Tag Archives: Christianity

An Exercise in Hope


Esau McCaulley grew up immersed in the gospel, church, and Scripture. But when he attended a university that was 98% white to double major in history and religion he found himself thrust into the middle of a “hundred years’ war between white evangelicals and white mainline protestants.” (9) 

McCaulley was frustrated to discover that this debate had been carried out without the witness of his tradition in the Black church. He began to look to Black theologians in the academy but discovered that they did not share the high regard for Scripture that he had experienced in his home and church. His book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope captures his attempt to identify a “fourth thing” between white progressives, white evangelicals, and African American progressives: the Black ecclesial tradition. 

A fourth thing 

Before we describe “African American Biblical interpretation” and how it is “an exercise in hope,” let’s define McCaulley’s conversation partners.

White progressives: McCaulley’s white progressive professors saw biblical fundamentalism as a problem. They saw the Bible as a tool in the hands of white slave-holders to oppress Black people. They had a point. But, McCaulley saw that the solution these progressive pastors offered robbed their Black students of a crucial spiritual resource. 

How did the white progressive story do this?

“In this story, Black students do not really enter in as actors. We are acted upon, our suffering functioning as examples of the evils of white supremacy… But there is a second testimony possibly more important than the first. That is the testimony of Black Christians who saw in the same Bible the basis of their dignity and hope in a culture that often denied them of both. In my professor’s attempt to take the Bible away from the fundamentalists, he also robbed the Black Christians of the rock on which they stood.” (8, emphasis added)

McCaulley felt alienated from the white progressives that surrounded him. They undermined Scripture by saying that it justified slavery. McCaulley, drawing on his upbringing, saw in Scripture a source of dignity and hope for Black Christians, a tool of liberation, not oppression.

White evangelicals: McCaulley next turned to evangelicalism, again in a primarily white environment. Evangelicalism, as defined by Historian David Bebbington, has four pillars: Conversionism (the need for new birth), Activism, Biblicism (high regard for Scripture), and Crucicentrism (stress on Jesus’ sacrificial death). On these beliefs, Black Christians and white evangelicals have much in common.  

However, while McCaulley felt comfortable with evangelical theology, he felt alienated from evangelicalism as a movement. He observed that along with the four pillars of evangelicalism listed above, white evangelicals held unspoken fifth and sixth pillars. “These are a general agreement on a certain reading of American history that downplayed injustice and a gentleman’s agreement to remain largely silent on current issues of racism and systemic injustice.” (11) 

McCaulley appreciated evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture but took issue with the way that the Bible functioned. It “had been reduced to the arena on which we fought an endless war about the finer points of Paul’s doctrine of salvation” but had next to nothing to say about the suffering and struggles of his community.  

Black progressives: Discontent with white progressives and white evangelicals, both of which mostly ignored Black voices, McCaulley turned to Black Christian voices within the academy. Here, however, he learned that there was a disconnect between what happened in the Academy and what happened in the Church. Because only white progressives had invested in Black pastors, the African American academy had become theologically progressive. Meanwhile, the African American Church felt stuck in the middle. COGIC pastors he talked to agreed with the theological analysis of evangelicals and the social practice of progressives but lacked an academic source for both.  

The Black Ecclesial tradition:

McCaulley calls this fourth way the Black ecclesial tradition. This “ecclesial” tradition is embodied within the Black church. It carries with it both a high view of Scripture and a deep concern for justice and liberation.

A socially located reading of the Bible

We must pause for a moment and address a possible question in the reader’s mind: Why should we seek a uniquely African American interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Scripture have but a single interpretation, regardless of one’s culture? McCaulley frames the question like this: “The social location of enslaved persons caused them to read the Bible differently. This unabashedly located reading marked African American interpretation since. Did this social location mean Blacks rejected biblical texts that did not match their understanding of God? Did Blacks create a canon within in a canon?”

His answer to the latter question is, in part, “yes”, but in this, they were not alone. Slave-holders had the letters of Paul as their canon within a canon, specifically, the passages which they believed justified slavery. Slaves, on the other hand, emphasized the exodus, the suffering of Christ, and the liberating character of God. Both read the Bible from a social location and, in this instance, the slave reading of Scripture proved correct. 

