In each of these posts, I am sharing one of my top ten along with an honorable mention that is thematically similar. This was the toughest of all because both the books in this post could be #4. Its sort of a tie.
White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert Jones
Review of White Too Long:
No one likes confessing their own sins, their complicity in sin or the way we have benefited from the sin of others. Its easier to distance ourselves from that past so we can tell ourselves we’re just fine here in the present.
When it comes to white Christians and race in America, this is sadly obvious. On one hand, white Christians want to argue we are not racist, that we do not think less of black persons. Yet, when we are asked to reckon with our racist past, we resist. Those white racists back then just didn’t love Jesus enough, we tell ourselves. Their racism was incidental to their faith, something added from somewhere else. We find a few good Christians who worked for abolition and emphasize them as the real Christians, and in our minds we are just like them.
But when it comes to taking down Confederate monuments, its white Christians who defend them. When the vast majority of black Christians oppose President Trump and point out his racist statements, white Christians continue to support him.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth, and its one I knew going in to reading this book but understand even more after: white Christianity is deeply entwined with racism throughout American history and continues to be so today.
“A moment of reckoning is upon us, and its time that we white Christians do better, to see what is plainly in front of us and to wrestle with the unsettling implications. What if the racist views of historical ‘titans of faith’ infected the entire theological project contemporary white Christians have inherited from top to bottom? If white supremacy was an unquestionable cultural assumption in America, what does it mean that Christian doctrines by necessity had to develop in ways that were compatible with that worldview? What if, for example, Christian conceptions of marriage and family, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance? Is it possible that the white supremacy heresy is so integrated into white Christian DNA that it eludes even sincere efforts to excise it?
White Christianity has been many things for America. But whatever else it has been – and the country is indebted to it for a good many things – it has also been the primary institution legitimizing and propagating white power and dominance. Is such a system, built and maintained not just to save souls but also to secure white supremacy, flawed beyond redemption? If we’re even going to begin to answer these questions, we need to take a deep er dive into the inner logic of white Christian theology” (70-71).
Throughout the book Jones uses research data and historical study to demonstrate that white supremacy was not incidental to American Christianity but an essential part of it. He examines the “Lost Cause” narrative and how though the south lost the civil war, the efforts of groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy led to the lifting of monuments all over the south and the acceptance of a story where Lee, Davis, Jackson and the rest were honorable Christian men fighting for honorable reasons.
White Christians continued to see themselves as special and to see their blacks as subhuman. It was white Christians who would attend church on a Sunday, then leave church and head right over to the lynching. Of course, even white Christians today shudder in horror at this. Yet when our black Christian brothers and sisters cry out in pain at yet another police shooting, white Christians try to explain why black Christians are wrong to see this as systemic. We are horrified by the past, but most of us will vote for a president who tweets racist things, instilling fear of suburbs being invaded while celebrating white vigilantes as heroes.
Jones is not above naming names. He tells how Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded by leaders in the confederacy. Recently current president Albert Mohler wrote a confession and lament for this history. Yet when asked if the school would set aside some of their HUGE endowment to benefit black students, he said no. Difficult as it may be to confess past sins, its easier to confess the past then try to make changes in the present.
Jones’ mention of Eric Metaxas also jumped out. Metaxas often talks about how it was Christians who took the lead in abolition. What Metaxas does not say is that those Christians who did were in the minority, the majority of Christians endorsed slavery. Further, Christian abolitionists often were portrayed as on a slippery slope to liberalism for giving up biblical inerrancy (a point Mark Noll makes in his Civil War as a Theological Crisis). So while Metaxas points to Christian abolitionists and implies he would have been on their side, his own method of interpreting the Bible was the one used by those who supported slavery. Not recognizing this illustrates Jones’ point: white supremacy is deeply ingrained in how we read the Bible.
Even the emphasis on personal salvation is rooted in white supremacy – if Jesus’ mission was to save souls for heaven then how this world is sorted out is not part of the gospel. The whole idea Christians should “avoid politics” connects up with white supremacy because, when the political situation favors you and you have power, you probably don’t want to bring the gospel into it. If we listened to our black Christian brothers and sisters, we might find our connections to political conservatism being questioned.
