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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