The Grief behind the Blog
In response to this blog, an older and wiser friend of mine mentioned to me that she found the whole project of Dialogic Christianities to be an expression of grief. Clearly, she understood something about what I was communicating that I hadn’t understood myself. And the more and more I think about it, of all the terms you could use to describe this blog, grief is probably the most accurate.
Part of the grief is personal and specific to my own situation. The early posts came at the tail-end of my first year back in America after being on the evangelical missionary field for 7 years. Much of that writing is actually the fruit of a few years’ worth of faith crises I’d experienced overseas; three big highlights had to be 1) infertility in complementarian contexts; 2) an encounter with the pluralism of both the world and the Word (as in, Romans 14), and 3) some painful critical thinking about my own white-American-male-centric teaching practices and its roots in typical Christian school curricula. These specific processes were definitely motivation enough for me to start working out my faith identity through writing.
But it was the broader shared grief that compelled me to make this writing public for evangelicals to read. In 2016, I began to notice that the individual griefs I had been working through on my own were actually far more common than I had realized. American Evangelicals, both the conservatives and the liberals, all seemed to be faced with a grief that they could no longer keep to themselves. At the time, it seemed to me to be a grief of looming apprehension, a reckoning with the writing on the wall that we were all preparing for an ugly divorce. I saw a global and historical community of Christians becoming more bitterly divided by the hour, as tweets and posts and articles and comments were quickly marshaled to divide friends from foes.
Wanting to do more than play into the petty back and forth of Facebook debate (although I have had my weak moments), I naively imagined a Facebook transformed to generate as much life-giving dialogue as it did division. I believed we—divided and dividing evangelicals—could talk/type our differences out. I believed that we, being inheritors of heavenly rewards, could easily afford at the very least to read/listen to each other with open hearts and minds. I believed that we Christians above all would be the most likely to find the courage to engage gracefully with the views that offended us most. We of all people ought to have been most ready for repentance when faced with challenging realities. I truly believed that with the right kind of tone-management and humility, we could easily heal whatever bitter wound was stretching across our community.
But I was wrong.
Not a wound but a death
I was wrong about a lot of things. But my biggest error was in under-diagnosing evangelicalism’s issue. If, as I had been thinking, we were dealing with a mere wound, then humility and tone-management could have helped as we strove toward healing. But what if the chaos evangelicalism underwent in 2016 wasn’t anxiety over what’s to come, but rather something more like an involuntary response to something that already happened. It’s possible that we’re not only already dead, but that we’ve been dead for a while now. What white evangelicals saw go down in 2016-7 may have been nothing but a post-mortem body spasm.
It was only while reading Robert P. Jones’s The End of White Christian America (2016; and his corresponding research institute, PRRI) that I began to entertain the possibility that my grief was not actually over a wound that had hope for healing. Instead, I’m grieving the controversial reputation this dead identity is leaving behind. I’m grieving my own disappointments and regrets as I think back over this identity’s long and complex history. Along with my grief I’m also processing what to do with the deafening silence that always accompanies death, a tormenting lack of responsiveness, a gaping emptiness where I once found life and meaning. And looming over everything is the intimidating question: What now?
So what exactly has died? I’m not talking about “my faith.” This isn’t a post about how Chris is now declaring himself an atheist. What has died is a tradition and a culture of thought that Jones calls “White Christian America” (WCA). Like any compound word (e.g., strawberry, hotdog, or parkway), its meaning is different than the sum of the individual words (neither “hot” nor “dog” on its own could possibly communicate the glory of a hotdog). Similarly, WCA is not simply White + Christian + America. I think there’s plenty to theorize about the meaning of each individual term– and for the record, I am still White, I am still Christian, I am still American. It’s the compound that has died. And so, like Nietzsche’s madman, Jones seems to be saying “WCA is dead. WCA remains dead.” But, unlike the madman, he’s not able to say who killed it. All the evidence out there suggests that it died of “a combination of environmental and internal factors” (p.1).
After twenty-sum years of living and breathing it, you’d think I’d have gotten the memo that the main source of my identity was White Christian America– but no, when I joined the evangelical mission field in 2009 I had no idea that I was a valued member of WCA. Nor did I get the memo that WCA was in critical condition and that there was very little hope that WCA would make it out alive.
