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Must Christianity Dominate America?

By the Rev. Howard Bess
September 27, 2010

Editor’s Note: Some Christians and Jews are seeking harsher policies against Muslims to counter Islam’s purported desire for dominance over other religions, ironically even as right-wing Christians and Jews themselves demand greater dominance over Muslims and others who practice different religions or none at all.

And, just as Muslims cite the Koran as a holy book that they feel must guide human behavior, many Christians and Jews trace their political agendas back to the Bible and the supposed “word of God.”

For instance, in defending the resumption of Jewish settlement expansion on the Palestinian West Bank, hard-line Israelis claim the Bible justifies the land grab.

Reflecting this fundamentalist and fundamentally racist view, Gershon Mesika, a settlement leader, lectured President Barack Obama on Sunday by saying: “I say to Hussein Obama: This Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. The Jewish people have the strongest title deed in the world, and that is the Bible.”

In the United States, Christian nationalists have taken up their own political-religious banner in demanding that the Christian Bible and the Ten Commandants become the basis for the American government, superseding even the U.S. Constitution.

In that context, retired Baptist minister Howard Bess examines this internal debate within Christianity (and Judaism) over where the Bible should stand as a factor in civil governance and whether one religion should dominate others:

One of the great sins of Christianity over the centuries is that it has sought dominance over believers in other religions as well as non-believers.

Somehow most Christian leaders have decided that their particular brand of religion should be dominant in the world and that the world would attain its greatest ideal if everyone were Christian.

Though there is material in the Bible to support this supremacist view, there is also a great body of Bible literature that looks at life from a very different perspective. According to this alternate point-of-view, the calling of the people of God is to be a servant people.

I have long maintained that the Bible should be read and studied with a recognition that both sides of the arguments are found in the same collection of writings, that the Bible is not monolithic on this and other key questions. The task of the Bible student is to join in the argument and to bring the argument to the most modern of settings. 

The dominance side of the argument is rooted in the Bible story of King David, tracing his life from a humble shepherd boy to supposedly the most powerful king in the Near East. According to the story, he claimed power as a bloody, conquering tyrant and established a great capital city in Jerusalem as home to Jehovah God.

This story (which many historians consider largely mythical) has become the model and symbol of all Christian dominionists.

The servant side of the Bible tradition is rooted not in Jerusalem but in Babylon. Four hundred years after the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and its God, Babylonia, a powerful neighbor to the east, conquered the last vestige of the Israelite nation, capturing Jerusalem and leveling the Holy Temple. 

Some Israelites were carried off to the City of Babylon to be slave labor for the new dominant nation in the Near East. In that setting, the people of God pondered their role in the world. With dominance no longer a possibility, they concluded that their new calling from God was to serve the world rather than to dominate the world.
Which of these ancient Israelite traditions represents the will of the God that Christians, whose religion derives from a Jewish rabbi, should claim as their own? This is the long-running argument that ferments in the Bible material.

For generations, most Christian churches and individual Christians side-step this argument by focusing instead on individual salvation as their primary concern and on temporal activities in the wider world. Many clergy joined the Chamber of Commerce and abandoned the simple brown robes of community servitude.

Meanwhile, in today's world of high-tech communications and rapid social changes, the very nature of Christian churches is in flux. Christianity has become a favorite subject of PhD theses, and the study of the present state of Christian churches is a popular subject for pollsters.

Recognizable patterns are presenting themselves. Most churches are still focused on getting people to heaven when they die. However, a sizeable number of Christian dominionists and nationalists have developed. They have stepped into the public square with full force.

Their message is not hidden: Return the nation to Christian roots! Give the Ten Commandments a place of equality with the Constitution! For the faithful, “God Bless America” has become a companion to “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Stars and Stripes and the Christian Flag have become siblings.

However, a new reformation movement, called the emergent church, has arisen to challenge Christian dominionists by following a different path marked by Jesus, the humble rabbi from Nazareth.

While there is a great diversity among these “emergents,” they tend to be very religious and committed to reading and studying the Bible and to celebrating their faith in prayer and song.

Most importantly, however, they have focused their attention on Jesus, who taught that greatness is found in being a servant, rather than on King David, who brutally crushed his enemies. Today, emergents are finding allies across the Christian spectrum.

A backdrop for this internal Christian debate has been 9/11, which has intensified the public discussion of diversity and heightened the awareness that the American population is more diverse than ever before. Immigrants with highly diverse backgrounds keep pounding on the American door.

Are Christians, from a position of righteous superiority, called to convert and dominate the strangers in our midst, or is our call to be a welcoming neighbor who seeks to be a servant of all?

An ancient argument is a lively argument in the 21st century.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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