While Scripture has a single, objective meaning located in the authors’ (human and divine) intent, no one comes to the text from a purely objective perspective. We all bring with us our cultures and experiences. I saw a book in our church library called A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23. The title acknowledges that we can expect the author’s shepherding experience to yield insights not readily available to someone who has lived his entire life in an urban jungle. Likewise, we should expect that the African American experience will provide a certain perspective on Scripture not easily available to a member of the majority culture. 

McCaulley does not say that African American interpretation trumps other interpretations, but that we should enter into dialogue with it. Biblical interpretation is an exercise in dialogue. The interpreter brings her questions to Scripture and, at the same time, Scripture asks questions of the interpreter. Entering into a diverse community broadens the dialogue between people of different backgrounds and social locations. Sometimes these social locations leave us with blind spots and reading in dialogue helps us overcome our otherwise anemic interpretations. 

A Hermeneutic of trust

If McCaulley’s evangelical flank challenges the notion of a uniquely African American interpretation then he faces another challenge from the progressive flank: distrust of Scripture. Progressives, and what he calls “Black nihilists,” question whether Scripture can yield any fruit at all in the question for justice. Why would African Americans adopt the very religion and sacred Text used to oppress them? 

In the face of this challenge, McCaulley argues that we should “adopt a hermeneutic of trust in which we are patient with the text in the belief that when interpreted properly it will yield a blessing and not a curse.” (21) He does not call us to a naivete that buries hard questions glosses over difficult passages, but to enter into a careful, canonical, and theological reading of Scripture.

An exercise in hope 

Reading Scripture in this way produces hope. “The point of the very process of engaging these Scriptures and expecting an answer is an exercise in hope.” (166) I heard McCaulley say in an interview that, while the title went through several iterations, he always included the word hope. Hope saturates Reading While Black. McCaulley finds hope in God who brings physical and spiritual liberation. He finds hope in Jesus, who entered into our suffering and forgives our sins. He finds hope in the resurrection and the coming kingdom of God. 

McCaulley has much to teach us in the American church, no matter our social location. How do we read Scripture in a diverse community? What can white Christians learn specifically from the Black ecclesial tradition? How do we approach the Bible from the position of trust? How do we face the brokenness of our world with hope?

Perspectives on Critical Race Theory (CRT)

Near the end of 2020 the council of Southern Baptist seminary presidents issued a statement condemning Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality stating:

“In light of current conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”

That statement seems to contradict the 2019 SBC resolution on CRT. That resolution defined CRT as “a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society.” This set of tools must be subordinate to Scripture. However, Southern Baptists may carefully glean information gained from these tools.

The seminary President’s statement prompted prominent Southern Baptist churches to break from the convention. The question of CRT continues to be a significant point of debate within the SBC.  

The controversy in the SBC is only a microcosm of CRT in the broader culture. Within Christian circles “Critical Theory” and accusations of “cultural Marxism” have become reasons for immediate dismissals of any calls to address racism at the structural level. On the other side, if one criticizes CRT, he will be accused of not caring about racism, or worse, of being a racist. 

To add to this confusion, it’s hard to find a shared definition of Critical Race Theory. Evangelical defenders of CRT define it as a set of analytical tools. Opponents refer to it as a worldview that stands in stark contrast to the Biblical worldview.

I’m not nearly enough of an expert on the subject matter to offer my own opinions, but I want to point you to a few Christian thinkers I’ve encountered over the past several months: 

Jemar Tisby, The Witness

Jemar Tisby author of The Color of Compromise and founder of The Witness wrote a stinging critique of the seminary presidents in this article, which I will now summarize:

According to Tisby, “Critical Race Theory” has become nothing more than an epithet used to shut down anyone who wants to talk about racial justice:

“Do you want to talk about systemic racism? That’s Critical Race Theory.

Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement? That’s Critical Race Theory. 

Do you think white men may have a blind spot about race because of their social location? That’s Critical Race Theory. 

Do you think that people who identify as both Black and female face racism and sexism’s compounding effects? That’s Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.”

