Summary: An exposure of how ‘White American Folk Religion’ and Christianity are not the same things.
It is not surprising at this point, or it should not be, that many Christians seem to be confused about how Christianity and the American Dream overlap and contradict. Often Christians are discipled to believe that the abundant life that Jesus talks about is actually fulfilled in the American Dream.
Jonathan Walton is not confused, and so, somewhat provocatively, but I think accurately has set out to separate the American Dream from Christianity by illustrating what is ‘White American Folk Religion’ and what is Christianity.
As with any project, like this, some people will identify with some of these lies more than others. What I find easy lies to believe will not necessarily be the same as what you do. If I were writing the book I would probably have a slightly different list. But the working out of these does expose how we have been discipled by patriotism more than Christianity quite often. James KA Smith talks a lot about secular liturgies that disciple us, Jonathan Walton is really doing the work of exposing these secular liturgies so that we can work to reframe our beliefs and actions around actual Christianity.
In general, Walton is telling this story autobiographically. Each chapter is a different lie, and so he identifies how he has previously believed or been impacted by the lie then deconstructs the lie and replaces it with right belief and right behavior (similar to how James Bryan Smith approaches understanding and resounding to God in The Good and Beautiful God. In most cases I think this method is a strength of the book. It is disarming when the author focuses on his sin and confesses it as a way to help us see our own sin that may be slightly different, but still related. There a places however, where I think that he was reaching a bit too far to make the connection and could have better used different people as illustrations so that there was a closer connection. But overall, I do think the method was helpful.
There are a number of points to highlight. But in general the main thread is that Christianity is not about using power for personal gain or profit (financial or social) but to empower others. And we often lie to ourselves or resist the truth because we want to feel better about ourselves than we should. The chapter on the US being generous is a good example. I hear all the time that the US is the most generous country in the world, but that tends to ignore parts of the relevant story or statistics that would show differently.
I could show a number of highlights, but I am going to show a couple quotes from the chapter on America, the Land of the Free. Walton contrasted a statement by Donald Rumsfeld where freedom was about the freedom to be a consumer…
“Freedom, as articulated by Rumsfeld in keeping with the founders of the United States, has little to do with the flourishing of all people—who are made in the image of God—and the abundant life made available through Christ. Instead, it has everything to do with creating the best path for those who are deemed worthy of pursuing wealth and self-determined happiness as well as its deference and maintenance. The vision Rumsfeld cast was not one free of racism, discrimination, and hatred, but one of “lights, the cars, the energy of the vibrant economy…Traditional American conservatives tend to define freedom in economic terms, with free markets and economies measured by economic growth, personal wealth, and individual liberty. And traditionally politically liberal Americans generally tend to define freedom in terms of social and environmental justice, sexual liberation, reproductive freedom, free expression, and a higher level of government involvement. Jesus transcends both of these perspectives and defines freedom in spiritual terms as liberation from sin and the restoration of shalom.”
Then he concluded the chapter with something that I think is very important. The American Dream and White American Folk Religion is inherently a product of performance. Christianity is about adoption, not based on performance, but based on God’s grace and our adoption into his family.
“Jesus’ invitation to me was not to enlist in a nation’s army but into the family of God. I had the choice to say yes or no, and I was loved independent of my desire to give that love in return. All I needed to do was accept and embrace that he alone could free me. In Christ alone I find my freedom. I stand today on this truth, and it has made me free. It set me free from addiction, self-hatred, a destructive view of those with differing opinions, and an oppressive view of women. Moreover, this truth freed me from workaholism and an identity rooted in my accomplishments, ushering me into an abundance not defined by the forefathers of this nation but by my Father in heaven. The truth in Romans 5:8 that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” grounds my seeking of love and justice for all people, including those who would see me as less than human because of the color of my skin. In Christ, I am not working to be free; I live out of the freedom I’ve received. Not only does WAFR define freedom differently from the God of the Bible, it offers no freedom at all.”