In February 2020, I started working on a blog post sharing my thoughts on the 2020 presidential campaign. But then the pandemic hit, and I could not find the inspiration to return to this subject. It almost felt like it was written by someone else in another shallow world. But I just finished a really thought-provoking book called “Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: and the Truth that Sets us Free” by Jonathan Walton. I first discovered this author shortly before Election Day when I read this article on the blog of Red Letter Christians, an organization whose mission I love, and who I have linked to before. Although 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016–76 percent in 2020–Walton contends that Donald Trump was not elected because of the toxicity of Hillary Clinton, resentment of urban elitism, or the grievances of people harmed by globalization. Donald Trump was elected because of white American folk religion, a “race, gender and class-based hierarchy that hijacks the Christian label to sanction abuse, greed and violence, and then absolve leaders who live lives contrary to the teachings of Jesus and wield power in opposition to God’s plan for the world.” The evils of white supremacy are not new. Walton traces the theological justification for it back to Pope Nicholas V in 1452 who said to “go out and plunder” and John Winthrop in 1630 who placed himself and his followers in the Israelite narrative to justify land theft, slavery and genocide. Winthrop and Pope Nicholas V likely influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny, but Jefferson goes a step further, not just cutting the true teachings of Jesus out of his preaching, but literally cutting Jesus out of his personal bible. While it would be nice to think society has learned from these atrocities, unfortunately white supremacy is still alive and well in people like Donald Trump, Bret Kavanaugh and Jerry Falwell Jr. and the millions of people who support them. School kept me too busy to read extracurricular books, but I loved the insights of this author so much that I made a mental note to make his book mentioned in the author bio at the end of the article top priority on my summer reading list. The book took an even deeper dive into white American folk religion by exploring twelve lies that most Americans have bought into, and that he once believed himself. Walton likens these lies to Peter’s fishing nets, and argues that if we really want to follow Jesus, we must reject these lies in the same way that Peter put down his nets. Some of these lies I recognized and had already rejected, like the idea that America is a Christian nation because of the aforementioned land theft, genocide and slavery that founded this country, and the lie that we are all immigrants given that Native Americans were already here when the first white men arrived, and the Africans transported here on slave ships were brought here against their will. But one of the key practices of white American folk religion that I never would have thought of as white American folk religion is “the regular tithe of time, money and talent to pursue personal comfort and selfish ambition” (Walton 2019, 18). Related to this pursuit is the lie that the American dream is alive and well. I did some informal journaling after reading each section, and this lie was convicting for me. My thoughts on this are so complicated I am planning another blog post to address it specifically.
I am not sure I completely agree with all of Walton’s positions. For example, in the chapter discussing Lie 4, the lie that we are all created equal, Walton calls the church today a “theological Jim Crow” meaning decisions about how to interpret the Bible are made by white seminaries, churches sing songs from white bands, church services rarely last longer than an hour, and there is no weeping or speaking in tongues. When Walton, a black man, went off to college at Columbia University, a predominately white institution, he was made to feel as though the worship style he grew up with was not just different, but wrong, even unbiblical. He suggests that to rectify this, society should emulate the response of the early church in Acts 6, when Greek widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and instead of giving 50% of the leadership on this issue to the marginalized population and 50% to the Hebrews, James (Jesus’ brother) gave 100% of the responsibility of food distribution to Greek men. Of course, it is absolutely not my place to question the wisdom of the Bible. But while this radical response worked out beautifully for the early church, I must confess I have reservations about whether such a response would be feasible in today’s world. When the events of Acts 6 took place, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension back