Taking America Back for God (Review)

There’s been a lot of heated discussion about four authors and books over the past few weeks.  The debate follows an article by David Gushee citing them as significant authors in a recent movement that is redefining and redescribing Evangelicalism -something he talks about in terms of a deconstruction project.  These are

Kristen Kobes Du Mez Jesus and John Wayne

Beth Allison Barr – The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Jemar Tisby – The Colour of Compromise

Andrew L Whitehead & Samuel L Perry Taking America Back For God

This was picked up on by Jonathan Leeman in a recent article where he expressed concerns about the risk of throwing the baby of good theology out with the bathwater of toxic culture. Leeman warned about the dangers of well-meaning people being side tracked by those who in fact turned out to be wolves. 

Most of the resulting conversation appears to have missed the point that Leeman was specifically citing David Gushee and his assessment rather than offering a fresh evaluation of individual authors. The result has been that the conversation has pretty much been all about who is bullying who and whether or not anyone was called a wolf.  There’s been precious little discussion about what individual authors actually said and whether or not it is true, accurate, interesting or helpful.

So, I thought I’d have a little look at the books on the list. I’d already read The Making of Biblical Womanhood and reviewed it a while back. So the next one I’ve picked up is Taking America Back For God.

The book offers a study of American religious and political culture and identifies a worldview described as Christian Nationalism. By this term, they say that they mean:

“an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture.”[1]

The authors see understanding this ideology as crucial to our ability to understand the underlying reasons behind the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. 

Most of the book is given over to sharing and commenting on detailed research that the authors have engaged in The data and methodology are shared in two comprehensive appendixes.  The authors identify four types of American in relation to the ideology.[2]

Ambassadors  advocate for it believing that America is founded on Christian values and should continue to live by them

Accommodators are supportive agreeing that America has a strong Christian heritage but are uncertain as to whether those values and that outlook is relevant to contemporary society and today’s needs.

Resistors acknowledge a Christian past but are uncomfortable with making it a central part of America’s identity today

Rejectors argue that America has never been a Christian country and that its foundations were secular/pluralistic.

The book surveys attitudes towards a variety of issues around “power” “boundaries and “order” – the chapter headings and identifies Christian Nationalism with specific outlooks on

  •  race, immigration and multiculturalism
  • Sexual morality
  • Family life, gender, authority and headship.

Christian Nationalists are associated with a preference for strong borders and immigration control (including support for Trump’s project to build a wall on the Mexican border), the view that divorce and same sex relationships are wrong (whilst noting that they are willing to overlook divorce in practice when it comes to preferred leaders such as Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan) and for patriarchal views of relationships in the family and the role of women in the workplace.

Therefore, the book is an informative and instructive read for those seeking to understand a bit more of American culture and politics. It will help the British reader understand a little bit of how US evangelical culture is not necessarily the same as what we mean by evangelicalism with a focus on doctrine and worship styles in our context.

There are definite weaknesses in the book and causes for concern.  The first is that I think there’s a bit of looseness and vagueness about who is included within the term “Christian Nationalist.”  It seems possible to me to identify a number of views including

  1. Belief that nations should seek to be Christian, based on Biblical values and laws. That America along with other countries should be an exemplar of this.
  2. That there is such a thing as “The Christian Nation” so that Christians should owe their first loyalty to this and not to their government. Roman Catholics were long suspected of holding such a competing loyalty, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in this and so take a pacificist view on conflict whilst this also mirrors the radial Islamist position of ISIS.
  3. That there is such a thing as a Christian Nation and that America is that nation.
  4. That the concept of a nation state is a good thing and that there are Biblical principles that encourage our concern for the flourishing and well-being of our own nation.

This is important because when the book moves to anecdotal description or the citing of particular prominent people, it describes churches holding patriotic rallies and turns to the pastors of such churches for quotes. It is possible to identify such churches and pastors with positions 1-3 above and it isn’t always clear as to which one they most closely align with.

However, people like Wayne Grudem are also included in the mix without much attempt to distinguish him from the others. Yet I would suggest that Grudem’s position both in terms of his worldview and the underlying presuppositions are quite distinct from some of those described. One particular example given is that he was supportive of the campaign to build a wall arguing that walls/borders are a good and Biblical thing. However, such a position does not necessary align with Christian nationalism but rather with the fourth option above, that nation states are good thing, a blessing as part of God’s common grace.

Do those weaknesses and concerns mean that the authors are part of a deconstruction project making them either unhelpful or dangerous? Well, it is difficult to say for certain.  Gushee seems to see their book as part of the deconstruction project. At one level, it is possible to argue that the book is simply descriptive, setting out the data and allowing us to decide what to do with it. Taking America Back For God describes what is the case rather than what ought to be the case.

Noting then my comments in this article, we need to be careful of reading subtext into books when it wasn’t intended. However, I think there are enough hints that the authors see the Trump project and the values they associate with Christian Nationalism in negative terms.  For example, Trump’s messages on immigration are referred to as “dog whistle.”[3] Or consider this quote:

“What Eurocentrism, anti-Catholicism, xenophobia and the disenfranchisement of black Americans have in common is that each reflects a general understanding of American civic belonging -namely that real Americans are native born white Protestants.”[4]

Here xenophobia is specifically aligned with attitudes to immigration as well as cultural and religious issues.  Once this is seen as intrinsically linked to other moral values it does paint a rather negative picture. Whilst this is not explicitly linked to conservative evangelical theology, the inclusion of people like Grudem and Piper within the framing does seem an interesting choice.

Setting those concerns aside for a moment, I would recommend the book as helpful reading for those wishing to understand a bit more about the American cultural context.  It’s good value alone purely for the appendixes.  Whilst the US context is different to the UK, it is still helpful to be aware of other contexts and furthermore, may help us to look afresh at our own context distinguishing cultural issues from theological ones.

In terms of the concerns raised in Jonathan Leeman’s article, purely on a reading of this one book it would be difficult to conclude as to whether the authors are part of a so called deconstruction project.  There are hints of a negative outlook on conservative evangelical culture and theology but these are not overtly drawn out. Indeed one challenge is that the boom does not really step into the mix of connecting theology/practice/culture/political ideology in the same way that I consider “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” to.

However, I think there is the point. It’s a misunderstanding of Leeman or even Gushee to assume they are saying that these authors are behind a deconstruction project. It is more a case that if there are people involved in such a project then they are looking to the four books to find ballast for their project.

This means that Leeman’s questions/challenges remain pertinent.  Whilst this book, with caution is helpful in describing a context, does it actually help us to identify what the actual problems are, identify causes and propose remedies.  I would argue that it does not. 

[1] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back For God, xi.

[2] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back For God, 23.

[3] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back For God, 97.

[4] Whitehead and Perry, Taking America Back For God 91.

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