03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Is Not a Christian Nation and Evangelicals Are Not Hard Right

Nothing demonstrates the internal diversity of evangelicalism in America better than an important new book by Richard T. Hughes, "Christian America and the Kingdom of God." Hughes takes on -- and takes apart -- the toxic, and increasingly popular, myth that America is and always has been a "Christian nation."

Such arguments, as many others have pointed out, fly in the face of the United States Constitution itself; the First Amendment explicitly prohibits any form of religious establishment even as it guarantees the "free exercise" of religion. Patrick Henry's attempts to designate Christianity as the state religion in Virginia were rebuffed by James Madison's famous "Memorial and Remonstrance." The Treaty of Tripoli, to cite yet another example of the founders' intentions and their understandings of the new nation, explicitly states that "the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." The Treaty of Tripoli was read aloud and then ratified unanimously by the United States Senate on June 7, 1797.

But, in his own quiet and deliberate way, Hughes takes these familiar arguments a bit further by pressing the case from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament about what "the kingdom of God" would look like if it were translated into a contemporary political form. Once again, he concludes, the United States of America falls short of that ideal.

So how does this superb book illustrate the internal diversity of American evangelicalism? Consider that Hughes is himself an evangelical and that he teaches at an evangelical college, Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. This places him in direct opposition to those evangelical and fundamentalist voices on the Religious Right who insist, even in the face of the facts, that the United States is a "Christian nation."

And consider further that one of Messiah College's graduates, recently in the news, was Monica Goodling, the official in George W. Bush's justice department who was in large measure responsible for firing the U.S. attorneys who didn't conform to her Republican ideas. Goodling went from Messiah College to Pat Robertson's law school to the justice department, where she sought to prosecute her own hard-right agenda.

The media had a field day with this story, as various reporters went out of their way to portray Messiah as yet another Bible-thumping, fundamentalist, backwater college that is more Republican than Christian. The presence of Richard Hughes as one of the prominent members of the faculty belies that. Hughes is part of the growing ranks of evangelicals willing to stand up to the unbiblical, ahistorical and (in my view) immoral conflation of evangelicalism with hard-right Republicanism.

That is not to say that Messiah and comparable evangelical colleges don't have their share of right-leaning students. After I lectured at Messiah a couple of years ago, some thoughtful soul sent me links to several student blogs containing snarky comments about my critique of the Religious Right. Fair enough. But the presence of thoughtful folks like Hughes suggests, at the very least, that schools like Messiah defy easy categorization.

And so too with evangelicalism itself. As evangelicals continue to struggle with their identity in the post-George W. Bush era, let us hope that gentler, more reasonable voices like that of Richard Hughes prevail over those that prefer stridency and partisanship.

Although it is doubtless the case that voices from the right have been louder and more insistent in recent years (even decades), other, more measured voices like Richard Hughes are beginning to be heard.