Book Review: Andy Stanley Is Winning, Whether He’s “in It” or Not
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The 1980 book Listen, America! by Jerry Falwell, Sr. thrust white fundamentalist Christians into the explicit fight for the United States to be a Christian Nation and gave the Moral Majority the political manual to build what we now know as the religious right. Megachurch pastor and author Andy Stanley’s new book, Not in It to Win It, is a polished, persuasive push for White American Christians to recede back into the shadows away from nasty, polarizing politics in order to prioritize evangelism. At first glance, Stanley’s advice may seem like the opposite of Falwell’s, but both approaches accomplish the same end of maintaining a race, gender, and class hierarchy masquerading as Christianity. This is what I call White American Folk Religion, or WAFR.
The first nine chapters of this book are luxurious stone veneer covering the rotted, moldy walls that hold up WAFR. Stanley contends that Christian values undergird Western civilization, and the only way to change institutionalized injustices— like racism, sexism, or economic inequality — is to transform individuals’ hearts through Christ. He condemns the joining of Christ’s mission to historical travesties like the Crusades or Constantine’s reign. Their sin? They were too political. Stanley’s message is polite, moderate, and sincere. It’s not a brash “America is the greatest country in the world.” It’s a more casual, “hey, our democracy isn’t the best, but it’s better than a lot of what’s out there.” It’s not the Puritan John Winthrop’s strident assertion that America is the biblical “city on a hill.” It is instead a warm offer to look at how good God has been to us here in this special place in time. Shouldn’t we be content to just appreciate and enjoy his gift?
The last chapter reveals the blueprint for White moderate Christians to follow that leaves systemic injustice in place, protected from critique, ridicule, or substantive change. Get Christ out of politics by positioning Christians above the political fray to maintain and grow the Church’s cultural relevance. Then that cultural relevance can help us win souls for Jesus.
Stanley gives us examples of what he believes to be model Christian engagement with injustice, highlighting those who bore up under suffering and forgave. One example he mentions is Rachael Denhollander, an American gymnast who was the first to publicly accuse Larry Nasser, Team USA’s physician, of sexual abuse. During Denhollander’s testimony at Nasser’s sentencing, she forgave him and Stanley is right that the words she spoke were a powerful witness to the transforming work of Christ. Stanley also mentions Reverend Anthony Thompson, husband to the late Myra Thompson whom the racist Dylann Roof murdered along with eight others at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Reverend Thompson spoke with truth, grace, and clarity when he forgave Roof and publicly longed for his salvation.
But Stanley cherry-picked these stories. He proof-texted and excised them from the context of their subjects’ lives and communities. Denhollander became a lawyer who tirelessly fights against the scourge of sexual abuse and cover-ups in major churches, denominations, and other ministries. As a result, she has many enemies among her siblings in Christ who find her advocacy divisive. And Reverend Thompson also responded to Roof’s crimes by supporting Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election specifically because she was the candidate who he believed was the most likely to strengthen gun control. Stanley also omits Mother Emmanuel’s centuries-long commitment to ending systemic racial hatred, including when its congregation attempted to orchestrate a slave revolt. But what Denhollander, Reverend Thompson, and Mother Emanuel are doing is not causing division. They are trying to heal division caused by the evils of sexual abuse and racism. Stanley consistently dismisses this distinction and doesn’t want his readers to see it. To him, pointing out divisions in order to fight against them is itself divisive. Rocking the boat is unbiblical.
Throughout the book, Stanley uses the pronoun “we” which he never defines. Presumably, he wants readers to assume he means all Christians. But let’s be clear: Stanley’s audience, like his congregation, is mostly White. It’s not much different from Falwell’s audience in 1980. At that time, the civil and women’s rights movements had made enormous changes in the United States, and resistance to imperialism, war, patriarchy, and exploitation had risen sharply. Yet, Falwell helped get his man in the White House and defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. His congregants and readers held enormous power, but they felt under siege. Many in Stanley’s flock feel the same way, but, like Stanley himself, take for granted the power they have. They are Falwell’s generation, plus their children and grandchildren. Now, Black Lives Matter is the new Civil Rights Movement, Marriage Equality is the continuation of the “sexual revolution” and, even though he might make Stanley’s people uncomfortable, Trump, like Reagan, appointed Supreme Court justices to strike down precedents in order to restrict voting and civil rights on their behalf.
