Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, Jonathan Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, Forthcoming January 8, 2019
Summary: Discusses twelve cultural myths that form a kind of American folk religion that are in conflict with the hope we find in the gospel and the vision of the kingdom of God.
It is not uncommon in discussions of Christian mission efforts in other countries to confront the challenge of syncretism. In syncretism, either prior religious beliefs or cultural myths are fused with the newly adopted faith. Often these beliefs are in conflict and undermine vibrant Christian belief. If anything, the Bible is even more pointed about the issue and calls this idolatry, which may either be the worship of false gods, or the false worship of the true God.
Jonathan Walton proposes in this book that it not only happens in other countries but right here in America. He identifies twelve beliefs contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ (and thus lies) that form a national cultural religion which he terms White American Folk Religion or WAFR. In an endnote, he explains this terminology:
“White = manmade racial-gender-class-culture-based hierarchy. American = national identity defined by citizenship and the level of adoption and mastery of whiteness. Folk religion = common set of popular beliefs and practices under the umbrella of a religion but outside of the religion’s official doctrines and practices.”
What this means, if I understand Walton correctly is that these are values promulgated by those who would identify as part of majority white culture, and that work best for them and thus become an ideal for all American citizens, internalized and often aspired to by other ethnic, class, and affinity groups, even though they don’t always work equally well for all. Furthermore, these have been a part of American civil religion, often closely linked with the majority faith in this country, Christianity. While they aren’t what we may confess in the liturgy or the creeds, they come to define both what it means for us to be American and Christian. They are beliefs that will be articulated by leaders in both of our political parties–so this isn’t a partisan thing. And, in terms of the gospel of Christ, they are lies.
Here are the twelve lies Walton identifies:
Lie 1: We Are a Christian Nation
Lie 2: We Are All Immigrants
Lie 3: We Are a Melting Pot
Lie 4: All Men Are Created Equal
Lie 5: We Are a Great Democracy
Lie 6: The American Dream Is Alive and Well
Lie 7: We Are the Most Prosperous Nation in the World
Lie 8: We Are the Most Generous People in the World
Lie 9: America Is the Land of the Free
Lie 10: America Is the Home of the Brave
Lie 11: America Is the Greatest Country on Earth
Lie 12: We Are One Nation
I squirmed when I read this list. I’ve said some of these things, and if you search my blogs, I’m sure you will find some of this language. So if your temptation in reading this list is to say, “but…but” you are not alone. In his Introduction, Walton makes this plea:
“I ask you to resist judgment, the urge to look away, and the opportunity to move on. I invite you to carry your skepticism through the entire book while leaning in to understand. Hold your gaze on the picture I am painting and consider its implications for how you think, speak, pray, and act. Your salvation is at stake, and your evangelism is compromised if you claim to be a follower of Jesus while building dividing walls of hostility and allowing them to govern your life. We are to be his witnesses, living differently in this world so we point others to him, and we cannot do that if we are not willing to engage with our differences to seek his justice and reflect his kingdom. I once lived this way, but because of Christ and for the sake of his gospel, I do so no longer.”
I leaned into this book. In each chapter, Walton explores the reasons why each of these beliefs is a lie that as Christians we ought repent from, and the liberating truth that we might embrace instead. I will not go through all of these but even the first chapter was persuasive. The problem of saying we are a Christian nation is that throughout our history, Christian faith has upheld slavery and racial hierarchies. I was reminded of learning recently that the church I grew up in endorsed Klan efforts in my home town during the 1920’s and that many of our current national divisions are reflected in divisions within a church called to be one in Christ. Those “dividing walls of hostility” are brought up to me when I speak with students about Christ in my work on campus, and indeed compromise our witness.
Likewise, how can we say we are all immigrants, when a number were forcibly brought here as slaves, and the original inhabitants of the land were displaced? Instead of a melting pot, Christ offers a vision of diversity that is celebrated and gratefully embraced instead of assimilated into a majority culture. Democracy is undermined where voter suppression is practiced, where representation is gerrymandered and where wealthy interests have a much greater voice. A gospel-centered people advocate for the voices that are marginalized. Kingdom people are liberated from pursuing “their best lives now” to be rich in the things of God. Do we believe America, or Jesus, is the last, best hope of the world?
One of the most important aspects of this book, then, is the subtitle: “and the truth that sets us free.” Walton contends that these lies hold us captive, burden us down, and rob us of kingdom joy. The truth opens our eyes to the ways we’ve been compromised, and invites us into a bigger dream that has room enough for all, and that brings reconciliation across our deepest differences.
I wondered how Walton would address the question of proper love of place and country. At least some of the expressions Walton calls lies are affectional and aspirational for “the land that we love.” Can we love a country without turning it into an idol? As embodied persons living in a place, what is proper care for that place?
Sadly though, we do often become captive to inordinate forms of these beliefs that take precedence over the claims of biblical faith and our kingdom hope. We put America before kingdom, a prosperity gospel before our heavenly inheritance, and sadly, our people before all peoples. Life becomes smaller, meaner, a struggle for self-preservation. Walton points us to a better way, if we are willing to face and repent from the lies.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.