In The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess observes that:
We all live in light of some gospel or another – the good news that while we suffer from a fundamental problem with the world, salvation is possible if we submit to a new ruler of our lives and become part of a new people. Our gospels each have their own creation or origin stories, a “fall” where evil enters those stories, and the promise of salvation in someone or something.
While any number of these “gospels” may exist in the world (Alisa Childers creates her own/different list in Another Gospel? unique to Progressive Christianity), Schiess draws out four specifically American political gospels: Prosperity, Patriotism, Security, and White Supremacy.
To show how these ideologies can form a different gospel I will highlight each one’s creation story (or the Edenic ideal to which we strive), it’s fall (or the nature of sin/what is wrong with the world), it’s view of salvation (who saves and how we enter into/respond to salvation), and it’s liturgies (the practices that form us in its teaching).
Creation: Schiess has something different in mind than those “health and wealth” preachers who go around promising prosperity if you “sow a seed of faith” by giving them money, though she does, obviously, condemn these charlatans. Schiess is referring to something she calls the “gospel of the free market.”
While this gospel does not have a clear creation story, the “creation ideal” could be called the American Dream of economic prosperity.
Fall: The story assumes that we can control our financial lives by playing by the rules of the free market system. The “righteous” get wealthy and the “unrighteous” fall into poverty. Economic status gets tied to moral status. Those who live in economic squalor, also live in “moral squalor.” Sin gets equated with (or immediately linked to) poverty.
Salvation: We’re saved out of poverty by trusting the free market and following its meritocratic rules: ingenuity and hard work. “Opportunities for success and wealth are available to all and guaranteed to the righteous.”
Liturgies: We get discipled into the prosperity gospel through rags to riches stories, advertisements, and TV shows (such as Shark Tank).
Creation: The patriotic gospel has a clear creation myth: The founding of the nation. In this mythology, the founding becomes “salvific history.” Adherents baptize America’s past, wiping it clean of acts of injustice. They refer to America as God’s “chosen nation” with a special mission imbued by God, borrowing covenant language from Scripture used in reference to Israel.
Fall: If the founding represents Eden then breaking from that founding constitutes a Fall. Sin happens when we fail to give America (or a particular version of her) our undivided allegiance.
Salvation: America’s strength, power, and global supremacy save us from our insecurities, discomforts, and fears. We respond to this salvation by uncritically accepting all that she does as good.
Schiess asks these diagnostic questions: “When we think of sin, do we think of that which conflicts with American values? When we think of salvation, do we think of American victory?”
Liturgies: Of all the gospels here, this one has the most obvious liturgies. This civil religion has symbols, ceremonies, songs, rituals, statues, flags, and a pledge of allegiance. Through these liturgies we remember and enter into our creation and salvation stories and renew our commitment and loyalty.
Creation: “Eden” in the security gospel might be a safe neighborhood where kids were free to roam, protected by threats from within (criminals) and threats from without (America’s enemies).
Fall: According to this gospel, insecurity is the main problem with the world. That may come in the form of violent crime, external wars, or injustice. Like in the prosperity gospel which assumes we control our economic outcome, this one assumes that we can control our own safety. As a result, this myth tends to assume that victims of crime have brought it on themselves.
Salvation: In this gospel we’re largely in charge of our own salvation, which comes in the form of security. “If the ‘sin problem’ in this gospel is insecurity, then the salvific solution is to protect yourself.” This gospel lives at both the individual (micro) level and the national (macro) level. At the macro level it takes the form of national security and the belief that security must be won at all costs.
Schiess observes that by shielding ourselves so fully from insecurity and danger, we can unwittingly just push that danger onto other people.
As [Andy] Crouch explains [in Strong and Weak], when humans try to rid themselves of vulnerability, they inevitably offload it on someone else and take authority that doesn’t belong to them.
Liturgies: The liturgies of this gospel come in the form of political discourse when we frame every conversation through the lens of personal and national security.
Gospel of White Supremacy
The gospel of white supremacy thrives on secrecy. It is, by far, the least socially acceptable of the gospels. It exists in more implicit than explicit forms, but it still shapes our way of living in the world.
Creation: Schiess doesn’t assign the gospel of white supremacy a creation myth, but in the American context of the other gospels it could be tied closely to the patriotic gospel by those who would view our founding in idealistic ways, specifically ways that hide or excuse the early injustices of slavery and the extermination of indigenous people.
Fall: The “fall” for this gospel is the presence different people, who would be perceived as being dangerous to “our” way of life.
Salvation: While this would never (or rarely) be explicitly stated, “salvation” looks like white superiority.
Again, Schiess points out that this ideology “thrives on going unnoticed. We probably don’t consciously believe that the ‘sin problem’ is people of color, or the salvific solution is white dominance, but it’s a flawed logic we’ve been immersed in.”
Liturgies: The practices that make this gospel possible are common in the daily life in most parts of the country: segregated communities, schools, media, and the presence of racially homogenous groups (like churches).
Earlier in the book Schiess goes into detail describing what she means by political liturgies. Liturgies are regular practices, habits, and ways of living with other people that form our hearts and minds.
We need to be careful not to confuse these habits with the false gospels themselves. For instance, one can be inspired by a rags to riches tale without buying into the prosperity gospel. One can sing a patriotic song without believing that salvation comes from America’s military might. One can lock her door at night without thinking that she can control her own safety. One can attend a racially homogenous church without buying into white supremacy. It would be a logical fallacy, then, to assume someone is guilty of adopting a false gospel because of the presence of these liturgies in their lives.
However, we shouldn’t then assume that these behaviors are neutral or that they have no impact on what we grow to love and believe. The point of Schiess’s book is to critically examine these liturgies in light of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.