by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. And his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has just been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
In Catskill, New York stands a statue of Rip Van Winkle, the patron saint of the “unwoke.”
In the 38th chapter of Ezekiel, a large valley of dry bones is depicted – a white-blanched metaphor of the “unwoke.” In Revelation 3, one of the seven churches, Sardis, is the congregation of the “unwoke.” 1
Reading Owen Strachan’s Christianity and Wokeness, I felt I had met the prophet of the “unwoke.” I wanted there to be something to his effort to warn people of the danger of wokeness.
My hope for there to be something of value never came to fruition. Strachan’s vineyard is one that brings forth only sour grapes (Isaiah 5). Only the alternate universe of evangelicalism – the place where the people of a like-minded literalism gather to reassure one another that what they believe really is true – finds merit here.
Puzzled by Strachan’s attack on the voluminous scholarship on race, I wondered why he insists on returning to the scene of the crime. Strachan drags his tribe back through the “bloody heirloom” of slavery and segregation. He inadvertently calls attention once again that evangelicalism as a political force in the 1970s, as Randall Balmer reminds us, was not founded on opposition to abortion, but in defense of segregation. Still, here’s Strachan willing to be damned by the evidence while offering arguments against wokeness. Strachan’s analysis smiles back at us like those Christian folk gathered for a lynching in the 1920s, with the choir singing in the background, “Shall we gather at the river?”
Strachan’s defense of the “unwoke” leaves him as defeated as William Jennings Bryan leaving the courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee to join the ranks of the dead. For evangelicals life is déjá vu every day.
Actually, Owen Strachan has written an attack on the social gospel and liberal Christianity by disguising it as an assault on wokeness. Like Ken Ham trying to correct the “mistakes” of Williams Jennings Bryan, Strachan calls his people to stop being losers, rise, and defeat liberalism. The mood is that of, to borrow from Barbara Biesecker, a melancholia that fills the evangelical world, a deep-seated woundedness that parallels their feelings that white people are now the oppressed.
Strachan is the apostle of the “unwoke” – the living dead of American Christianity. Taking his cue from J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Strachan has given us Christianity and Wokeness. As this book makes clear, evangelicals are still having nightmares that the social gospel will overtake their churches. The illusion that, if only liberals would give up evolution and justice, all would once again be right with the world is absurd. It is absurd that people treat matters of fact as if they were matters of opinion …. and yet they do, more than they used to. It’s absurd that we are walking into the mass suicide of an anti-science movement that has preachers railing against mask mandates and debunking the science of climate change, yet, largely, we are. And now along comes Owen Strachan railing against “wokeness” and swearing on a stack of inerrant Bibles that he and his white tribe are not racists.
Strachan attempts to be heard above the voices rising from the graveyard of the oppressed – a cemetery that goes back into the primordial mists of human history. Those millions cry out now at this pitiful attempt to offer a defense for white people, along with a list of platitudes as reparation for all the demeaning, destroying, exterminating done in the name of the evangelical God.3 Strachan speaks into the deafening roar of the oppressed, a roar the tradents of Exodus label “groaning,” but his whimpering barely registers. Defending white Christians as if they are now the oppressed is absurd.
Strachan builds a beautiful house in a gated community against wokeness. The beauty of his house masks the questionable nature of his foundation – what rhetorical scholars call the argumentative framework. I will orient his attack on the wokeness movement in the framework of rhetorical theory and demonstrate that he is a wild-eyed populist every much as the calamity howlers of the Kansas plains. I argue that Strachan attempts to rebuild the house of fundamentalism from its ruined estate. He fails to see that this is a house built on sand, a house unable to withstand the winds and the floods of a culture that Is more “woke” than he can admit.
The Foundation: Evangelical Populism
Strachan’s argumentative foundation is evangelical populism. His statements are little more than stock phrases, rhetorical topoi with little meaning or consequence. Strachan produces the evangelical version of a crowd of angry, resentful, white people denying they are racists.4 Strachan, like the proud lion of an earlier evangelical populist movement, William Jennings Bryan, represents this aggrieved tribe as champion. He even sounds the charge to battle in his introduction: “To the ramparts; to the law and the testimonies.” Armed only with an inerrant Bible and a smattering of scholarship about wokeness, his efforts are as bumbling as those of Bryan attempting to ward off the attack of Clarence Darrow.
Michael J. Lee, in “The Populist Chameleon,” suggests that populism depends upon four primary tropes that make up the populist argumentative frame: The people, the enemy, the system, and the apocalyptic.5 Utilizing Lee’s argumentative framework, we see that Strachan’s work stands on these four pillars of populism.