No substantive definition of “Critical Race Theory” is given. Instead, it is only a way of putting racial justice advocates in the “box” of “the wrong kind of Christian.” By condemning CRT “the seminary presidents take aim at virtually anyone who advocates for racial justice beyond hugs, handshakes, and symbolic statements”

Worse, the statement fails to address the more significant issue in the SBC, namely Christian Nationalism, which Tisby sees as “the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States.”

David Fitch, on The Holy Post Podcast

The Holy Post podcast, hosted by Phil Vischer and Skye Jethani regularly discusses contemporary social issues, especially through Skye’s interviews. In a recent episode, Skye interviewed theologian David Fitch on the topic of Critical Theory.

Fitch described Critical Theory as a way of breaking down the layers of our cultural frameworks and deconstructing our assumptions, especially about power. He agrees that Critical Theory should not serve as the basis for building a theory of justice but says that we can use Critical Theory as an effective diagnostic tool to identify the functions of power in our world. We abused Critical Theory when we mistake the diagnostic tool for the cure.  

How can Critical Theory be used as a tool? It offers the discourse (language) by which we can talk and think about power. For instance, Fitch talked about “whiteness” (see Tisby’s article above for a short description) as a linguistic framework that sets the standard of what it means to be successful. By identifying this structure we can then deconstruct it. For the Christian, this deconstruction would be done in the light of the gospel.

Alisa Childers, Another Gospel

Another Gospel? (review) chronicles Alisa Childers’ deconstruction and reconstruction of her Christian faith. She tells the story of how she attended a class led by a progressive pastor who challenged core aspects of her faith. She then recounts how progressive Christianity differs from historic Christianity and shows how progressive Christianity comes up empty.

In one portion of the book, she specifically addresses Critical Theory (not Critical Race Theory specifically). She is among those who label Critical Theory not as a set of tools but as a worldview that stands in opposition to Christianity.

According to Childers, Critical Theory seeks to understand and critique power along the lines of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc. It sees the world as a struggle between the oppressed and oppressors and then seeks to re-align the power structures in favor of the marginalized. Additionally, she points out that Critical Theory is marked by its approach to gaining knowledge and discerning truth. It prioritizes lived experiences over rationality and argues that one’s privilege produces blind spots that can only be overcome by listening to the marginalized. 

She goes on to explain how Critical Theory functions as a worldview in answering life’s fundamental questions. Who are we? According to Biblical Christianity, our identity is defined by our image-bearer status. In CT, our identity is found in how we related to other groups based on our gender, race, class, etc. What is the problem with the world? According to Biblical Christianity, the problem is sin. According to CT, the problem is oppression. How can it be fixed? According to Biblical Christianity, our sin problem is fixed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. According to CT, oppression is solved through activism, awareness, and the overthrow of oppressive systems of power.

Childers goes on to say that Christians should strive for good works as a response of faith but that Critical Theory establishes a works-based false gospel, apart from faith in Jesus.

David French 

David French’s article “On the Use and Abuse of Critical Race Theory in American Christianity” deserves a more significant treatment than I can give in this context, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • Good: CRT analysis “helps me not only understand the reason for persistent disparities, but it should also build empathy and motivate action. What can we do to ameliorate the effects of this disparate power and privilege?”
  • Not-so-good: Race is not always the best lens by which to view the world, so CRT doesn’t always view the world accurately. It’s a hammer that sees everything as a nail. 
  • Bad: The explicit rejection of liberalism found certain forms of CRT create “subjective authoritarianism” which “rejected any form of objective test for harassing speech.”
  • Worst: Extreme forms of CRT place race at the center of human identity, contrary to Galatians 3:27-28.

French pulls it all together like this (emphasis mine):

“In that construct, critical race theory can be an analytical tool (one of many) that can help us understand persistent inequality and injustice in the United States. To the extent, however, that it presents itself as a totalizing ideology—one that explains American history in full and prescribes an illiberal antidote to American injustice—it falters and ultimately fails. Moreover, as a totalizing ideology, it contradicts core scriptural truths.”

Interestingly, French concludes by pointing the reading to the 2019 SBC resolution linked at the beginning of this article. 