to Heaven were still so recent that the original disciples were still alive, and thus the church was still enjoying the afterglow of Jesus’ time on Earth. You could liken it to the phenomenon where in the immediate aftermath of a national crisis (like say, the insurrection on January 6), the fragility of life comes into sharper focus, and the country seems to come together, putting life into perspective and appreciating what truly matters. But as time passes and the raw emotions of the crisis fade from our collective memory, it isn’t long before strife and petty partisanship return. Of course, Jesus is altogether different in that while no one living today had the privilege of literally following Jesus while he lived on Earth, anyone can enjoy a personal relationship with him through prayer and study of Scripture. Giving 100% of leadership to an oppressed population could work if the people given these positions are spiritually mature and make decisions with a spirit of reconciliation rather than revenge. In theory at least, this should be a no-brainer in the church context. It should go without saying in the church context that prayer and discernment should go into every decision. But we live in a fallen world where no institution, including the church, is immune from the effects of sinful human nature, and I worry that when it comes to institutions where a personal relationship with Jesus is not a requirement to be granted a leadership position, the pendulum could swing in a counter-productive direction. For example, the establishment of unions did a tremendous amount of good during the industrial age when companies subjected workers to dangerous working conditions and meager wages, but in some cases, unions intended to call out corruption became corrupt themselves, using union dues on lavish conventions for union leaders, or instituting policies that make it virtually impossible to fire bad cops or teachers. Of course, there absolutely should be more minorities in leadership positions because our country’s past dark history of discrimination, and the systemic racism that still exists today are undeniable realities. But shortly after reading this chapter, I read a New York Times editorial which highlighted recent policies such as Chicago mayor Laurie Lightfoot’s decision to only grant interviews to people of color, or a lending program for struggling farmers that is only available to black farm owners, which amount to rectifying issues of equity through “reverse discrimination.” I’m not saying minorities our country has mistreated since our founding don’t deserve special opportunities, even reparations, but there is a fine line between reconciliation and reverse racism, and two wrongs don’t make right. I think a better approach, at least in contexts where Jesus is not a factor, would be a spirit of collaboration, where all cultures are given proportional representation, and all ideas are given genuine consideration. Perhaps I am misreading Walton and he is not advocating for reverse racism. He never explicitly uses this term, and in other parts of the book, he states that white people are also made in the image of God, and advocates for a spirit of reconciliation, not condemnation.
In my undergraduate communication courses, we talked about how life experiences cause people to form personal, and very often unconscious biases that affect how we view the world and can even affect research if scholars aren’t conscientious. Walton and I definitely come from different life experiences. He is a black man who grew up in Broadnax, Virginia, where his family, like most in this small town barely earned enough to make ends meet. I grew up at a slight disadvantage what with the brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was about seven months old leaving me totally blind. As I discussed last summer, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in August 1990, just months before my brain tumor diagnosis, so I have never known life without the protection of this law. But I have still faced occasional resistance when asking for accommodations because just like with the Civil Rights Movement, just because laws are passed granting protection, laws cannot change hearts overnight, nor can they heal the emotional scars of those oppressed. Just as black Americans still bare the emotional wounds from slavery, lynching, red-lining, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration, people with disabilities still collectively bare the emotional wounds of “ugly laws”, institutionalization, forced sterilization, lack of access to education and inaccessible buildings and public transportation that prevailed in our society not that long ago. There are still very few people with severe disabilities in leadership positions, and the unemployment rate for blind people is 70%.
