Richard T. Hughes

is a senior fellow at Messiah College and author of the forthcoming book "Christian America and the Kingdom of God"

Newt Gingrich has news for Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, whose recent book, The Great Awakening, proclaimed the demise of the Christian Right:

"Christian America" is alive and well.

Gingrich has created an organization called Renewing American Leadership, dedicated to the work that Jerry Falwell began in 1979 - bringing conservative Christians more fully into the political process.

He also wants to build a coalition between Christian and economic conservatives.

He says he is motivated by what he regards as an attempt on the part of liberals to secularize the nation.

Gingrich rejects President Obama's April 6 comment in Ankara, Turkey, that "we don't consider ourselves a Christian nation."

Obama's point, of course, was that the United States is not only a country of Christians, but also a country of Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others. But Gingrich still took offense, and wants to help Obama understand what he calls the nation's Judeo-Christian character.

"Did you know," he asks, "that 'Holiness to the Lord' is engraved into a tribute block of the Washington Monument?"

That "a sculpture of Moses with the Ten Commandments appears over the east portico of the Supreme Court?"

That "a heartfelt prayer from President John Adams is carved into the stone fireplace in the White House State Dining Room?"

These and many other symbols in U.S. public buildings, Gingrich says, stand as a stern rebuke against Obama's assertion that "we don't consider ourselves a Christian nation."

But the Bible offers a different criterion for measuring the Christian character of people or nations: fidelity to the teachings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus rejected public displays of piety - displays such as those that Gingrich lauds - as ultimately phony, hypocritical, and meaningless (Luke 18).

Any attempt to measure the Christian character of the nation would have to take seriously the only phrase in the biblical text - "the kingdom of God" - that is even remotely analogous to the idea of a Christian nation.

According to the biblical text, the kingdom of God relies on the power of self-giving love, while nations - even so-called Christian nations - rely on the power of coercion and the sword.

For that reason, nations - even "Christian" nations - inevitably go to war against their enemies, while the kingdom of God has no enemies at all.

The kingdom of God is universal, and those who promote that kingdom care deeply for every human being in every corner of the globe, regardless of race or nationality.

But earthly nations - even so-called Christian nations - embrace values that are inevitably nationalistic and tribal, caring especially for the welfare of those within their borders.

And while the kingdom of God exalts the poor, the disenfranchised, and the dispossessed, earthly nations inevitably exalt the rich and powerful, and hold them up as models to be emulated.

In fact, in the context of earthly nations - even so-called Christian nations - the poor seldom count for much at all.

Obviously, there is a profound sense in which the United States is a Christian nation. After all, about 80 percent of Americans claim to be Christian. But the Christian character of the United States is comparable to the Christian character of the Roman Empire after Constantine or the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century.

If one compares the Christian dimensions of the Holy Roman Empire with the teachings of Jesus, the differences are stunning.

Jesus counseled peace, but the empire practiced violence.

Jesus counseled humility, but the empire engaged in a ruthless pursuit of power.

Jesus counseled concern for the poor, but the empire practiced exaltation of the rich.

Jesus counseled modesty, but the empire practiced extravagance.

Jesus counseled simple living, but the empire encouraged luxurious living for people of means.

And while Jesus counseled forgiveness and love for one's enemies, the empire practiced vengeance.

Like that ancient empire, the United States abounds in Christian trappings. Yet it embraces virtually all the values that have been common to empires for centuries.

It pays lip service to peace but practices violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above simplicity.

In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus.

It is curious, then, that Gingrich or anyone else would seriously claim that the United States is a Christian nation.

E-mail Richard T. Hughes at rhughes@messiah.edu.