Review: Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive

Twelve Lies

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.

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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.

Review: Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul

roger-williams

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American SoulJohn M. Barry. New York: Viking, 2012. [Publisher link is to paperback edition]

Summary: A study of the life of Roger Williams focusing on the intellectual influences upon Williams, his journey to Massachusetts, banishment and founding of Rhode Island, and his signal ideas of freedom of conscience and government by consent of the governed.

Questions of church and state, a “Christian” vision for America, and the battle to be free to believe as one wills and practice those beliefs are as contemporary as the most recent national elections, but trace back to our very beginnings in New England. Reading this account of the life of Roger Williams gives me a deeper appreciation of a figure who laid the groundwork of the protections of both religious liberty and from religious tyranny that we enjoy, and the recognition of the human right of freedom of conscience.

Many accounts of Williams’ life begin with his banishment from Massachusetts and his flight into the wilderness, taking shelter with the Narragansetts he had befriended, and then establishing the town that would become Providence, leading eventually to the chartering of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. This account begins by tracing his youthful apprenticeship with Edward Coke, one of the greatest legal minds of the age, and a steadfast resister of royal tyranny, whose resistance resulted in his going to the Tower of London. He also closely observed Francis Bacon, the great scientist, but also chancellor to King James, and from him developed a commitment to reaching conclusions by evidence that led later to his own independence in forming theological views, leading to his break with the founders in Massachusetts.

Like many Puritans, Williams, who for a time was sheltered as a “chaplain” to a distinguished family, faced the scrutiny of Bishop Laud, and like many, fled to America. The Massachusetts colony was established with a vision of being a “city on the hill” where Christian faith shaped every aspect of the colony’s life and where religious and governmental functions were closely enough aligned to be at one. Williams, exposed to this theocratic government concluded that government could enforce only those parts of the law (the second table) having to do with human beings relationships with each other. To try to enforce the first would be to intrude upon the individual conscience. Williams also reached conclusions that questioned the basis upon which colonists obtained the native people’s land. Eventually, the authorities, including close friends from England, banished him and even attempted at one point to seize him by force and take him to England, where he likely would have been executed. Only flight in mid-winter saved him, and led to the beginnings of Rhode Island.

From the beginning, Williams vision was to set up a place, not where anarchy ruled, but where conscience was free and people could believe and worship as they pleased (or not). At various points we see Williams fending off Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut from carving up Rhode Island, even as he also intercedes with Native tribes to avert war with the colonists.

Eventually this leads to a return of Williams to the England he had fled to obtain a charter that would formally recognize Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations–its full name) as a colony in its own right. Furthermore, Williams is proposing the radical idea of a colony with no state church. The account of how he does this, as well as a significant work he published during a second visit, The Bloudy Tenent is fascinating, and along with the early influences in his life, often overlooked.  In The Bloudy Tenent he argues both for freedom of conscience and for the idea that the state’s power to govern should derive from the consent of the governed. These ideas, via John Locke, shaped the thinking of the founders.

Williams did not remain unscarred in all the conflicts he faced. After his banishment, he took up briefly with the Baptists, but then never again joined or formed a church. He continued to believe, but his significant contributions would be in the learning of Native languages and his relations with Native peoples, his leadership in Rhode Island and politically savvy relations in England, and his political thought that laid the foundations for freedom of conscience, religious liberty and freedom from religious tyranny, which has also frustrated efforts to enforce a Christian conscience upon the nation that continues to this day.

Barry offers a narrative that helps us see the combination of intellectual influences and life events that shaped the thought and actions of Williams. It strikes me that the peculiar genius and grace of Williams was to create a space for the liberties and form of government he believed in without attacking those who attacked him. He worked skillfully and shrewdly and yet as a man of peace in the midst of warring factions in the colonies and civil conflict with bloody executions in England. It seems we could use more like him.

Review: The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction

The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction by James W. Skillen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In our current toxic political climate one might ask the question, “can anything good come of politics?” James W. Skillen would answer that affirmatively. His main contention is that to be created in the image of God means, among other things, that we are political creatures and that political life, along with things like work and family, is part of God’s creation intention for us. It is not a consequence of the fall. Like other aspects of the human condition, political life certainly has been distorted by the fall but part of our call as the redeemed is to bring a redemptive influence into political life.

After laying out the biblical basis for this position in Part One, Skillen goes on in Part Two to survey how the church through history has addressed itself to this question. He covers Augustine’s two cities, the ascendancy of the church over civil government, and the splintering of authority and the two kingdom approach of the Reformers, particularly Luther. Finally he moves to the contemporary scene and the influences of Hobbes and Locke on the American Experiment.

