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Between Babel and Beast: Reviewing Peter Leithart's Political Theology (Pt. 2)

July 26th, 2012 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Editor’s note:  I am pleased to publish this two part review (see part one) by Brian Auten of Peter Leithart’s new book.  Brian is a reader and friend of mine and this review is both substantive and important.  I commend both parts to you, eagerly, and encourage you to buy the book itself.  

From now until July 31st, using LEITHART as a coupon code at Wipf and Stock will save you 40% off the cover price.  

Following his analysis of worldly empires and the Abrahamic imperium, Leithart trains his sights on the United States, Americanist civic religion and ideology, and the role of the American church.  In a similar vein to Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? (2007), Leithart spends the remainder of the book discussing which imperial category best suits the United States (guardian, Babel or beast).  As per his title, it falls somewhere between the latter two, but could easily slide in the bestial direction.  Leithart introduces a discussion of the “metapolitical framework” or “canopy” that formed Western Christendom and the Byzantine Empire.  The original framework, as he puts it, involved a condominium between the state and the “unprecedented social and political form” of the church.  The state had to acknowledge and accept the church’s independence and its status as a “quasi-civic order,” as well as the freedom of the church’s “sacrificial center”-- the Eucharist-- from civil control or influence.  Lastly, according to Leithart, the state in this framework was called to adopt the church’s telos as its very own.  Using the work of Henri de Lubac, Sheldon Wolin and Chad C. Pecknold (whose scholarship connects de Lubac and Wolin), Leithart insists that, over time, this “metapolitical framework” eroded as the concept of the corpus mysticum “migrated” from its earliest form as the Eucharistic community to the institutionalized church, and then jumped post-Reformation to the nationalist polis with privatized faith and practice.

babel and beast leithart

It is here that Leithart kicks off an analysis of the Puritans and their foundation of what Leithart calls the heretical –yes, heretical – Americanist state.  “You can take the American away from New England, but you cannot easily take the New England from the American,” quips Leithart as he lambasts the withering of the “independent and public church” in Massachusetts and the Rhode Island experiment.  In the former case, the community’s over-identification with Israel meant that it lost key distinctions between church and colony, while in the latter, the church became “invisible and weightless.”  The Halfway Covenant controversy is identified by Leithart as an under-recognized debate over the future form of American political theology, concluding with Puritanism’s “lean” towards conceptualizing churches as “private voluntary associations.”

Consequently, the church lost its ability to – if I may tweak Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens – “enable the [colony] to strike hard against something which [was] an alternative to what the [colony offered].” ((Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 94.)) On the eschatological front, the Puritans envisioned America-the-new-Promised-Land as the global telos, but through yet another ‘migration’ (or perhaps more accurately, metastasis), our view of the end of history is often wrapped up in liberal democracy promotion and the replication of the American experiment.  In Leithart’s view, we’ve marginalized and privatized the church and busied ourselves in the work of evangelizing the world-at-large into our Americanist heresy.  All the while – to tweak Hauerwas (and Yoder) once more – we’ve tempted ourselves into believing our actions cut along the grain of the universe. ((Yoder’s quote, which Hauerwas has used frequently (including as the title for his 2001 Gifford Lectures), is that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”))

Leithart’s concept of American exceptionalism in Between Babel and Beast is, I would argue, akin to Matt’s thoughts in his “non-culture-war” posts.  The United States has enormous military and economic power, and is able, as is any heretic, to do the occasional good work, but there is no inherent American virtue which makes the country exceptional.  In chapters six and seven, Leithart warns against viewing American exceptionalism through the lens of Americanism, a “wholly religious [and heretical] saeculum.”

He claims, first, that Americanism has led the United States, particularly in the 20th and early 21st centuries, to hide Babelic foreign policies with various rhetorical glosses – for example, the world community’s need for an order-creating power or the defeat of Communism in the developing world.  In the second case, Leithart takes particular aim at US counterinsurgency and covert action, arguing that US-supported coups in Vietnam, Guatemala and Iran were really about eradicating other competing nationalisms.  As someone who has taught intelligence and Cold War history, I do wish that Leithart would have turned to someone else besides William Blum, who is well-known as a fringe scholar in covert action studies, and I also think that he could have better explained how, particularly in the second and third worlds, nationalism and communism were inextricably connected during the 20th century.  The United States continues along a Babelic path as it engages in protectionism and the aerial bombing of civilian populations, and we slide ever closer to the beast category, Leithart concludes, as we give aid and succor to Christian-persecuting states like Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

So, to steal back a line coined by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a mid-to-late, nineteenth-century radical in Babelic-leaning Russia (which was later co-opted by the Russian beast-maker himself, Lenin), shto delat?  What is to be done?   The church, Leithart asserts, is the counter-polis, and the United States is a near-Babelic polity which, if it isn’t more careful, could, one morning, stumble bleary-eyed from its bed after a night downtown with the neighborhood guys—Oh, man, he mutters, head in hands, I promised myself I was just going to be the designated driver— steal a quick glance in the mirror and find that its rugged good looks have been replaced with a more monstrous visage.   What, then, does Leithart believe the church in America should be doing about this?  There is a short prescriptive section at the end of Between Babel and Beast, so it’s necessary to do a bit of reverse-engineering from the book’s earlier chapters, as well as reflect back on the conclusion of Defending Constantine.