There’s much I could say about each of these perspectives but I’ll conclude with four observations.

First, I agree with Tisby that “Critical Race Theory” (and I’ll add “Cultural Marxism”) are frequently mere labels given to anyone who supports structural or systemic reform, even if those reforms have very little to do with CRT, either the analytical tools or the “totalizing ideology.” 

Using labels in this way endemic in our culture and is not unique to CRT. 

Second, I wish the SBC presidents had defined CRT, showing which aspects of it are opposed to historic Christianity. I appreciate that Childers did just that, but because of the polarized world in which we live, I fear that many people read “social justice” as “critical race theory” and therefore would conclude that entertaining social justice talk means that one has fallen into a form of progressive Christianity that represents a false gospel.

Third, I agree with Fitch and French that CRT may have value as a diagnostic tool. Power and oppression are not the primary filters by which we should view the world, but they are real factors of the world in which we live and they have real consequences. Power and oppression are tied to systems and structures. To the extent CRT can help us identify those systems, it has value. 

Fourth, I agree with Childers, French, and Fitch that Critical Race Theory fails as a totalizing ideology. At best its insights can supplement our understanding of the world. At its most extreme, it presents a false gospel.

The Limited Evangelical Religio-Cultural Toolset

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America have a provocative thesis: Well-intentioned evangelicals want to solve the “race problem” in America, but are both failing to solve it and, in some ways, are exacerbating the problem. How do they come to this startling conclusion?

In my last post, I talked about how white and black evangelicals think about race and racialization in vastly different ways. In this post, I want to introduce you to a central theme of Divided by Faith which explains this division: the limited evangelical religio-cultural toolset.

As a sociology book Divided by Faith relies heavily on surveys and personal interviews. These personal interviews reveal prototypical ways in which white and non-white Christians view the “race problem” differently.

Consider Debbie, a born again white evangelical. When asked if America has a race problem she said we did, but only because we make it one: “People are gonna have arguments with people. I feel like once in a while when an argument happens, say between a black guy and a white guy, instead of saying, ‘Hey, there’s two guys having an argument,’ we say it’s a race issue” (70). By contrast, consider Otis, an African-American evangelical. He readily admitted the race problem. He described it as follows: “[t]he community is divided in many ways. It’s divided by race. It’s divided by income. And then you have the people who like to scratch each other’s backs. And they kind of form this net, and in this area, they call it the good ol’ boy system. They dominate like a monopoly. But is that really a Christian principle? And yet all of them go to church.” Otis saw the system (good ol’ boys) as exacerbating racial division.

Smith and Emerson try to explain these different perspectives through the concept of a religio-cultural toolset. This “toolset” is a way of looking at the world. Through it, we identify what is broken and recommend how to make repairs. What did they discover about the white evangelical toolset?

Religio-cultural toolset

According to Emerson, “The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical toolset are ‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences)” (76).

Individualism: Americans are individualistic in general, but evangelicals add to the baseline cultural individualism theological beliefs about the world. “Accountable freewill individualism” arises from the belief that only free individuals, who are independent of structures and institutions, can be truly held accountable for the moral decisions they make before God. Racial problems (like all others) must arise from the individual heart, from personal bigotry or bias.

Relationalism: Evangelicals place a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Again, this arises from the theological understanding that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus. This foundational relationship extends to our relationships with others. As we are reconciled with God, so we are reconciled interpersonally. The Christian experience moves from love of God to love of neighbor. As this pertains to race, racial problems occur when we fail to love one another in one-on-one relationships (for example, acts of discrimination) because of individual sin.

Antistructuralism: Anti-structuralism (resistance to seeing structural issues or considering structural solutions) arises as a corollary to individualism and relationalism. In interviews, white evangelicals saw systemic/structural thinking as a way of denying personal responsibility in a way that undermined individualism.

For that reason, evangelicals tended to view systemic or structural solutions with skepticism. They saw them as either missing the point because they failed to identify the root of the problem (sin within the individual heart) or as counterproductive (because they short-circuited individualistic solutions). 