Along the way, he engages the Anabaptist alternative of Hauerwas and Yoder and others that advocates for the kingdom of God as its own political entity and that the church, which is called to peace, should abstain from political engagement which inevitably requires the use of force in restraining evil, including lethal force. He argues that while this may allow the church to maintain its purity, it raises questions about the character of a God who ordains government to restrain evil through the power of the sword. My difficulty with this contention is that these questions are unavoidable no matter whether you are Anabaptist or not and go back to the question of why God permits evil at all. However, like those who would ascribe to some form of just war theory and who take this seriously, he argues that many instances of warfare do not meet this test and should be opposed by Christians.

This last is covered significantly in the third part of the book where Skillen engages the questions of how Christians engage in politics. He explores hot button issues like marriage, family, economics, and the environment. Because this book is an “introduction” he covers a lot of ground. His most interesting sections to me were his discussions of citizenship and the responsibilities all of us have in a republic, and his thoughts on politics in a globalized setting–avoiding nationalism and one world government options while allowing for various regional and other international regimes to deal with the international issues that are inevitable. In this discussion he argues that our situation is not one of a clash of civilizations between country blocks but rather competing claims within many of our countries: secularism, Christianity, capitalism, Islam to name a few.

The one thing I found most impractical was his proposal for “proportional representation” in the House of Representatives of national parties based on voting percentages for each party in elections. What he is trying to do is create a context where parties address national concerns rather than simply being split into electoral base politics. What seems to have a better (though still a long shot to me) chance is redistricting reform that requires districts to make geographic sense and to be demographically representative of a state’s population as far as that is geographically possible. The current gerrymandering of political districts means that one only need cater to one’s base to get elected rather than representing all the people. At least both Skillen and I agree on the problem that makes the House so dysfunctional.

On balance, this is a helpful proposal for how Christians might think about political life and exercise redemptive influence in politics. The most important part of this book is his argument for politics as a result, not of the fall, but the creation. His survey of historical positions is also helpful. His exploration of contemporary issues seemed somewhat cursory, even though he is thoughtful and nuanced. Yet he shows some of the directions Christians might go in pursuing these issues in greater depth.

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Review: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution

God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution
God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the relationship between religion and our national life in the U.S. were a Facebook status, it would be “it’s complicated”. Truth is, it always has been, according to Thomas S. Kidd.

In this “religious history of the American Revolution” Kidd gives us a highly readable yet nuanced account of our early religious history which avoids either the “Christian America” or “secular state” options. Nothing illustrates this more than the relationship between Baptist evangelist, John Leland and Thomas Jefferson. These were strange bedfellows to be sure and yet both were agreed on one crucial issue, the disestablishment of religion and the promotion of religious liberty for all Americans.

Kidd documents that this passion for liberty, first from the British establishment, and then from any establishment of a particular church was in fact the meeting place between much of the evangelical movement that arose out of the first Great Awakening, and the by and large Unitarian deists and skeptics who were among many of our “Founding Fathers”. Both recognized the vital importance of religion in energizing the rebellion against Great Britain, which accounted for the wide support of military chaplains during the war. Both recognized the importance of religion for the encouragement of sacrifice and public virtue. And both opposed state supported churches that privileged one denomination with tax revenues, and often excluded from public office those unwilling to meet religious tests.

The book also chronicles the fateful concurrence particularly between New England religious leaders and Thomas Jefferson in the statement in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights”. Intended to assert American equality with the British, it also underscored the deep inconsistency within our country of oppressing Native Americans and enslaving Africans. Kidd explores how this piece of our religious history set up a tension not only between sections of the country but even within the lives of people like Jefferson who both trembled at the consequences of slavery for the country and yet held slaves until he died.

What Kidd argues is that the evidence of these early years presents a picture of public expression of religious faith without state establishment of religious institutions. None envisioned the complete exclusion of matters of faith from public life. In fact, the disestablishment of religion was believed to be a vitalizing factor that even contributed to subsequent religious awakenings and the exceptional vibrancy of religion in American life, a fact noted by de Tocqueville. He sums up the agreement between the evangelicals and the founders as follows, “The founders’ religious agreement was on public values, not private doctrines” (p. 254). He warns against things like divine providentialism supporting every conceivable conflict and the kinds of “Christian America” rhetoric seen in some quarters today. Yet none of this argues against the importance of religion in public life, particularly to advance commonly held values.

The only reservation I have here is that this can sometimes smack of a pragmatism that uses religious faith for political ends. While people of faith should be welcomed in public life and discourse, they also need to be watchful for being used (and duped) for political ends inconsistent with their most deeply held principles.

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