Since it’s Donald Trump’s big week and he’s an excellent bellwether of the toxicity of white Christian America, I figured I would look at six things that have made the white church toxic. I’m not trying to say that other races’ churches aren’t toxic; I just don’t have any experience in their culture. Some of these are directly related to Trump; some aren’t. But I figured his photo was good for the click-bait anyhow. And if you’re new here, this toxic Christianity is why I wrote my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us.
The root of all spiritual toxicity is self-justification, the need to be right in every circumstance. That’s why it’s such an important first step of our spiritual journey to renounce our self-justification and put ourselves under the mercy of God, the act of surrender that is Christian salvation. When Christians recognize our sinful frailty and our need for grace, then we can become untoxic. A group of people who know that they are flawed recipients of grace will show grace to each other and form a safe and healthy community.
But too many Christians manage to “get saved” without forfeiting their self-justification, which makes them more toxic than an “unsaved” person, because their self-perceived divine approval cements their personal sense of infallibility and immunizes them against the healing power of God’s grace. The toxic Christian cannot apologize, lose an argument, or recognize the validity of an ideological opponent’s perspective. A community of toxic Christians who egg each other on is a very dangerous form of humanity. Once Christians are set free from self-justification, every toxic aspect of their character is infinitely easier to address because they are no longer defensive about their flaws.
2) White supremacy
White supremacy is a particular form of collective self-justification that is prominent in white Christian America. There’s a lot of confusion about this phrase because it’s most commonly used to describe racist extremists like the KKK, but the most common form of white supremacy is simply the cool, rationalistic self-confidence of white people who know that they’re superior to people of other races. For most of the history of the United States, white people have been comparing themselves moralistically with people of color, particularly with regard to sexuality. That’s the source of the mythical welfare mama.
The reason it’s so important for white teens to avoid premarital sex is so that they won’t be like those welfare mamas in the ghetto who keep on getting knocked up and living off our tax dollars. Most of American history has had a white supremacist default. When white people talk about “taking America back” or “making America great again,” they’re talking about returning to the America that was a a mostly white Protestant nation which tolerated minorities but was superior to every other nation because of its white Protestantism. Now for the first time, white Christians are actually a minority and we’re not handling it very well at all.
When I use the term rationalism, I’m referring to the idealization of objectivity in modern Enlightenment thinking, or the idea that people are more truthful, the less personally invested they are, because they are less biased. This is certainly true in certain specific contexts like scientific experiments or court proceedings. Rationalistic people seek to live by reason alone and to repress any feelings or intuitions that distract from plain, dispassionate logic. Rationalism makes Christianity toxic by teaching Christians that they cannot trust their compassion. The assumption is that if we sufficiently eliminate the distracting feelings of our hearts, then we can become biblical robots.
But this kind of dispassionate objectivity is actually not what the Bible teaches. The apostle Peter says to “love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story takes care of a wounded traveler not because he flips through his reference manual to determine his course of action, but because his heart is “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). Our goal is not to repress our hearts so that we can be cold, dispassionate Bible bots, but to declutter our hearts of distracting idols so that we can ooze everywhere with God’s love.
Americans love to win. We are the most competitive nation in the world right now. We can kick every other country’s ass with our military, our Olympic athletes, our wealth, and our technology. Many Christians adopt this worldly obsession with winning. That’s why megachurches are so successful. A demographic study of megachurches showed that their greatest source of influx is transfer growth from struggling congregations in their area. What becomes particularly toxic is when Christians try to make church growth and decline a measure of theological validity.
While the Holy Spirit is at work in surprising ways in every church, the most straightforward explanation for a church’s explosive growth is that the message and ambiance of that church validates the sensibilities of the people in that community. As 2 Timothy 4:3 says, people like to gather “teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” What’s sneaky about the white middle class is that we want to hear tough-sounding, politically incorrect sermons that give us the feeling that we’ve worked hard to listen to them. We don’t like messages that make grace sound too cheap because our self-justification depends on feeling like our lives are hard. We are toxic to the degree that we sneer at the “lukewarm,” struggling churches around us because of how robust and rapidly growing our church is.
When I say the word capitalism, I’m not talking about simply having an economy where private businesses engage in trade according to laws of supply and demand. I’m talking about what happens to value when the market becomes the defining arbitrator of all value. We live in a world in which everything has become a market commodity: our education, our health care, our physical bodies. To call something a commodity means that its value is determined by what other people will pay for it or how many likes it generates on Facebook.
A commodity is the opposite of a sacrament, the word we use in Christianity to describe how every created object has value as an exhibition of God’s glory. A commodity’s value is extrinsic while a sacrament’s value is intrinsic. The best example of how capitalism has infiltrated the church is what it’s done to the gospel, which has become an afterlife insurance product. Though churches talk on and on about defining themselves against the world, if they’ve made their salvation into a consumer product, you can’t get more worldly than that.
Toxic Christianity loves to talk about leadership, but what is usually meant by leadership is actually celebrity. Christian leadership guru John Maxwell says that “leadership is influence.” It’s all about building bigger and bigger platforms to reach a larger audience. I’ve got a friend who’s a very talented, spirit-filled Pentecostal preacher (and doesn’t have a toxic bone in his body). When he met with a church plant consultant from his denomination, the consultant said that he needed to invest in giant LCD screens to put up in his church because church growth research had determined that people are more excited about bringing their friends to church if their pastors are preaching on a screen, which proves to the world that they’ve truly arrived. Our churches become increasingly toxic the more that our pastors seek to emulate celebrity culture.