Two things are worth noting on this last point: First, the equation “individualism + relationalism = antistructuralism” isn’t inevitable. The non-white and white-but-not-isolated interviewees affirmed personal salvation and the importance of interpersonal relationships but did not deny structural causes. Second, white evangelicals were selective in seeing structural causes for racial division. For instance, one responded to the interview as follows: “I think you can blame our government for some of [the race problem]. A lot of politicians have used the welfare system to make a dependent class of people. The politicians abuse that class so they can stay in office” (80).

Connection to the miracle motif

If Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals saw racial problems to be individual/relational (and not structural), then we would expect the solutions to follow that same pattern. This is exactly what they found. The solution most offered by white evangelicals was the “miracle motif.”

“The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically.” (117)

Interviewees consistently pointed to individual conversion as the solution to the race problem. If society is the aggregation of individuals, then if you change the individuals, you change the society. Individual change starts with conversion. “When people become Christians, they are overwhelmed by the love, respect, and dignity given to them by God. And this overflows such that Christians inevitably impart that to others” (117). Racism is first solved in the heart and is then solved through a series of interpersonal relationships. Broad societal changes – if needed – happen automatically thereafter.  

There are several problems with the miracle motif. First, theologically, it short-circuits the need for discipleship. It imagines that people “automatically” change at conversion. Second, practically, it just hasn’t worked. American history is littered with well-intentioned Christians who held to a conversionist theology and completely missed the horrors of slavery and segregation. Third, while it contains an important kernel of truth, it presents an incomplete picture of the gospel and its effects. 

Not faulty, but limited

Smith and Emerson go on to argue that this cultural toolset fails to address racism in a meaningful way, not because it is faulty, but because it is insufficient. Many evangelical versions of individualism and relationalism exclude structural and systemic responses. Consider again, for instance, institutional division in Jim Crow. Southern white Christians believed that the race problem was largely solved: They did not (at least on their assessment) feel any personal malice towards African Americans. And, from their perspective, whites and blacks seemed to get along fine interpersonally. They failed to see the injustice of segregation because it didn’t register as part of their religio-cultural toolset.

A personal note and further reading

I want to strongly affirm aspects of this toolset and the “miracle motif.” I believe that we are individually accountable before God, that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus, that interpersonal love for neighbor and relationship building are essential, and that transformation happens through both a moment and a process of conversion through the Holy Spirit.

However, while I have not abandoned individualism or relationalism as defined above, I have become less antistructural. I want to offer a small list of references to explain a little better why:

  • Emergent systems: This is the idea that some systems are more than the sum of their parts. Society is not just a sum of individuals and therefore some change needs to occur at the systemic level, not just the personal. In this post, I apply the idea of emergent systems to the Church.
  • John Piper’s influential article on how racism becomes institutionalized. Piper starts with pride (individualism) and moves to systems in his explanation of structured sin.
  • A growing understanding of the cosmic components of salvation. This post shows how personal, communal, and social aspects of salvation are intertwined and, I hope, corrects some overly individualized notions of salvation.
  • Along the same lines, I’ll share this reflection on whether the gospel is sufficient to deal with systemic racism. My answer: Yes, but only insofar as we adopt the full gospel and don’t settle for a truncated version of it.

The Racialized Society

Why do so many conversations about race seem counterproductive? Why do they tend to offend? 

There may be many reasons why conversations about race may be difficult but at least one of them is that those in the conversations often have two very different definitions of racism.

Some people define racism as individual personal prejudice or discrimination while others view it as a structural reality embedded within American culture that leads to racial inequalities.[1] In their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith clarify this confusion with the term Racialization. 

For them, the problem of race in American is best described not in terms of individual hatred, but as “a racialized society.” 

Individual bias and discrimination

The traditional definition of racism is “an overt doctrine of racial superiority – usually labeled prejudice – that leads to discrimination” (8). If this is the extent of racism in America, we can solve the problem of race by removing through education or exhortation, these false ideologies.

Emerson observes that while racism in this form exists, it does not tell the whole story of the race problem. First, he notes that in many cases racist ideologies came later to justify status quo institutions, such as slavery. Second, based on interviews that occurred during the time of the Jim Crow era, we can see that many people rejected personal racial prejudice, all while accepting and defending social norms that led to racial inequality.