The first trope of populism is the constitution of the people as the heroic defenders of “traditional” values. Strachan makes clear that he considers himself and his clan a virtuous people. He insists on repeating the charge that liberalism isn’t even Christian. He says that wokeness “saves it strongest firepower not for extraordinary offenders, but for ordinary men and women who live quiet, normal American lives” (11). The “people” are rendered as ordinary, simple, honest, hard-working, God-fearing, and patriotic Americans. Hence, populism is a “language of inheritance” that “grows from a sense of aggrieved ‘peoplehood.'”6
The fallacy in Strachan’s “people” trope is that the very construction of “the people” smacks of racism. “The people” that he constructs are “good, white Americans.” They are epitomized by the fictional white housewife who Strachan attempts to use to ward off all the charges of racism. Strachan speaks with awe of this woman: “The well-meaning ‘white’ housewife in my current state of Missouri who goes about her daily business, tries to be a good neighbor, and lives a quiet existence is not fundamentally considered a decent citizen by virtue of God’s common grace.” Instead, he claims, the wokeness movement smears her as a racist. Strachan ignores that the very epistemic ground upon which the House of Evangelical Denial of Racism is built has been structured by a kind of racism that is about collective commitments to the maintenance of white supremacy and the perpetuation of what Chela Sandoval calls the “apartheid of theoretical domains.” The first pillar falls and the house teeters on collapse.
The enemy is wokeness, but Strachan can’t resist throwing in Critical Race Theory, the social gospel, liberalism, socialism, and Marxism. Evangelicals see more enemies in our midst than first-century religious folk finding demons in every bush, tree, river, and unusual person. Here an enemy, there an enemy, everywhere an enemy, and if no enemy is to be found, evangelicals have their own enemy-producing factories. This is pure populism boosted by “Strachan’s” theological steroids.
Strachan’s opening gambit in Christianity and Wokeness names a business consultant, Ashleigh Shackleford, as the primary enemy, and accuses her of producing the entire weight of “wokeness” in a seminar at Coca Cola. She says, among other things, that all white people are racists. Strachan produces this outrageous story, blows it all out of proportion, and makes it the universal example of all people embracing wokeness. Ms. Shackleford is not a theologian, philosopher, historian, or scholar of race. Her online persona presents her as “a Black fat cultural producer, multidisciplinary artist, nonbinary shapeshifter, and data futurist based in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Yet in Strachan’s view Shackleford “laid out the core program of the system [he calls] ‘wokeness.’” Strachan denounces “wokeness” in vivid terms: “Wokeness is a major threat to the Christian faith.” “Wokeness is not Christianity at all.” Ms. Shackleford ain’t the devil, she’s a black woman trying to make a living off white folk’s guilt. If this were the World Wrestling Federation, we would have the wide-eyed innocent white housewife from Missouri facing the wild-eyed, fanatical black consultant from Atlanta in a battle to the death.
Nothing is more irritating than Strachan’s use of this annoying evangelical habit. They search endlessly, as if they were seeking the pearl of great value, for outrageous stories. They then fake an out-sized outrage at the outrageous story and spread it around the evangelical universe with amazing speed. A single example undergoes baptism to become the universal experience. In Strachan’s words, “This video went viral.” Millions of evangelicals hear television preachers breathlessly repeat the outrageous story. Soon, these millions and millions of followers are convinced that the end is near, that the enemy is at the gates, and the people must be protected. There can be no doubt of the side Strachan has chosen. His construction of the enemy is racist. Pillar number two falls and the house of Strachan barely stands.
The third populist trope can be identified as the “system.” As defined by evangelicals, the “system” is an amalgamation that once represented the original conception of pure, biblical Christianity. The system contains the 14 fundamentals of the Christian faith. Strachan’s description of the system is an important transition stage in his narrative. Here he reveals what he believes wokeness and Critical Race Theory really threaten: the fundamental doctrines. In the foreword to Christianity and Wokeness, John MacArthur sounds the alarm: “Gospel doctrines like original sin, atonement, justification, and the glory of Christ are being eclipsed by lectures about social inequities and ethnic injustices that can never be atoned for.”
The system is Christian fundamentalism. In Strachan’s telling, the system has been contaminated by biblical criticism, a socialist reading of the Bible, liberal scholars, moral decay, and theological chicanery. Because the system has degenerated, other, more radical means are necessary to prevent the enemy’s impending victory. Protect the doctrines; forget the oppressed.
Strachan’s indictments of “wokeness” rely upon the recitation of an array of biblical texts that are open to a variety of meanings, but Strachan confidently places them into the straitjacket of biblical literalism – the system’s holy book. Even while claiming to only be holding a Bible in his hand, Strachan and his tribe also hold whips, chains, instruments of torture, and ropes. Strange company for the Bible, don’t you think? When the system falls as the product of systemic racism, the house of Strachan is doomed.