But in addition to the new protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class family and attend an affluent school district that was willing and able to provide all of the support I needed. This privileged foundation allowed me to get into and succeed in a private liberal arts college where I graduated magna cum laude in 2012, which laid the foundation for the smooth experience I am enjoying now as I take graduate level seminary courses. My search for employment has been a little bumpier, as I have noticed the business world is a lot more skittish about accommodating people with disabilities than the academic world. Nevertheless, with the help of a job coach, I managed to cajole a Social Security disability law firm into hiring me. Although the first couple years were rough, the company found the right position for me in 2017, and I thrived there for three years, and would probably still be there if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Growing up, I took my race completely for granted. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I was introduced to the concept of white privilege. But since then, in light of all the injustices faced by people of color from police brutality, to income disparity and difficulty accessing healthcare, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that even though I am also a minority population given my disability, the fact that I am white has made my path a little easier in our current society. So I hate to admit this, but while I absolutely believe on an intellectual level that people of color deserve reparations and increased access to leadership positions, my first thought when I read Walton’s suggestion that our society adopt the Acts 6 model was “it was hard enough for me, a white person with a disability to get a job. If I have to contend with my disability, and reverse discrimination by employers, my prospects of ever finding employment again are hopeless!” I don’t think Walton would condemn me for having this first thought, and I know God doesn’t condemn me. Walton acknowledges that some of the values espoused by white American folk religion are so entrenched that even he bought into some of them. Over the past year of reckoning, prompted by the shocking and senseless murder of George Floyd, I have read several articles discussing how you can be a decent white person who agrees with Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, and who is horrified by racist rhetoric from hate groups and some politicians, or the brutal murders of unarmed black people by police over the most minor infractions, and yet still carry unconscious racial biases because racism is so engrained in the fabric of our society. Perhaps I am complicating Walton’s message too much. Although Walton speaks out for all marginalized populations (anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, Protestant male), his primary focus is on racial prejudice, and the tension of being disadvantaged on one hand because of a disability, and at the same time privileged because I am white, was way beyond the scope of his book. Even so, from this chapter, I came away with the sobering personal insight that although the idea of a career that involves activism on Jesus’ behalf fills me with passion, perhaps I need to spend more time in study and prayer to make sure I am not clinging tightly to a net of white privilege which could be impeding my ability to fully follow Jesus.
But now that I have been honest about this plank in my eye, I want to address the speck of sawdust in the eyes of American Christians collectively, which is the “marriage of God and country” (Walton 2013, 18). It is this problematic marriage, which Walton contends, and I agree is at the root of the unbiblical views so many American evangelicals have bought into.
I will never forget the evening of February 26. Just a couple weeks earlier in my Old Testament survey course, we had covered the book of Exodus, including the scene when Moses returns from Mount Sinai where he had received the Ten Commandments from God to find that Aaron had fashioned a golden calf which the Israelites were worshipping. In the discussion forum for that week, I wrote about how it is important that Christians today recognize the full scope of God’s commandments. As an example, I cited Exodus 20:4 when God says that the Israelites are not to make for themselves an idol. It is natural for new Christians to assume that this commandment doesn’t apply to us because today we don’t literally make gold statues to worship. In fact, I held this view myself as a young Christian. But if the full scope of the commandment is appreciated, an idol can be anything we prioritize over God. In my case, it has been food. For other people, it can be money, or career success. But on the evening of February 26, I was watching the news, which was covering the CPAC convention, where Donald Trump was scheduled to speak that weekend. In anticipation of his arrival, someone sculpted a gold statue of Donald Trump which was wheeled out onto the stage, where some people were shown kneeling reverently in front of it! I couldn’t help laughing at first at the dark irony of this, but the ramifications are no laughing matter. This event came back to mind when I read Walton’s discussion of how one of the tenants of white American folk religion is deification of its leaders, and again in the chapter on Lie 5 which confronts the lie that America is a great democracy. In this chapter, Walton discusses how the founders never intended for America to be a true Democracy, and in fact even wrote of the perils of Democracy. What the founders actually intended was a Democratic Republic. If America were truly a democracy, the outcomes of the 2000 election, and the 2016 election where George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote, yet still became president due to the electoral college, would not have been possible. The term Democracy comes from two greek words that can be translated “power to the People”, whereas Republic comes from two latin words meaning “people of public things” which in our country are laws. The United States is sort of a Democracy in that we elect our representatives. But due to voter suppression, lobbying, the influence of dark money, partisan gerrymandering and the electoral college, the results of elections don’t always reflect the true will of the people, and Walton contends that although John Lewis advocated voter rights to give people access to power, voting only gives people the illusion of power. This false hope, kept alive by propagating the myth that we are the greatest democracy in the world is an essential component of white American folk religion. Walton argues that the election system in America isn’t broken, but is working exactly as the founders intended, ensuring that the voices of wealthy white men are elevated, and the voices of minorities, women and the poor are suppressed. I don’t fully agree with this hopeless view, not because what he says about our current election system isn’t true, but because I don’t think he gives enough credit to the growing uprising of citizens speaking out against voter suppression, campaign finance laws that favor corporations, and partisan gerrymandering. I have even heard more serious debate recently about abolishing the Electoral College. Sure, our founders may have intentionally designed a system that favored wealthy white men, and there are still a sizable proportion of people fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way. But I see reason for optimism when I hear about the increasing number of people trying to change the system. But this hopeless view of our election system is only a small part of a wonderful larger argument Walton makes that is spot on. The expectation that Americans put their faith and trust in our flawed system without question essentially makes America into an idol.
