THE JULY 30 NEW YORK TIMES gave prominent coverage to a Minnesota mega-church pastor who disavowed the Religious Right ("Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock"). The Rev. Gregory Boyd, ostensibly fed up by the political pressures of the 2004 presidential race, gave a sermon series denouncing the shibboleths of politically conservative religionists. In response, 1,000 of his 5,000 member congregation ended up leaving the church.
Others in the church, the Times reported, were delighted and "liberated" by Boyd's stance. In May, his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, was released, cataloguing his theology on religion and the state. He wants the church out of politics, to stop its focus on sexual issues, and to abandon any notions of a Christian America, past or present. Boyd may represent a trend among a new generation of evangelical clergy who want to overturn conservative stereotypes about the evangelical subculture.
BOYD IS A PRINCETON and Yale-trained minister who founded Woodland Hills Church in suburban St. Paul in 1992. Formerly a "oneness Pentecostal" who denied the Trinity, Boyd eventually rejected that view in favor of orthodox Trinitarianism. But he embraced another heterodoxy while teaching at Bethel College in St. Paul, where he advocated "open theism," which denies, or minimizes, God's foreknowledge of the future. The website of Boyd's church declares that "we . . . recognize the current disagreement among evangelical Christians about the biblical data regarding the content of the future that God perfectly knows" and describes Woodland Hills Church as not having a "single position" on this issue. An effort by some in Boyd's Baptist General Conference to oust him from the denomination failed.
Beyond "open theism," Woodland Hills Church appears to be a conventional evangelical mega-church, whose theology is orthodox, and which disapproves of homosexual practice and abortion. Supposedly after years of pressure to distribute conservative voter guides and endorse anti-gay marriage rallies, Boyd exploded with his 2004 sermon series on "The Cross and the Sword." He intoned: "When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses." Boyd accused the evangelical church of exchanging the Gospel for political power and American nationalism.
Although supposedly shunning both political left and right, almost all of Boyd's fire is aimed at conservatives, mostly fellow evangelicals. "I am sorry to tell you," he preached in one 2004 sermon, "that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world," a view that he ascribes to his targets. He chastised the "hypocrisy and pettiness" of evangelicals who dwell on "sexual issues" like homosexuality and abortion. American evangelicalism, he said, "is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry."
Boyd is blunt in his critique of America. "Our country was founded pretty much as most nations were founded--thru barbaric violence," he recently told a radio interviewer. "It was a conquering kind and 10 to 20 million Native Americans were killed [which was followed by] the enslavement of African Americans."
But because too many Christians propagate the myth of Christian America, "many now hear the good news of Jesus only as American news, capitalistic news, imperialistic news, exploitive news, antigay news, or Republican news," he complained. For many, "the American flag has smothered the glory of the cross, and the ugliness of our American version of Caesar has squelched the radiant love of Christ."
Because Americans have believed that, "God's will was manifested in the conquest and founding of our country," they "have assumed our nation's causes and wars were righteous and just." Power-hungry Christians are the problem across history. "When Christians get into power it's destructive to the church," Boyd has said. Christian rulers have been "barbaric" in practicing "persecution" and "bloodshed."
While conservative activists and others want "Christians to run the nation," Boyd warns that Christians should "keep from being polluted." He asserts: "You can't have Christ-like laws." God may use the governments of the world, and Christians may be obedient to them, but the faith has little to nothing to say about politics.
In Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd quotes from and appears to rely upon the late Mennonite theologian and pacifist John Howard Yoder, who rejected all statecraft as coercive. Yoder, who taught at Notre Dame, portrayed Christ's submission to crucifixion as a rejection of all violence. Christians, rather than seeking political power, should simply model their sacrificial love through the church. Yoder's colleague, Stanley Hauerwas, now teaches at Duke Divinity School and, is Yoder's main apostle (Time magazine declared Hauerwas to be America's most influential theologian).
Despite their ostensibly rejecting politics, Yoder-Hauerwas fans are typically condemning of America as "empire." After 9/11, Hauerwas suggested that America got its just desserts, comparing it to Chile's supposed equivalent of 9/11 on September 11, 1973, when Socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military.
Boyd makes points not dissimilar to Hauerwas's. In Myth of a Christian Nation, he says that the "horrendous" abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib led to the Iraqi terrorist beheading of John Berg. "You can begin to understand why, given our passionate convictions and given their passionate convictions, this bloody tit-for-tat game is almost inevitable," he writes, attributing both passions to "tribal" loyalties.
Will evangelicals hearken to the separatist, neo-Anabaptist mindset that Boyd espouses, as transmitted through Yoder and Hauerwas? It seems unlikely, but Yoder and Hauerwas are popular in many evangelical seminaries. For evangelicals uninspired by the traditional Religious Right, the Yoder-Hauerwas model seems to offer an alternative, without succumbing to theological liberalism. Expect to hear more from such disciples as Rev. Boyd
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.