Jonathan Walton, in Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive and the Truth That Sets Us Free, delivers an honest—and many times, brutal—examination of the lies the American (Evangelical) Church has believed about America, and the disastrous place it has led us.
Walton starts this way:
Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama claimed that the United States of America is the last and best hope for the world. As a follower of the Jesus of Scripture, this should have immediately drawn resistance from me. But it didn’t… (4)
Why he didn’t resist—and why we don’t resist—this claim about America’s significance is the point of this personal and engaging book.
In each chapter the Walton discusses “a dominant lie in our culture, how it is in opposition to the gospel and how living within these false narratives comprises our Christian witness and leads to division and destruction” (11).
Jonathan Walton is a poet, author, and activist—spending the majority of his time as an area ministry director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s New York/New Jersey region.
Raised in the black communities of rural Virginia and being educated in an Ivy League College, Walton uses his personal experiences to illustrate the twists and turns of American Christianity between Red to Blue state, north and south, black and white (and beyond), and how we are all captured by American Civil Religion.
Main Target: White American Folk Religion (WAFR)
The specific target for Walton is what he calls “White American Folk Religion” (WAFR). In a sense, WAFR is the operating system that the twelve lies run on.
What does he mean by this? Here is his definition:
- White – the implicit or explicit claim that those of darker skin are inherently inferior to those who are white.
- American – the context (or place) where this ideology reigns.
- Folk Religion – “Folk” religion is the religion of the people beyond the churches. It “is the common set of popular beliefs and practices under the guise of true religion but outside the faith’s official doctrines and practices. WAFR claims to be biblical Christianity” (17).
If you have read Hillbilly Elegy, then you get a picture of WAFR (and if you haven’t read it then you should).
The Lies that Hold America Captive
Just so this doesn’t get too long, I’m just going to look at Walton’s first four lies (which are the strongest and most important—often the remaining lies read like important sub-lies to these first four).
Lie #1 We are a Christian Nation
People argue back and forth about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, and whether it is still functioning that way, and how we can get back (or not) to those roots.
Walton cuts below and behind all this by claiming “The Unite States cannot be a Christian nation, because God’s plan for redemption does not include a nation-state, and the beliefs and practices of WAFR are opposed to the arc of Scripture” (18).
With Walton, I totally agree that God’s plan for redemption only comes through the church, not America, or any other nation. The hope for the world is not America. It is the church.
The related lies that creep up are that
“Instead of being made in the image of God, we live in the shadow of the images on Mount Rushmore. The men are transformed into mythical figures. Our freedom then was not afforded by the blood of Jesus but by the blood of soldiers who took and defended our right to liberty. Our Father is not Yahweh but a nonspecific Creator, and the Bible is replaced by the Constitution. Instead of the Ten Commandments, we have the first ten Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights” (17).
The truth, then, is that the church is the true nation of God.
Lie #2 We are all Immigrants
The second lie drills deeper into our collective identity as Americans (or American Christians).
Walton points out claims that we are a nation of immigrants is a both a factual lie and a fantasy. Concerning facts, many American were brought here as slaves. And many came as refugees. And many were natives to this land and had it brutally stolen.
But the fantasy behind this lie is that immigrants are here to work, and that work within the “land of opportunity” will necessarily lead to success. America is a land for the industrious work, and—as the lie goes—anyone who is not succeeding is personally at fault.
In essence, for Walton, to believe the lie that we are all immigrants is to believe that we earn our place through work.
But the truth is that our identity comes through adoption into a new family in Christ, given by grace, not as something earned.
Lie #3 We are a Melting Pot
I remember being raised in California with the “melting pot” story, only to have it replaced as a guiding metaphor with the idea of America as a salad. What’s the difference?
As Walton explains, the idea that America is a melting pot seeks to describe the mosaic of people in America and the hope that when all these people come together that a new and better people will emerge (53). This promotes the erasure of differences and demands assimilation.
Practically however, it is not some new and better people that emerges from the American melting pot, but a conformity to values and perspectives and culture of White America.
But the truth is that God’s kingdom values true differences of ethnicity and culture rather than mere assimilation and conformity.
Lie #4 All Men are Created Equal
America claims that all are created equal in opportunity and before the law. As created equal, America claims to honor people for their success—for their use of their opportunity.
The dark side of this lie (related to lie #2) is that “if I am behind, no one is to blame except me.” As Walton notes, “to implicate the elaborate system of social barriers keeping me, my family, my people group, or my culture in perpetual poverty is a cop-out. I need to take personal responsibility.” According to this lie, “the effects and influence of barriers and opportunity structures are minimized, if not wholly dismissed” (65).
The truth Walton turns to is that while not all are created equal, all are created in God’s image and that God regularly honors the lowest most.
The remaining lie cover similar ground,
Lie #5 We are not a Great Democracy
Lie #6 The American Dream is Alive and Well
Lie #7 We are the Most Prosperous Nation in the World
Lie #8 We are the Most Generous People in the World
Lie #9 America is the Land of the Free
Lie #10 America is the Home of the Brave
Lie #11 America is the Greatest Country on Earth
Lie #12 We are One Nation
As an evangelical with anabaptist persuasions I was very eager to read Twelve Lies. In my teaching and pastoring I long to untangle the church for an uncritical mingling with American Nationalism (on the Right, and yes, also on the Left).
Twelve Lies goes a long way in uncovering how the lies of American Nationalism infect the church. True to his experience, Walton speak from his southern, African-American experience within and around NYC and beyond. It is powerful and moving—especially for the already convinced.
But for those not already convinced? What about those who reading above winced at the description of “White American Folk Religion”? These readers will probably remain unconvinced.
But that is OK.
It just means that people like me—in my pastoring and teaching—need to continue the work of disentangling the American Dream and the reality of the Kingdom, and do it in such a way that convinces those unconvinced by Twelve Lies.
Disclosure: I (Geoff) was provided a copy of this book by IVP to review, and I’m as under contract with IVP for a book that is coming out next year titled Does God Really Like Me? Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us.