Structural inequities and racialization

We can also speak about racism by describing how structures and institutions negatively impact racial minorities, such as in areas of employment, housing, education, and policing. Emerson refers to this as “racialization.” A racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (7, emphasis his). He observes that the form of racism changes, but has a single standard: It is “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups” (9).

Racist attitudes may be used to justify racialization, but they do not need to be present for racialization to occur. According to Emerson, racialization is the constant in American society even while its form changes, from slavery to Jim Crow, to its present form. Today, it takes on increasingly covert forms. Racialization is embedded in normal society, avoids direct racial terminology, and tends to be “invisible to most whites” (9, emphasis mine).

I emphasize this last point because it highlights a major divide between how African American Christians and white evangelicals view race. As Emerson goes on to argue, evangelicals have an extremely individualistic cultural toolset. This closes them off to structural conceptions of racism. White evangelicals are even more individualistic than most white Americans. On the other hand, black Christians consistently think and talk about racism as structural, historical, and embedded in society, even apart from individual racial bias. As a result, white evangelicals, looking only through an individualistic lens, simply can’t see what is of grave concern to African Americans in America.

It’s important to note that racial bias does not need to be overt for racialization to occur. Emerson and Smith give the example of college-educated whites compared to non-college-educated whites. More educated people self-report fewer racist ideas than those who are less well educated. While they are more likely to say that they value diversity in housing and education, they are more likely to live in racially homogenous neighborhoods and send their kids to racially homogenous schools.

Emerson isn’t saying that college-educated whites are covertly more racist (secretly holding biased attitudes) than non-college-educated whites. He is saying that they are more equipped to pursue the American ideal of a nice home and a quality school. In racialized America, that means “whiter” neighborhoods and schools.

Why clarity matters

We would be wise to understand this distinction when entering into conversations of race in America. I was once accused of saying that “all white people are racist” [read: have a personal prejudice against back people] when I used the term “systemic racism.” Instead, was talking about what Emerson and Smith are describing above, that racialization is structurally embedded within American society and that this racialization leads to inequalities based on race. If I had “come to terms” with my friend, perhaps our conversation could have been more productive. 

[1] As an example of this latter definition of racism consider this quote from Kaitlyn Scheiss in The Liturgy of Politics: “Racism is a system of oppression based in race – a system that is communicated affectively and experientially.”  

Four Alternative Political Gospels from The Liturgy of Politics

In The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess observes that:

We all live in light of some gospel or another – the good news that while we suffer from a fundamental problem with the world, salvation is possible if we submit to a new ruler of our lives and become part of a new people. Our gospels each have their own creation or origin stories, a “fall” where evil enters those stories, and the promise of salvation in someone or something.

While any number of these “gospels” may exist in the world (Alisa Childers creates her own/different list in Another Gospel? unique to Progressive Christianity), Schiess draws out four specifically American political gospels: Prosperity, Patriotism, Security, and White Supremacy.

To show how these ideologies can form a different gospel I will highlight each one’s creation story (or the Edenic ideal to which we strive), it’s fall (or the nature of sin/what is wrong with the world), it’s view of salvation (who saves and how we enter into/respond to salvation), and it’s liturgies (the practices that form us in its teaching).

Prosperity Gospel

Creation: Schiess has something different in mind than those “health and wealth” preachers who go around promising prosperity if you “sow a seed of faith” by giving them money, though she does, obviously, condemn these charlatans. Schiess is referring to something she calls the “gospel of the free market.”

While this gospel does not have a clear creation story, the “creation ideal” could be called the American Dream of economic prosperity.

Fall: The story assumes that we can control our financial lives by playing by the rules of the free market system. The “righteous” get wealthy and the “unrighteous” fall into poverty. Economic status gets tied to moral status. Those who live in economic squalor, also live in “moral squalor.” Sin gets equated with (or immediately linked to) poverty.

Salvation: We’re saved out of poverty by trusting the free market and following its meritocratic rules: ingenuity and hard work. “Opportunities for success and wealth are available to all and guaranteed to the righteous.”

