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What is wrong with white Christians?

This isn’t meant to simply be a provocative question. A new survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation offers the latest dispiriting news about the troubling state of white Christianity.

Christians, the study found, are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on individual failings than Americans who are atheist or have no specific religious affiliation. White evangelical Christians, who voted overwhelmingly for President Trump and continue to be some of his most steadfast supporters, are especially wedded to this worldview. Half of white Catholics also cited lack of effort - read: laziness - rather than difficult circumstances as the primary reason why people are poor. Less than a third of African-American Christians agree.

Graphic survey

Perceptions of discrimination against black people by religious affiliation. Graphic courtesy of PRRI

White Christians are also oblivious or in denial when it comes to the reality of racism and discrimination, according to data from the Public Religion Research Institute. Pernicious stereotypes about race and poverty, of course, are two sides of the same coin. While 57 per cent of Americans acknowledge significant levels of racism against black people, PRRI found, those numbers were dramatically different for white Christians. Only 36 per cent of white evangelicals and 47 per cent of white Catholics reported perceiving discrimination against African-Americans. Partisan affiliation has the most significant influence on these attitudes about race and poverty, but religious identity is also a key factor.

There are complex theological, cultural and political reasons behind these numbers that scholars can dissect with academic detachment. But at a fundamental level, there is a crisis at the heart of white Christianity. The dark-skinned Jesus who preached justice to those in the shadow of an empire would likely not recognise many of His nominal followers today. 

Too many white Christians sacrifice the Gospel’s radical solidarity with the poor and oppressed with comfortable, self-serving ideologies. Prosperity gospel preachers affirm the cult of consumerism and individualism. Evangelicals rally behind political leaders who make a holy trinity out of tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on social safety nets and anti-government propaganda. A majority of the descendants of white Catholic immigrants once feared and loathed in this country voted for a president who ran on an explicitly nativist message.

In this upside-down world, white Christians can justify taking away health care coverage from struggling families and blindly worship the false idol of “trickle-down” economic theories that Pope Francis has rightly called a “crude” and “naïve” fantasy. Climate change that already displaces the most vulnerable around the world is denied or blithely dismissed as liberal hyperventilating.

A strain of American Christianity has always been interwoven with a secular creed of “rugged individualism.” Work hard and sacrifice, the dogma goes, and you will reap rewards both material and spiritual. Growing up, Donald Trump imbibed the sugary, self-help messages of his pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of the best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking.

A forerunner to later prosperity preachers, Peale preached a convenient gospel that the ambitious found alluring. The wealthy deserved to be rich. Individuals create their own destiny. There is no room in this narcissistic religion of the self for a sober analysis of social sin. It’s one thing to acknowledge personal moral failings as inherent to the human condition. It takes a cognitive leap from the personal to the systemic to understand how institutions and structures also must be redeemed. “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint,” the late Brazilian Bishop Dom Hélder Câmara once said. “When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”

Structures and institutions are sinful when they perpetuate inequality and injustice. “People aren’t poor because they are sinners,” Noel Castellanos of the Christian Community Development Association tweeted recently. “Often people are poor because they are sinned against.”

The fact that child poverty in the US is dramatically higher than in most industrialised countries has nothing to do with morally deficient children and can’t exclusively be blamed on the flaws of their parents. Personal responsibility matters and culture can influence decisions, but specific policy and political decisions play a far greater role. Before 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law, less than half of people over 65 had health insurance and 35 per cent lived in poverty. In the program’s first year, more than 19 million people over 65 enrolled and poverty among older and disabled Americans decreased by nearly two-thirds.

Churches and pastors need not become sociologists or partisan cheerleaders to begin waking up white Christian America. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus stood on the side of the powerless. Those under the yoke of Pharaoh found God’s favor. If Christianity doesn’t challenge the status quo and recover its prophetic edge, the Rev. Martin Luther King reminded us, it will become an “irrelevant social club". White Christians have much to repent for, but the work of reparation and seeking justice can begin now. 

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of 'The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church'.