I didn’t realize I was a part of WCA because I — like many evangelicals– spent a lot of time between 2009 and 2014 responding to philosophical attacks from the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. I was spending my energy trying to combat postmodernism, emotivism, pluralism, and, at times, evolution. I was so caught up in these abstract isms that I had very little patience for anything to do with conversations around the more concrete ones like nationalism, sexism or racism. I was trying to make the case that reducing the classical canon down to issues of race/gender/class was a godless and immoral enterprise. It took the events of 2014 to get me to realize that all of this was historically WCA behavior.
Jones illustrates the aftermath of WCA’s death with three particularly explosive cultural moments in the year 2014, at which point all evidence suggests that WCA was already dead. The three cultural moments he uses to put flesh on the statistical bones of his argument are: The 2014 Super Bowl ad “America the Beautiful”, a Grammy performance of “Same Love” by Macklemore, and the national attention paid to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
The Controversy over America the Beautiful
Perhaps the fact that the descendants of WCA (white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants) had slipped below 1/3 of the American population in 2014 made the Super Bowl ad all the more bitter for them to stomach. A twitter war erupted in response to the ad, with #speakAmerican on one side and #AmericaIsBeautiful on the other. But when I compare the sentiments of #speakAmerican to some of the professional development (PD) curricula my evangelical school was using at the time, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where Christianity ends and where white supremacy begins. What is the difference between this tweet and this PD discussion question?
“We are English and Christian, mainly. #SpeakAmerican Let’s keep that in mind, @CocaCola” (cited in Hoffman, 2015).
How do we apply the [White Christian American] Founders’ ideas to a “multicultural” America where a flood of moral and spiritual perspectives – e.g., Buddhism, spiritism, Islam, Native American religions, and Wicca – have become part of the cultural fabric? (The Truth Project)
I remember in 2014, I was somewhere between being critical of the America-centrism I saw rampant in evangelicalism, while also feeling a strong allegiance to its values. When I look back to a post I wrote about the Coke ad for my teaching blog at the time, my ambivalence is painfully clear. It seemed extremely transgressive to me at the time to say anything positive about celebrations of pluralism, which is why I walked it back with the question– “Does the American song have any ‘wrong’ notes?”– and just to make extra clear that I wasn’t being transgressive I insisted I hadn’t meant it “in a political sense.” By avoiding the “political sense” I bought myself a bit more time before I realized not only that I was white, Christian, and American, but also that I was a child of the compound White Christian America. I see the following two and a half years after that as an awkward song and dance of trying to convince myself, my students and the world that this worldview (which I did NOT name as White Christian America) welcomed honest critical thinking. Had I known what it actually was and that it was already dead, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.
Macklemore and Same-Sex Marriage
2014 was also the year that Macklemore performed “Same Love”at the 56th Grammy award ceremony. Jones argues that this performance was symbolic of the shifting perspective of most Americans about the legality of same-sex marriage. As this gay-marriage-affirming performance was a rousing success by many standards, it was also taken as a direct affront to WCA. During the performance, not only did Macklemore perform in front of a backdrop of what looked unmistakably “churchy,” culminating in a mass marriage ceremony of thirty-three diverse couples (straight and gay, multiracial and interracial), but the song also directly spoke out against White Christian America’s homophobia with lyrics like:
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And “God loves all his children” is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
However, perhaps in anticipation of those who would want to accuse Macklemore of rejecting the wisdom of scripture, the performance ends with Madonna and Mary Lambert singing the words “I’m not crying on Sunday” over a Gospel choir’s refrain repeating the phrases from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind.” It would seem that Macklemore hasn’t completely disregarded biblical wisdom, but he and much of the country seem to be interpreting it in completely different ways than WCA is known to do.
2014 was also the year when same-sex marriage became legally recognized in several states across America– and not just states on the liberal coasts, but states like Indiana, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. That same-sex marriage had anything to do with the compound of WhiteChristianAmerica might seem a bit strange. What does sexuality have to do with Whiteness, Christianity, or America? Whether it makes sense or not, the fact is that this one particular issue continues to be a defining feature of white evangelicalism (as well a Mormonism). It continues to confuse me when the stereotypical family held up as an icon for WCA resembled something more like the Cleavers than any of the families I’ve seen in the Bible. The fact that I have a hard time finding anything like a “Biblical marriage” in the Bible tells me that we aren’t dealing simply with interpretations of scripture, but rather we are dealing with deep-seated cultural and political identities.
