “the Kingdom of God…is what we are seeking to do today”), I cannot see how fear of this phrase can be due to anything except ignorance, or to opposition to Christianity itself.

    Granted, one of the biggest debates among Christians today is what it means to work for the kingdom of God, and many very bad versions of this concept have been put forth over the years. However, if we should seek to understand the true meaning of the Confederate flag by studying its origins, rather than a contemporary meaning assigned by the historically ignorant, then why not do the same with the phrase “kingdom of God”?

    And if in the case of the Confederate flag we seek to educate rather than capitulate to ignorance, might we try to do the same in this instance?

    The whole thing reminds me of Kathleen Parker’s mind-boggling misunderstanding of what Ted Cruz meant by “the body of Christ” (she later claimed she was joking, but I’m skeptical of that): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEAkz_4ltKA.

    Reply
  2. Dan

     /  September 10, 2017

    This kingdom rhetoric is tied to other key terms like “sovereignty,” “lordship,” and “dominion” (Herrschaft); it derives from Dutch Calvinist sources — principally the journalist-politician-theologian-pastor-prime-minister Abraham Kuyper who architected a form of religious apartheid in the Netherlands based around the then-popular ethnic supremacist idea of national legitimacy being based in a Herrenvolk.

    Scholars and journalists have not done their due diligence in examining precisely what this kingdom rhetoric means and has meant to the DeVos-Prince family, the places like Calvin (the Dutch Reformed Mecca) and rival Wheaton (the “Evangelical Harvard”). There is a historical lineage and an ideological provenance to their discourse that anyone familiar with them from the inside can tell you about. Primary and a good number of secondary sources abound now, even in English. Here is a short precis.

    Kuyper’s political ideas about “sphere sovereignty” (also a huge concept in American reformed circles) were adapted to justify racial Apartheid in South Africa, as many scholars (including Mark Noll) have acknowledged. Through Kuyper elements of 19th-early 20thC German Volkstheologie were mediated to North America and other parts of the world where there were former or ongoing Dutch colonial populations. Kuyper and any Kuyperian’s abiding concern is with the survival challenges facing a religious subculture within a pluralist state. For Kuyper this was all happening in the context of a fading colonial empire menaced by bigger fish, mainly Britain, on the eve of the world wars. Evangelicals lose sight of that colonialist extinction fear as a relevant and living influence, but the midwestern Dutch Reformed communities are living examples of it on the ground level. For them, like Kuyper and his sources, religious schools are key to orthodox Christian survival, and state funding for Christian schools is key to their survival. It’s a policy Kuyper achieved in the Netherlands that remains there and in other European nations, as well as some Canadian provinces where a form of “separate but equal” has been the historic solution to Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Secular communities’ coexistence.

    Kuyper’s views and policies are nowhere in the world today regarded as progressive (especially with respect to Jews, Liberals, Muslims and non-whites), except within the North American communities feeding Calvin and Wheaton where hagiography and political appropriations of Kuyper have been extremely prevalent. (More recently some cracks seem to be forming among younger Evangelical and Reformed scholars.) At best Kuyper is a center-right figure and early Christian Democrat; at his worst he is often a reactionary and racist as well, as Wheaton scholar Vince Bacote (a self-described Kuyperian) has said to Evangelical audiences.

    The ideological toxins in Kuyper seem to have been distilled and brought to bear in American politics through Van Til’s presuppositionalism. That fed Rushdoony’s Reconstructionism, which is like Kuyperianism+Fabianism or Maoism — a quiet offensive in a long march through alternative schooling. The Schaeffers then were influenced by Rushdoony and Van Til; through them generations of political Evangelicals have been tutored with some form of “Christian worldview” education. If you look at Karl Barth’s interactions before and after the wars with American and Dutch Kuyperians, with Carl Henry and the Schaeffers, you will get a good picture of what has happened, and what could have been. Kuyper’s political party and denomination, and their offshoots down to the present day will round out that picture as well.

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  3. Agellius

     /  September 11, 2017

    “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36.

    Reply
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