If you believe that whites are racist, America is evil, and those two ideas are related, then Jonathan Walton’s 2019 book demonstrates you are not alone. If you don’t believe those ideas, then Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free was written to convince you—but it likely will not. Twelve Lies forces the reader to reflect on uncomfortable topics, but ultimately lacks persuasive power
There is no question that Walton wrote the book to cross ideological barriers. The introduction invited the reader to “carry your skepticism through this entire book while leaning in to understand.” He urged the reader to “acknowledge the tension you might feel but not judge or disengage.” But after this promising beginning, it felt like the book shot arrows at random.
Walton’s thesis is that “the United States and the kingdom of God are antithetical to one another.” For Walton, the U.S. is coextensive with something he calls “white American folk religion,” or WAFR for short (I guess “WASP” is too outdated and exclusive an epithet). It is “white” because it is a system designed to subject other races to whites. It is “American” because the ideology is strongest here. It is “folk religion” because it is a “common set of popular beliefs and practices under the guise of true religion but outside of the faith’s official doctrines and practices.” However, said Walton, “WAFR claims to be Biblical Christianity.”
When using “WAFR” to describe a singular actor, Walton likely did not intend to communicate the notion that WAFR is some sort of science-fiction-esque, ethereal intelligence. It seems more reasonable that he was referring to a monolithic group of persons who act with one goal and purpose. However, this monolithic group has odd bedfellows: the Founding Fathers (particularly Washington and Jefferson), the Puritans, the Gospel Coalition, John Piper, Tim Keller, TobyMac, Joel Osteen, working-class Trump voters, business and media elites, Hollywood producers, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Tony Perkins, and I could go on. I don’t know how, but Barack Obama, Dinesh D’Souza, and Chinese and Korean immigrants are in the group as well. According to Walton, all these are agents of, or apologists for, white American folk religion. Never mind that some of these actors are arch-enemies and even call each other heretics.
Beyond its repeated condemnation for WAFR, this book is difficult to generalize because it often contradicts itself. For example, Walton posits:
From D’Souza’s perspective, the United States has flaws, but Americans need only be grateful and keep pressing forward because nowhere is better than the Red, White, and Blue. In this narrative, WAFR sets up the United States as the ideal, so the kingdom of God is not.
To persuade anyone of anything, you’ve got to pick an argument and stick with it. Does WAFR say that the U.S. is the best among flawed alternatives, or the ideal? Those are opposites. Such contradictions can be found in most chapters.
Walton organized the book around “Twelve Lies” that he would refute with truth. These are not twelve statements of falsehood that he logically refutes. Rather, I believe Walton meant these were “twelve lies” in the sense that they deceive Christians and lead them astray. Thus, Walton tried to show how they were at odds with Christianity. This is not a criticism, merely a description, so that potential readers rightly understand what the book is. For example, the Seventh of the Twelve Lies asserts that “we are the most prosperous nation in the world.” Walton admitted, “It is true that the United States has accumulated more financial resources than any nation in history.” However, Walton continued, “It is also true that it is spiritually bankrupt and devoid of purpose and vision outside the pursuit of more security, stability, and material wealth.” The book is less concerned about whether statements are factually correct than whether they are morally right.
Walton sometimes hurt his own persuasiveness by attacking straw men. He gave alien meanings to some of his “twelve lies” that, when refuted, did not actually challenge anyone’s beliefs. For example, in Chapter 4 Walton attempted to demonstrate that the phrase “All men are created equal” is a lie. This idea is widely taken to mean that the Creator gave all human being equal worth, so they ought to be equal in human society. The debate is usually over what form of equality is the correct one. Walton asserted this statement made a claim about what is, instead of what ought to be (a common pattern). Thus, he said, “In an unjust society, we are not seen and do not live as equals. But God created us all with equal worth and value, and we all have equal access to God in Christ.” When Christians say “All men are created equal,” they mean exactly what Walton said to refute that statement.
Pointing out the dangers of American folk religion is not a bad thing, but I think Walton missed an opportunity to do so persuasively. The term “Americanism” is sometimes used to refer to a fusion of American commercial values and national pride with nominal Christianity—something like an American twist on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s civil religion. And, as Rousseau observed, replacing true Christianity with civil religion is a first step towards achieving a totalitarian democracy. But Walton’s brush strokes were too broad. He incorporated both true Christians and flagrant secularists into his conception of American folk religion, which pushed many who might otherwise be sympathetic to his message into a defensive stance. And strangely, he calls this folk religion “white” although non-whites can be free participants and even leaders.
Underneath Walton’s argument that the United States is antithetical to the Kingdom of God lie two assumptions. First, Walton assumes that temporal, human governments should operate according to the same principles as the God’s Kingdom. Second, Walton assumes that this is possible, which leads him to conclude that Christians have a duty to reject human governments that do not operate according to the principles of God’s Kingdom. Yet Jesus told his disciples, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This world is full of sinful people, and temporal governments cannot force people to become true followers of Christ. True, Biblical justice will not be achieved until Jesus returns with authority to rule all nations as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the meantime, the best human society in which we can hope to dwell is one that imperfectly approximates God’s justice. And despite Walton’s insinuations to the contrary, it seems to me this is what the Framers of the Constitution tried to achieve. The Framers attempted to channel man’s selfish urges to the benefit of his fellow man by designing a political and economic system in which people had to serve others to advance their own self-interest. Does it work perfectly? Of course not. Should we abandon it for failing to measure up to the ideal? Not without something better.
I would be wrong to give the impression that this book has no value for the reader. Walton is a skilled poet, and like a poet he masterfully exposes the foibles of the human soul. He confronts the reader with uncomfortable reminders of the ongoing struggles that blacks face in some parts of rural America, of the dangerous effect of isolation on individuals in urban America, and of avarice’s ability to insidiously erode a Christian’s devotion to God. While his solutions are ultimately unconvincing, the insights Walton offers on the human condition serve as a welcome dose of perspective, and corrective, to Americans’ temptation to think too highly of ourselves.