Overall, this is a brilliant book. It is much needed and must be read. I’d put it alongside Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise as the top of the list of books white Christians need to read to learn the past so we can confess the past and try to change the present.
Review of Taking America Back for God:
This book is an absolute must-read to understand the current religious and political climate in America right now. The authors have done extensive research to better understand what Christian Nationalism is and who Christian Nationalists are.
They define Christian nationalism as “Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (10). Though holding the term “Christian”, Christian nationalism is not the same as religion: “the “Christianity” of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious” (10)
Along those lines, the authors separate Christian nationalism from the traditional American “civic religion.” American civic religion has looked to parts of scripture such as the prophets to call citizens to civic engagement and the institution of just politics and so forth. Contrast this with Christian nationalism which Christian nationalism is rarely concerned with instituting explicitly “Christ-like” policies, or even policies reflecting New Testament ethics at all. Rather, Christian nationalists view God’s expectations of America as akin to his commands to Old Testament Israel. Like Israel, then, America should fear God’s wrath for unfaithfulness while assuming God’s blessing—or even mandate—for subduing the continent by force if necessary” (11).
Christian nationalism is more political than religious. Thus, a person’s identity as a Christian nationalist has more to do with if they are politically conservative than if they are a white evangelical. That point is one of the biggest takeaways from the book: Christian nationalist does not equal white evangelical. Plenty of white evangelicals are Christian nationalists, but not all Christian nationalists are white evangelicals. One point they emphasize throughout is that once Christian nationalism is taken into account, those who actively practice religion (attend church, pray, read Bible) are nearly the opposite of Christian nationalists. Christian nationalists, for example, are anti-immigration, while religious practitioners are more likely to be pro-immigration.
“Stated simply: being an evangelical, or even a white evangelical as pollsters often define that category, tells us almost nothing about a person’s social attitudes or behavior once Christian nationalism has been considered. The two categories often overlap, to be sure. Roughly half of evangelicals (by some definitions) embrace Christian nationalism to some degree. And yet what is really influencing Americans’ behavior? Being affiliated with evangelicalism? Holding to traditional views about the Bible? Or advocating Christian nationalism? As it turns out, being an evangelical does not lead one to enthusiastically support border walls with Mexico; favoring Christian nationalism does. Being an evangelical does not seem to sour Americans’ attitudes toward stronger gun control legislation; endorsing Christian nationalism does. Being an evangelical was not an important predictor of which Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016; supporting Christian nationalism was. Readers should keep this in mind throughout” (29).
Throughout the book they examine all these points in more depth. They describe four groups: Ambassadors are wholly supportive of Christian nationalism, Accomodators lean that direction, Rejecters wholly reject Christian nationalism and Resisters lean towards rejection. Through discussing topics such as orders and boundaries, they look at how each of these groups differs in how it views the world.
The conclusion brings it all together and again emphasizes why this topic is important:
“Acknowledging the importance of Christian nationalism also introduces the precision that our public discourse on religion and politics so desperately needs. For the past few years journalists and political commentators have obsessed over why “white evangelicals,” voted for President Trump. In reality, however, it is not just being evangelical or even being a white evangelical that truly matters. Rather, it is the degree to which Americans—perceiving current political conflicts through the lens of Christian nationalism—wish to institutionalize conservative “Christian” cultural preferences in America’s policies and self-identity. Recognizing the power of Christian nationalism helps us acknowledge not only the diversity within particular religious traditions but also why those of different religious traditions who are Ambassadors tend to vote and act in very similar ways. Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who are Ambassadors are much more alike politically than are Ambassadors and Resisters who are both mainline Protestants. Moreover, Christian nationalism is not bound to any particular religious group. . . Christian nationalism is significant because calls to “take America back for God” are not primarily about mobilizing the faithful toward religious ends ” (152-153)
“Christian nationalism is, therefore, ultimately about privilege. It co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political or social ends in moral and religious symbolism. This serves to legitimate the demands, wants, and desires of those embracing Christian nationalism in the transcendent. If God says the United States should take a particular stance, or pass a specific law, who are we to argue? Christian nationalism is used to defend against shifts in the culture toward equality for groups that have historically lacked access to the levers of power—women, sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities” (152-153)
Overall, a very important book in understanding Christian nationalism.