One of my most memorable Bible studies with my Jehovah’s Witness friends was when we discussed this very topic. It saddens me that Christians have a visceral, negative reaction when Jehovah’s Witnesses are mentioned. Of course, some of their theology is flawed. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, called the New World Bible. It is for the most part in line with mainstream translations, yet differs in a few significant places, such as John 1:1 which in the NIV Bible reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” but in the New World translation reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God.” They believe theirs is the more accurate translation, and use this verse to reject the idea of the Trinity. But I felt vindicated when in my New Testament survey course first semester, one of the assigned reading was Craig Blomberg’s book “Can we Believe the Bible?” This book explores in an academic manner why we can trust that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, despite challenges that have been raised, such as the fact that we don’t have the original manuscript, or the fact that there seem to be numerous variations, even outright contradictions. But Blomberg also mentioned that he read the sacred texts of other religions too, including the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. While none of the texts for these other religions touched his heart like the Bible, he wanted to be open to “truth from wherever it might emerge” (Blomberg 2014, 220). Actually, intellectually speaking, the truths related to how we should regard our relationship with earthly government is the same for mainstream Christianity and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In both Bible translations, John 18:36 is rendered identically. In this verse, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is no part of this world, and both religions technically speaking teach that by extension, we should not give our allegiance to this world either. In both translations, Romans 13 is rendered identically. Earthly governments are ordained by God in that they are necessary to maintain order in this current system, and therefore we are to submit to the laws of whatever earthly government we are living under, so long as they don’t conflict with God’s laws. But no nation-state, including the United States, is divinely ordained by God, and even if the United States was a true democracy, all systems of earthly government are in opposition to God’s kingdom. But what inspired me about the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they actually practice what they preach. They strive to be neutral when it comes to politics, and therefore they do not run for office or even vote. They teach their children not to participate in saying the pledge of allegiance at school, and don’t even celebrate holidays like July 4, because such actions would amount to worshipping country. They do not serve in the military because they may be given orders that conflict with God’s law which says that all human life is sacred and all people are made in the image of God. I thought Walton beautifully conveyed the same truth that my Jehovah’s Witness friends put into practice when he said, “This expectation of unwavering hope and trust connected to a set of actions such as pledging allegiance, standing for an anthem, and honoring politicians and military personnel regardless of their integrity sounds less like a country and more like a religion” (Walton 2019, 81).
The only point on which I disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least at the present moment is that I think it is important to vote. I am open to the idea of potentially no longer feeling compelled to vote if we can get to a future where both candidates are basically decent people, but in our current climate, even Walton suggested that voting Donald Trump and those who share his vision for America out of office was an important means of engaging in social justice, which should be a natural response for any true follower of Christ (Amos 5:23-24, Matthew 25:31-46). The Bible makes it clear there is no hope fully establishing God’s kingdom on Earth by our own power, but at the same time, Scripture indicates we shouldn’t throw in the towel. We should live lives that seek to bring a taste of God’s kingdom to life in the here and now, and this kind of life includes engaging in social justice.