The final trope of populism is the apocalyptic. Despite his denial of being apocalyptic, Strachan’s apocalyptic tropes are ever-present features of his work. He bemoans the victory of liberalism and insists that current evangelicals must be more confrontational and diligent in defeating the “powers and the principalities.” Here is the scorched earth explosion of the fearful apocalyptic trope. Strachan exemplifies the type of white man so eloquently exposed in Casey Ryan Kelly’s Apocalypse Man: The Death Drive and the Rhetoric of White Masculine Victimhood. Strachan, Strachan views the resolution to wokeness as only possible through the destruction of a liberal Christianity and a feminized society. Strachan exhibits melancholia for better days when “fundamentalist Christians” allegedly but never actually ruled the Christian world. Strachan tries to put the world right again by disinterring the bones of the mostly discredited theology of fundamentalism. Strachan’s work is, at the end, a melancholic grieving for a lost world that never existed.
For example, Strachan’s attack on wokeness comes right out of the Ken Ham playbook of attacking evolution as the primordial enemy. Ham, of course, is prominently mentioned in Christianity and Wokeness. This is the Creation Museum salesman who thinks “evolution” is the cause of every disaster in history. Ham even claims that evolution caused racism; Strachan incredulously agrees. Some of the parallel expressions deserve attention. Evolution is a godless concept; so is wokeness. Evolution is just a theory; wokeness is a theory and it is rooted in socialism.
The apocalyptic trope reveals the primary weakness of Strachan’s argument. It’s too fearful, too dualistic, and too exaggerated. His work sounds like a five-alarm fire. The words “danger” (18 times), “threats” (14 times), and “afraid”/“fear” (18 times) pepper the book. According to Strachan and his endorsing pastors, we can forget climate change, nuclear war, poverty, and starvation, because wokeness is the greatest danger in history.
Like Strachan, evangelicals critiquing wokeness are logrollers attempting to stay upright on a log free-floating in a body of water. They slip, they slide, they elide, and they fall into the muddy water. The house built on sand falls.
Concluding Rhetorical Observations
Strachan has a simplistic explanation of how he himself is not a racist. He argues he is not racist because he has “friends of different skin colors and different backgrounds,” and “loves different cultural products from other communities.” Then there’s the ordinary, knee-jerk white response: “I’m not a racist; I have black friends.” And his claims to like “soul” food and the agility of black basketball players would be laughable if he wasn’t so serious.
Strachan dances around the racial pole but he is awkward, condescending, and would never survive the first cut on “Dancing with the Stars”. While he bends every effort to absolve his tribe of the “evangelical’s rac(e/ist) problem, he fails. For example, he attacks the high fees Coates receives for speaking engagements. This has nothing to do with the arguments of Coates. In fact, Christianity and Wokeness can be read as one long ad homimen argument.
Most damaging, Strachan attempts to appear non-racist by embracing ideas that belong to wokeness while claiming that these ideas really belong to traditional Christianity: “I’m not saying I am woke, I’m just saying that there’s some good stuff the wokeness movement has stolen from Christian teaching.” Strachan uses paralipsis to say two things at once – denying while at the same time affirming. Strachan confesses that he wants “societal harmony across backgrounds and skin colors and peace in ethnic tension.” He admits that there have been “massive failings in American and Western history, namely long and sustained patterns of racist thought and practice. He is “troubled by Christians’ complicity with racism in the past.” Strachan even enjoys global culture!
In all of this, Strachan sounds like a man whose racist rehab program went all wrong.
Only a literalist could conclude that a metaphor like wokeness is the greatest threat to human existence. Absurd may be the only word worth repeating. I am left with words from Matthew’s Gospel: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
1 “I see right through your work. You have a reputation for vigor and zest, but you’re dead, stone-dead.” (The Message).
2 Barbara Biesecker, “No time for mourning: The rhetorical production of the melancholic citizen-subject in the war on terror.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40, no. 1 (2007): 147-169.
3 There have been more people killed by oppression than the number of people Ken Ham claims died in the flood.
4 Donovan Schaefer puts it clearly: “Bodies that once felt like the unchallenged masters of their space—white bodies, male bodies, cis bodies, straight bodies, rich bodies, citizen bodies—are being confronted, more and more, with a demand to respond to the violence trailing in the wake of the comforts and pleasures they enjoy.”
5 Michael J. Lee, “The Populist Chameleon: The People’s Party, Huey Long, George Wallace, and the Populist Argumentative Frame”. Quarterly Journal of Speech Volume 92, 2006: Pages 355-378.
6 Harry Boyte, “The Making of a Democratic Populist: A Profile,” in The New Populism: The Politics of Empowerment, ed. H. Boyte and F. Riessman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986, 8.