Review: Between Babel & the Beast, by Peter Leithart

Defending Constantine (IVP Academic, 2010) was a book defending the man everyone loves to hate, the ever-controversial Roman Emperor Constantine. As if that wasn’t provocative enough, author Peter Leithart, Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College and pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, ID (who recently announced that he is opening a pastoral training school called The Trinity Institute in Birmingham, AL—see his announcement and a high recommendation from Stanley Hauerwas), decided that he would defend also “empire” generally but denounce American empire more specifically as “between Babel and Beast.” This should be contentious enough to grab your attention.

Peter Leithart describes Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Cascade, 2012) as “a book-length footnote” to Defending Constantine, “a footnote full of epicyclical footnotes of its own—a detachable, errant appendix” (x). Leithart explains that in doing research on Constantine he was frustrated by the lack of good thinking done on the topic of “empire” from a biblical perspective. As you can probably see at any bookstore with popular works on Christianity, there are dozens of titles with a fairly one-sided bent to their perspective on empire:  “Paul Against Empire,” “Jesus Against Empire,” “The Bible Against Empire,” “Resisting Empire,” “Coming Out of Empire,” etc. These works are too simplicistic, says Leithart.  “The Bible is not for or against ‘empire’ because it does not concede that empire in the singular is a useful category of political analysis” (xi). Instead, Leithart will categorize three types of empire in Scripture: Babelic, beastial, and cherubic (or Cyrian). After a biblical analysis of the category of empire, Leithart moves on to examine the status of the United States—is it an empire, and if so, which kind?

The first section of the book—“Empires in Scripture”—works chronologically through the biblical text to determine what it says about empire. Babel, as in the Tower of Babel, is the first recognizable empire. (An aside: Leithart discusses his definition of ‘empire’ in a three page endnote, finally ending up with a loose definition of when “one people, kingdom, or nation exercises dominance over or otherwise leads and guides and shapes another nation or people,” [155]). Its aim was an enforced homogeneity and uniformity. Leithart argues that Babel had a gospel and eschatology: the achievement of immortality and the control of history. The project sought to reach to heaven where they could gain eternal life like the Most High, and thus they also asserted that the destiny of humanity had been attained in this political embodiment. Furthermore, it is built on human sacrifice; Leithart details the violence inherent in their project. This is the archetype for all Babelic empires that would follow after it.

Although Babel is condemned for its arrogance, Leithart shows that God actually responds to Babel by launching an empire of his own. God does not denounce empire, per se; rather he raises up an anti-Babelic empire through the call of Abraham. Abraham’s call echoes the very same aims of Babel, thus showing that God will give the final end of Babel, though on his own terms and in his own timing. From Abraham’s family comes God’s imperium, Israel, destined to bring forth kings to rule over the earth. This is what anti-empire political theologies usually miss.

For Leithart, an important time period that is often overlooked is Israel’s time in imperial exile—what Leithart calls the “Israel-in-Empire” time or “oikoumene.” Israel’s time in exile is not only a punishment for a sin, but a necessary training ground, a scattering that results in Israel’s witness in the womb of empires. This witness would reshape other empires in the image of Israel. Leithart sees this in Nebuchadnezzer’s, Darius’, and Cyrus’ edicts of reverence toward the God of Israel. The empires of the world now look a little less like Babel or more like God’s imperium. Inasmuch as these empires recognize and attend to God’s imperium, Israel, in their midst, they are called as cherubic empires, receiving a sacred task to guard God’s embodied form of redemption. Those that bless Israel are blessed, but those who curse Israel are cursed.

Yet with God’s people in the midst of empires, there emerges a third category of empire: the beastial. Bestial empires are those that move beyond the normal arrogance and violence of Babelic empires to feast directly upon the saints of God. Leithart argues that Rome began as a cherubic empire, providing safety and order for the early church to grow, but it became a Beastial empire, intent on sacrificing the blood of the martyrs to fuel its strength. It was for this reason that God judged Rome, putting an end to the entire “Israel-in-Empire” system. Now, no nation is sacred in its divine calling to protect the people of God. The task of nations remains the same—to give heed to God’s imperium—but now eschatological Israel, fulfilled in the church, retains the only sacral calling. The world has been secularized in relation to the church.