I grew up in southern Virginia, Falwell’s backyard, and I have worked in the White evangelical church world for almost 15 years. Historically, when there is an opportunity to expose and exorcise White American Folk Religion, its disciples pivot their messaging to keep it in place. Just when they might cast out the false faith of racism, greed, patriarchy, and militarism that holds dominant church culture together, it rebrands and redistributes itself. This book is a glossy, beautifully-designed roadmap for adherents of WAFR to leave institutional injustice in place and justify their position with scripture.
The gospel in this book is only good news for moderate White people who prioritize civility and the status quo. They might be uncomfortable with the political and religious “homelessness” they feel in the wake of the insurrection, the presidency of Donald Trump, the murder of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic. They are against police brutality, but think there’s a lot less of it than those BLM troublemakers do. They want everyone treated fairly, but shun specifics about fair wages, healthcare, voting rights, or raising taxes. They might be interested in helping individual refugees, but don’t want to talk about how our country’s foreign policy caused mass displacement. They want things back to their normal. This is not the case for most of their non-White, non-male, or materially poor siblings in Christ. Stanley’s version of WAFR is therefore dangerous for marginalized communities, but attractive for much of his and Falwell’s target demographic.
Stanley correctly notes that racism, political upheaval, and the pandemic pulled all the skeletons out of America’s culturally Christian closet for everyone to see. But Stanley’s primary objective is to get those skeletons back in there and board that closet up. His interpretation of Paul’s advice to “become all things to all people to win some” (1 Cor 9:22) is to become lukewarm and baptize the political middle when controversy arises. I believe his advice is nothing short of an abdication of our responsibility to spread the gospel that the just and righteous Kingdom has come near. That true good news should make us fight for justice, even when Stanley and his ilk oppose us by insisting on unity with those who perpetrate injustice — unity for the sake of a gospel we do not recognize.
Further, I believe Not in It to Win It makes a renewed case for large-scale spiritual bypassing — that is, claiming to be against injustice generally but using spiritual practices or theological ideas to sidestep naming or fighting any specific injustice. John Blake, a journalist at CNN, got a dose of spiritual bypassing when he pressed Stanley in an interview, asking if refusing to stand up for one political side or the other could, in dire situations, amount to moral cowardice. Stanley evaded the question by appealing to the unity of the body of Christ. He said that if he were to take a stance in favor of something like gun control, which he was quick to say “I wouldn’t” because it’s a “very complicated issue,” Republican Christians might respond by assuming he is with Democrats on all subjects. That, he said, is the real problem he wants to discuss.
But, of course, he still made sure during the interview to let his in-crowd know that he is politically “right-leaning.” So he let his audience know he is conservative like them, he would never touch their guns, and their social, economic, political, and religious status quo can remain intact. And he accomplished all of this while preaching about not taking sides.
Stanley does not need to worry. He is a wealthy, famous megachurch pastor and the son of a wealthy, famous megachurch pastor. He will undoubtedly maintain his much-desired cultural influence under the auspices of the evangelistic opportunities it affords him. He will appear careful and nuanced to White people who are tired of wokeness, CRT, and the “gay agenda.” They will find reassurance in his words that they don’t need to worry too much about the insurrection, gerrymandering that disenfranchises BIPOC communities, a partisan Supreme Court, daily mass shootings, COVID deaths, skyrocketing housing costs, expanding inequality, unchecked police brutality, #MeToo, #ChurchToo — and the list continues. He will convince them that it is more biblically important to not appear overly partisan.
MLK wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the White moderate was more dangerous than the white supremacist willing to wear a hood and burn a cross. My grandfather taught me the same thing. They were both right. A few staunch segregationists are preferable to the millions of parents paying lip service to racial equality but leaving for “better” school districts and “safer” neighborhoods. The Proud Boy in camo is more genuine than the millions of concerned citizens ready to call the police “just to make sure things are okay” when a person of color is loitering. Mike Pence and the Christian nationalist ecosystem that put Trump in place are more dangerous than 45 himself because they dismiss and resist prophetic critique while laying a broadly accepted claim to Jesus. Those everyday injustices are so insidious precisely because of how common and systemic they are in American churches. But Stanley wants to shut down serious conversations about them because it would be divisive.
Therefore, for the midterm election cycle, Christian nationalists have options. They can heed the call for an explicitly Christian resistance to the liberal agenda by the likes of Franklin Graham or Robert Jeffress, or respond to Stanley’s softer invitation to stay focused on “what really matters to God.” In any case, followers of White American Folk Religion can feel faithful without changing themselves or anything around them, and the realities for women, BIPOC, the poor, and the marginalized will remain the same. In other words, Stanley doesn’t need to be in it to win it because White people win either way.