The Hashtag that Broke the Camel’s Back
Perhaps 2014’s most damning turning point for WCA’s descendants– the smoking gun that made young white evangelicals all over the US incapable of ignoring their WCAness– were the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, made nationally known through the famous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a damning turning point not only revealing the structural racism in our society and judicial system, but also White Christian America’s dependence on and complicity in these structures. WCA would have liked to shut this hashtag down, and many of its successors tried to honor its wishes. WCA’s resistance to messages of racial equity and justice was nothing new, but it was this hashtag that made it difficult for WCA’s children NOT to see their communities rushing to protect their cherished anti-Blackness with defensive retorts like #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter.
Franklin Graham expressed the attitude most clearly when he said: “Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. […] If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. […] It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY” (Jones, p. 148).
Significant for me at the time was the implication this had for me as a Christian school educator. It forced me to trace the history of my corner of the profession, which cannot be understood without a thorough exploration into the Brown v Board of Education act in 1954, which made it unconstitutional for schools to be separated into Black and white. It’s no surprise that it was not long after this act that many private conservative Christian schools began to sprout up. “The most immediate response to [desegregation of American public schools] was the launching of whites-only private academies—many of them church related” (Jones, 162). As a completely Christian-school educated person, from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree, I cannot avoid the fact that “the leap to private academies provided an immediate mechanism for avoiding mixed race schools” (163). This fact forced me to realize that my resistance to conversations around racism were mostly due to the fact that my whole educational life had been historically designed to protect me from ever seeing it in person. It had me wondering where in my teaching my whiteness ended and my Christianity began? I still don’t think I can pinpoint that line.
The Five Stages of Grief
Jones’ book makes the argument that these three cultural events (a celebration of multiculturalism during America’s favorite pastime, a celebration of family-diversity, and a direct indictment of American racism) were not precursors to WCA’s death, but rather results of it. WCA’s children witnessed a world stretching it limbs for the first time after WCA restraints had finally been lifted. And we were left with an ideology that had few mechanisms to defend itself.
The book ends by re-examing the death of WCA through the lens of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Jones shows how particular spokepersons of White Christian America seem to be exhibiting stages like Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance in response to WCA’s death. As I read this section I realized that all of my writing on this blog exhibits a stage in the grieving process. White Christian America’s death is the death of a life-shaping identity. I have struggled to know what I’ll do without it. Who am I if not a White Christian American?
Through these posts you can see my denial, especially as I continued to say things like “I have no intention of shedding the label evangelical” despite the fact that everything I was saying and doing was explicitly non- (sometimes anti-) evangelical by almost all definitions. You’ll also see my anger, especially in my post about Fart-Blaming and classical Christian education. I asked a friend to read that post and his feedback was: “I think that the tone of your proposal sounds a little dismissive and frankly a little ‘pissed-off,’ if you don’t mind me saying that.” – he was right. But now I believe that I’ve been “pissed off” because of grief.
You’ll also see me bargaining at times, attempting to postpone the inevitable. I have done it by trying to enliven an already-dead conversation, trying to invite white Christians to talk with me, to engage with me, to treat this conversation like there’s living potential here—to show me that there’s still a life worth living in White Christian America. But no matter what I try to do, it will not change the fact that the death of White Christian America is irreversible. If we’re to dialogue, we’re going to need a reason outside of WCA to do it.
Of course there’s depression. There’s not much to say about it, mostly because depression tends to work without words. But it’s been an important part of the grieving process for me. Kugler-Ross writes, “The harder [terminally ill] patients struggle to avoid the inevitable death, the more they try to deny it, the more difficult it will be for them to reach this final stage of acceptance with peace and dignity” (Jones, p. 213). I don’t know if you’ll find much peace and dignity in my own grieving process. But I’m working my way toward acceptance. Of course I believe there is life after the death White Christian America. I just don’t yet know what that life looks like. I certainly don’t know what a healthy life after WCA looks like. I also can’t say I know exactly which version of Christian in White Christian America is actually worth restoring. With WCA as my main teacher, how can I know know authentic Christianity if I saw it? I just know the dust is going to need to settle before I’ll feel ready for the search.
Of course, these are grieving questions. It’s possible that we– the children of WCA– have some sort of inheritance worth preserving; and I will say about that what I always say about the promise of bodily Resurrection that some people read in the scriptures: I’ll believe it when I see it.