“The American Christianity Shakedown”

~ Psalm 47/Jeremiah 6:9-19 ~

Psalm 47 is a Nationalist Psalm; one of many psalms which celebrate the notion that Israel is God’s nation, that God established the nation of Israel as God’s own. Here we read the blatant assertion: “God subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. God chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom God loves.” Whether true or not, that was their belief.

The fact that this is obviously referring to Israel did not stop Christians from the beginning of America and beyond to claim it for themselves. America is God’s nation. God has established “us.” America is a Christian nation, established on Christian principles, and as long as we adhere to those Biblical principles God will bless “us,” was the idea.

Of course, this is certainly not true as even a cursory review of history would demonstrate. The founders, although quite religious, made their views crystal clear. John Adams: “The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Thomas Jefferson: “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of common law.” James Madison: “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” Madison also said, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

And yet the notion persists. Indeed, of late, it’s gotten more intense as religious idealogues press harder to impose religiously-based laws and court rulings. The recent Supreme Court decisions overturning abortion rights and endorsing public prayers at football games blurs the line that James Madison warned about. And the religious right presses on with its religious agenda.

But I’ve come to a different conclusion. I don’t think all of this push is essentially religious; it isn’t really a Christian agenda. Instead, I’ve come to realize that Christianity in America is having a crisis of faith and is facing an unprecedented reckoning. A serious shakedown is underway because American Christianity isn’t Christian. Indeed, it is a different religion: the “religion of whiteness.” Let me explain.

My undergrad degree is in the social sciences, sociology to be precise. And in my studies I learned the importance of applying scientific methodology to the study of social movements. Even though we couldn’t be as precise as the physical sciences we tried hard to formulate research that used good scientific methods: double-blind studies, control groups, well-constructed survey methods that accounted for bias. Well-constructed sociological research is a valuable contribution to our understanding of human behavior. So, when I come across a social science research project well-done I take notice.

Michael Emerson is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is also a Christian, a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is considered one of the leading scholars in America on race and religion. His 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America was an award-winning insight into the issue of race and religion in America. Michael and his colleagues have done extensive research on race and religion for 30 years and they are just now wrapping up an intensive, three-year national research project, interviewing thousands of Christians of all racial groups across the U.S. They soon publish their findings in a book: The Great Betrayal: The Agonizing Story of Race, Religion, and Rejection in American Life. This is their theory:

Most church-attending white Christians are not bad Christians. This is because they are not Christians at all. Instead, we propose they are faithful followers of a different religion: the “religion of whiteness.”

They argue that an entire religion has developed around the worship of the dominance, centrality, privilege, and assumed universality of being white. This religion has developed a particular set of beliefs and practices (such as very selective use of bible verses), and organizations to support, defend, and teach its “faith.”

In their research, no matter what line of inquiry they took, be it how to interpret particular scripture verses or opining about cultural issues from a Christian perspective, white practicing Christians differed significantly from Christians of other racial groups and even from non-Christian whites whenever the topic was race. For instance, when asked to comment on scriptures passages that spoke to how to treat “the other” – the stranger, the foreigner – African-American and Hispanic Christians strongly agreed with their messages while white Christians were much more inclined to question their relevance. They found that white Christians were twice as likely as non-Christian whites to say that “being white” was important and felt the need to defend their race. Through extensive statistical analysis they determined that 2/3 of white practicing Christians are following, in effect, a religion of whiteness. They repeatedly placed being white ahead of being Christian. Significant findings.

But the plot thickens. It would appear that conservative politics is getting more secular, less religious. Here’s how Nate Hochman, a conservative columnist, puts it in a New York Times opinion piece a few days ago:

The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian. That may seem strange to say at a moment when a mostly Catholic conservative majority [just overturned] Roe v. Wade…Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation. Although it enjoys the support of most Republican Christians who formed the electoral backbone of the old Moral Majority, it is a social conservatism rather than a religious one, revolving around race relations, identity politics, immigration and the teaching of American History.

This fight is not now really between Christian values and non-Christian values, it’s not between religion and secularism. No; it appears it is now a battle between what they describe as “the woke vs. the not-woke.” And somehow it always seems to resort back to a deeply ingrained racism, defending “whiteness.”

If you just go by psalms like Psalm 47 that champion a nationalist ideal of Israel you might think everything was just hunky-dory. God has established us, we represent God on earth, God blesses us. But this innocent reading of Israel’s history would be woefully shortsighted. For Israel often had to face serious reckonings of its failures, shakedowns, if you will.

Jeremiah expresses this shakedown quite vividly. “…I am full of the wrath of God; I am weary of holding it in. Pour it out on…” and then he goes on to list children and youth and husbands and wives and even the elderly. “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain,” he says, “everyone deals falsely.” The leaders carelessly declare, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Jeremiah describes blatant disobedience: God shows them the good way, the path that leads to rest for their souls but they refuse to go that good way. And thus the prophet of God must speak judgment on the nation. A hard shakedown, a serious reckoning.

I believe that American Christianity is in the midst of a hard shakedown, a serious reckoning. God is doing this, I believe. And I think it is for the good.

I have friends who consider themselves moderate evangelicals trying to hold on to a traditional evangelical theology and practice. But they are despairing because there doesn’t seem to be a place for them anymore. Evangelicalism is steering hard to the right (indeed, it has been for some time) becoming more and more aligned with secular conservative causes; becoming more a religion of “whiteness.” The evangelical church is being sifted; the middle ground is eroding.

But I think it is also true that Christian social justice movements are a key to this American Christian shakedown, this reckoning. Christian justice movements centered on bringing the love of Christ to all people, regardless of race, is invigorating the church. This actually bodes well for the future of Christianity in America. One of the reasons for this is that these justice movements are multiracial, often BIPOC-led (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). This is significant and important. Also, a Christianity that is justice-oriented helps draw people out of a focus on one’s self and one’s own group and points to the larger Biblical teaching that focuses on God’s kingdom justice. Simply, it brings the practice of faith back to following the radical teachings of Jesus. And, I believe, it will be a more authentic expression of the essence of Christian faith.

So, on this Independence Day Sunday (is that a thing?), may we realize that true freedom, true liberty, is only found when it is freedom and liberty for everyone, not just “whites.” Only then will we be free, when we can join together with all peoples to sing our song in harmony. When every heart joins every heart then we’ll be free.

These sentiments are from the hymn we are about to sing, Hymn of Freedom, written by, interestingly, a Canadian black jazz pianist and composer. So, let us stand in body or in spirit to sing Hymn of Freedom.

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