At the highest level of prescriptive theory – Leithart’s prescriptive goal and strategy – is the call for the rejuvenation of a “Eucharistic politics.” The connection between the Eucharist and political activity is key for Leithart’s political theology, a point which explains much of recent posting on all matters Eucharist over at First Things. ((For example, see “Do This,” First Thoughts, 23 March 2012. He has had other Eucharist-related posts in early June 2012.))  “No church,” argues Leithart, “is independent enough or powerful enough to challenge American power effectively [and] few try.”  In a recovery of the pre-medieval, pre-“migrated” understanding of the corpus mysticum, the Eucharist, or what Leithart deems the “[ritual enactment of] a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of ‘empire’ could have competed with,” is to be celebrated on a regular basis.  It is only in the Eucharist and the preaching of the Word, enacted in what one might call the church’s ‘soil’ of love and discipline, that the Body of Christ in the United States is trained, liturgically and ecclesially, for non-Americanist political engagement. ((Leithart’s former student Brad Littlejohn has recently explained how love and discipline may not be “ marks” of the church in the same sense as are Word and Sacrament, offering a distinction between “constitutive marks” and “descriptive marks.”  Brad Littlejohn, “When a Mark Isn’t a Mark: Discipline and Disciplinarianism,” The Sword and the Ploughshare, 13 June 2012.  I would especially like to thank Brad for his very helpful comments and corrections on the early draft of this review.)) Using a more martial analogy, national security practitioner that I am, the Eucharistic celebration for Leithart might be best considered the ‘strategy’ that marries tactical activity to the goal of “break[ing of] Babelic or bestial power.”

And what about Leithart’s discussion of tactics?  In Between Babel and Beast and Defending Constantine, he unloads a litany of church-teaching-related and church-discipline-related verbs -- instruct, train, teach, insist, urge, remind, “give an earful,” cultivate, encourage, and (even) forbid.  In brief snippets near the end of Defending Constantine, Leithart lists some ways the church, as the Eucharist-centered polis, might be able to “[model] and [teach] rulers to rule like Jesus.”  The general instruction and discipline of the church should have natural political effects, regardless of whether the recipient is a civil servant, a statesman, or an emperor; that is, ‘turning the other cheek,’ loving enemies, fleeing lust, keeping short accounts, and caring for ‘the least of these’ should actually have a visible and noticeable impact in international and domestic politics. ((Defending Constantine, pp. 337-339.))  Here, I think a fruitful dialogue could take place between Leithart’s work and something like Glen Stassen’s Just Peacemaking Theory, which also tries to discern the possible political fruits of the church’s general teaching. ((Glen Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Westminster Knox Press, 1992).  Also, on point with Leithart’s call for statesmen accountable to their respective churches or confessions, see Stassen’s “Harry Truman as Baptist President,” Baptist History and Heritage (Summer-Fall 1999).))

Similar to Matt’s clarion (and, as he said, paradoxical) cry for “bringing Christian political engagement back into the local church,” the conclusion of Between Babel and Beast recommends the church’s formation of disciples who can see – really see – injustice and/or the unjust use of force, particularly if one’s own government is acquiescent or complicit.  I believe this would be at least one part of Leithart’s response to Yoder’s historical indictment of the use of just war theory by non-pacifist churches: the church is, in fact, called to judge a government’s policies, including its national security decision-making, so if the just war theory is to have, as Yoder put it, “teeth,” the church – pacifist and non-pacifist alike – must be willing to apply church discipline (to include the withholding of the Lord’s Supper and even excommunication) to those who will not refrain from participating in a conflict or policy the church deems unjust. ((See Yoder’s When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking.))  Lastly and positively, Leithart, who may or may not realize he and Andy Crouch are allies, says that the church also needs to figure out how to help Christians identify how they might “turn American power towards justice, peace and charity.” ((See, for example, Crouch’s talk at Trinity Forum Academy, 30 January 2010, or more recently, his talk at Gospel and Culture’s 2011 conference.))

What I hope for in the future – and what I consider a scholarly hole that needs filling – is more in the way of how Leithart’s tactics have been implemented by local churches in the past, and how they might be implemented in the future.  I’m a full-time civil servant, an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism to undergraduate evangelicals, and a lay leader at a Young, Restless and Reformed church in Northern Virginia, populated with employees and private contractors from just about every spooky or near-spooky three-letter organization you can name.

One of my current responsibilities is revamping the church’s extra-sermon teaching diet, including discipleship curriculum.  So, does local church-based disciple formation of the type Leithart speaks necessitate, for example, groups of men and women studying City of God or E. Margaret Adkins and Robert Dodaro’s Augustine: Political Writings?  Is the congregant-cum-statesman or congregant-cum-civil servant going to take from the church’s ‘standard’ teaching mechanisms – liturgy, word and Eucharist – what he needs to perform his national security-related job in accordance with his baptism?  And how would the pastor or elder board even know, given information asymmetries, especially if it involved classified material?   And because of information asymmetries, how might one train their flock to discern accurately between Americanist and non-Americanist US military, national security or foreign policies?


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.