Liturgies: We get discipled into the prosperity gospel through rags to riches stories, advertisements, and TV shows (such as Shark Tank).

Patriotic Gospel

Creation: The patriotic gospel has a clear creation myth: The founding of the nation. In this mythology, the founding becomes “salvific history.” Adherents baptize America’s past, wiping it clean of acts of injustice. They refer to America as God’s “chosen nation” with a special mission imbued by God, borrowing covenant language from Scripture used in reference to Israel.

Fall: If the founding represents Eden then breaking from that founding constitutes a Fall. Sin happens when we fail to give America (or a particular version of her) our undivided allegiance.

Salvation: America’s strength, power, and global supremacy save us from our insecurities, discomforts, and fears. We respond to this salvation by uncritically accepting all that she does as good.

Schiess asks these diagnostic questions: “When we think of sin, do we think of that which conflicts with American values? When we think of salvation, do we think of American victory?”

Liturgies: Of all the gospels here, this one has the most obvious liturgies. This civil religion has symbols, ceremonies, songs, rituals, statues, flags, and a pledge of allegiance. Through these liturgies we remember and enter into our creation and salvation stories and renew our commitment and loyalty.

Security Gospel

Creation: “Eden” in the security gospel might be a safe neighborhood where kids were free to roam, protected by threats from within (criminals) and threats from without (America’s enemies).

Fall: According to this gospel, insecurity is the main problem with the world. That may come in the form of violent crime, external wars, or injustice. Like in the prosperity gospel which assumes we control our economic outcome, this one assumes that we can control our own safety. As a result, this myth tends to assume that victims of crime have brought it on themselves.

Salvation: In this gospel we’re largely in charge of our own salvation, which comes in the form of security. “If the ‘sin problem’ in this gospel is insecurity, then the salvific solution is to protect yourself.” This gospel lives at both the individual (micro) level and the national (macro) level. At the macro level it takes the form of national security and the belief that security must be won at all costs.

Schiess observes that by shielding ourselves so fully from insecurity and danger, we can unwittingly just push that danger onto other people.

As [Andy] Crouch explains [in Strong and Weak], when humans try to rid themselves of vulnerability, they inevitably offload it on someone else and take authority that doesn’t belong to them.

Liturgies: The liturgies of this gospel come in the form of political discourse when we frame every conversation through the lens of personal and national security.

Gospel of White Supremacy

The gospel of white supremacy thrives on secrecy. It is, by far, the least socially acceptable of the gospels. It exists in more implicit than explicit forms, but it still shapes our way of living in the world.

Creation: Schiess doesn’t assign the gospel of white supremacy a creation myth, but in the American context of the other gospels it could be tied closely to the patriotic gospel by those who would view our founding in idealistic ways, specifically ways that hide or excuse the early injustices of slavery and the extermination of indigenous people.

Fall: The “fall” for this gospel is the presence different people, who would be perceived as being dangerous to “our” way of life.

Salvation: While this would never (or rarely) be explicitly stated, “salvation” looks like white superiority.

Again, Schiess points out that this ideology “thrives on going unnoticed. We probably don’t consciously believe that the ‘sin problem’ is people of color, or the salvific solution is white dominance, but it’s a flawed logic we’ve been immersed in.”

Liturgies: The practices that make this gospel possible are common in the daily life in most parts of the country: segregated communities, schools, media, and the presence of racially homogenous groups (like churches).

On Liturgies

Earlier in the book Schiess goes into detail describing what she means by political liturgies. Liturgies are regular practices, habits, and ways of living with other people that form our hearts and minds.

We need to be careful not to confuse these habits with the false gospels themselves. For instance, one can be inspired by a rags to riches tale without buying into the prosperity gospel. One can sing a patriotic song without believing that salvation comes from America’s military might. One can lock her door at night without thinking that she can control her own safety. One can attend a racially homogenous church without buying into white supremacy. It would be a logical fallacy, then, to assume someone is guilty of adopting a false gospel because of the presence of these liturgies in their lives.

However, we shouldn’t then assume that these behaviors are neutral or that they have no impact on what we grow to love and believe. The point of Schiess’s book is to critically examine these liturgies in light of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.