When I started the post back in February 2020, I admit I was really excited about the 2020 presidential race, partly because of the energy in the air where I live. I live in Milwaukee which was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to host Democratic National convention, but also because I had an idea for the perfect campaign slogan, even though I didn’t have any interest in volunteering with a campaign. But my idea for a slogan was “Hindsight is 2020.” Even though Donald Trump’s ineptitude and complete lack of compassion or integrity was obvious to me from day 1, there were people who wanted to give this unconventional candidate a chance. But I had heard that many people who voted for him in 2016 regretted this vote in hindsight, so 2020 was the opportunity to correct our course.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure about Joe Biden at first. He was 76 years old, and although Mom said he was much healthier physically than Donald Trump, on a couple instances during debates, I thought his age showed as he didn’t seem fully with it. I feared Donald Trump would eat him alive. I was really rooting for Mayor Pete Buttigieg because although he was very young, you could tell he was very intelligent, not only in just his understanding of policy on all fronts, but on the way he answered tough questions from reporters carefully and thoughtfully. I also liked how, although getting Donald Trump out of the White House was a priority for him, he was already thinking about a long-term vision for America, long after Trump was but a memory whereas it seemed as though, at least until the pandemic, most candidates, in my perception seemed too focused on the short-term, just getting elected. I was confident that Buttigieg could eat Trump alive on the debate stage.
I must say I also really liked Marianne Williamson. She is Oprah’s spiritual adviser, and although she is technically New Age, not Christian, she draws inspiration from diverse spiritual leaders including Jesus, and her life’s work has been centered in convictions such as forgiveness, love for all people, and surrender to God’s plan which are Christian principles. At first, I must confess my first impression of her was that she was a little off her rocker. But the longer I listened to her, the more I admired the way she responded to debate topics from a spiritual lens as opposed to a practical, policy lens like the other candidates. For example, in the July 30, 2019 debate, she said that instead of talking about policy that could be implemented to ensure better access to health care, we should be talking about the root causes of people getting sick to begin with. But I also recognized she didn’t stand a chance because although she was the complete opposite of Donald Trump in terms of love and compassion for all people, she was similar to Trump in that she didn’t seem to have a solid grasp of policy on a practical level. In other words, I think she was too spiritual for the job. Perhaps she was idealistic, seeking to realize God’s vision for society, not understanding that this is impossible under the current system.
But by March 2020, I was fully onboard with Joe Biden. I think the March 29 debate with Bernie Sanders was a turning point for Biden when he really seemed to find his footing, and his ambitious agenda as president has proven he cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be called “Sleepy Joe.” Of course, I understand the criticism that he is another old, white man. But he has appointed a very diverse cabinet, and is seeking to implement policies that address the inequity that has persisted in this country for too long. After four years of a narcissistic president who treated the office like a reality television show, it is so refreshing just to hear Biden speak and realize that we have an adult in the white house again.
But I also recognize that Joe Biden is not Jesus. I wish that he would raise the cap on refugees, and some of his past decisions, such as the Crime Bill in the 1990s which really caused harm to communities of color prove that he is a fallible, sinful human like all of us. So although I voted for Joe Biden, I would cringe if I heard of people worshipping a gold statue of Joe Biden at a Democratic convention.
Conservatives like to lament the decline of Christian influence in America, especially among millennials and Generation Z. But speaking as a millennial who personally knows too many fellow millennials who lost patience with Christianity. Too many supposed Christians they encounter are nothing like Christ due to their idolatry of political influence, and of America itself. I think the noble attempts of churches to have outreach ministries for youth and young adults are well and good. But I contend there is no hope of that dreamed-of Christian revival conservatives talk about in America until evangelicals walk a walk that is a little closer to that of my Jehovah’s Witness friends, recognizing that true Christians cannot marry God and country, and that America is not the divinely ordained, best hope for the world.