The next two sections of the book—“Americanism” and “Between Babel and Beast”—cover Leithart’s assessment of America in relation to the earlier perspective on empires. Following several intellectual historians and political theorists, Leithart allows for imperial language to be used about America, though he does acknowledge that it is important to distinguish American empire from other empires in recent history. American empire is often “empire by invitation.” That America is a kind of empire, for Leithart, is not in itself a positive or negative assessment. In Leithart’s judgment, empire is a legitimate form of government—as long as it recognizes the church as the imperial city and does not itself rise to arrogant pretentions. The question of America is not simply its political action, but the meaning given to its political action by its politicians and citizens. Even just political judgments can be Babelic, if they are given sacral and divine status.

Using David Gelernter’s quip that “Americanism” is the world’s fourth biblical religion (58), Leithart argues that American ideals are wrapped up in Christian garb, but it is Babelic in its lack of recognition of the church. Americanism is a Christian heresy. It has happened because the United States assumes a public role which supplants that of the kingdom of God. America takes on an eschatology that claims it is the “new order of the ages” and a gospel that says America is the hope and liberation of all humanity. Leithart goes on to show that Americans have attributed to America titles usually reserved for the church since the very beginning of its history. This is not a recent phenomenon; Americanism is as old as America itself. America was seen as a “new Israel” with its flight from “Egypt” across the “Red Sea” where it had to make its way in the wilderness. It acquired an expansionist eschatology that saw itself as the “last best hope of mankind” and the guarantor of liberty in the world. Lastly, Leithart argues that Americanism came to have its own martyrdom: death in America’s wars is the “sacrifice” that sacralizes the nation in its divine calling.

Not only does America have Babelic tendencies, it even flirts with beastial powers, says Leithart. Although the United States espouses religious freedom, its foreign aid often goes to nations that feed off the blood of the saints. Leithart’s examples are Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel. America uses its hegemony in the world for much good, but Leithart warns that “those who consort with beasts might become bestial” (150).

So what is to be done? Leithart concludes that American Christians need to repent of the heresy of Americanism and recognize the church as God’s holy nation and everlasting kingdom. In particular, Christians need to loose themselves from American individualism and see their primary identity as citizens of the kingdom of God, the Bride of Christ. America as a nation needs to humble itself of its churchly pretentions and submit itself to tutorship in the ways of justice and service.  American Christians need to prepare themselves for a bestial empire that might demand even more. “If America is to be put in its place—put right—Christians must risk martyrdom and force Babel to the crux where it has to decide either to acknowledge Jesus as imperator and the church as God’s imperium or to begin drinking holy blood” (152).

Peter Leithart is not unaware of the controversial nature of his writing. He warns in the introduction, “I expect to offend many, perhaps everyone” (xi). He expects his offense to cut both ways: “My reading of Scripture will offend scholars whose political sympathies incline toward the left, but the reading of American history that occupies the latter half of this book will offend Christians whose political sympathies incline toward the right” (x). For example, Leithart argues that America is an empire—not an empire of colonization but at least an empire of hegemony. But this statement is not strictly a critique. Leithart does not fault America for having great power and influence. He is not an egalitarian (how could a lover of Christendom?!). Rather, it is America’s pretense to be over the church and setting its ends apart from the kingdom of Christ that earn his condemnation of it. Leithart’s identification of America as a “Post-Christendom Christian nation” captures his verdict. It espouses semi-Christian ideals, but apart from submission to the church. It is a “heretic nation.”

Between Babel and Beast covers an incredible breadth of biblical theology, Medieval political theory, and American social history. No doubt Leithart is right that it will offend many. But inasmuch as it challenges American Christians to consider their own national history and politics in light of the lordship of Christ, it will have accomplished its purpose.

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About Robbie Crouse

I completed my PhD student at Wheaton College with Dr. Daniel Treier in 2016. My doctoral research was on ecclesiology, Christ and culture, and Christian political theology. I'm married to Becky (2008), and we have a daughter, Susanne, who was born in 2012.
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2 Responses to Review: Between Babel & the Beast, by Peter Leithart

  1. Hank Voss says:

    Thanks Robbie for your review and updating us about the Trinity Institute. I find Hauerwas’ comment fascinating, “Given how it’s understood in the Institute’s proposal, I can even affirm that experiment they call “Christendom” if Christ is indeed at the center.”

    Hauerwas endorsing “Christendom”? This will indeed be an interesting Institute to watch!

  2. Robbie Crouse says:

    Hank,
    Thanks for your response. I’ve enjoyed seeing how enthusiastic Hauerwas is about Leithart’s work. He gave a positive review of Defending Constantine as well. I think it is evidence that Leithart’s Christendom is not what Hauerwas and Yoder critique as Constantinianism.

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