I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements touting some product as “natural,” “sustainable,” or “eco-friendly” when in fact the product is anything but. Car companies, fossil fuel companies, big box retailers like Walmart, bottled water or soda manufacturers, and other industries use such concepts to paint themselves in a positive light. While the use of the rhetoric of sustainability and environment suggests that these concepts are valuable, and while movements in a pro-environmental direction are encouraging, ultimately they are mere marketing tools that obscure and pervert reality.
The term for this is greenwashing. Recently I’ve been thinking about faithwashing, greenwashing’s religious parallel.
The concept of religious whitewashing (and its condemnation) goes back at least to the Biblical prophetic tradition, for example Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
The reason I’ve been thinking about faithwashing is the recent Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision. The facts of the case are difficult and complicated, both legally and religiously. I think that the Court was right to affirm religious freedom and apply the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as it did. (If you’re interested in some helpful political commentary from a Christian perspective, I recommend the Center for Public Justice. It’s put out some helpful overviews of the case regarding public justice and principled pluralism, underlying ethical conflicts, implications for women, the nature of economic institutions, institutional religious freedom, and the myth—or lie—of corporate personhood.)
On one hand, as a citizen, I believe the government, which in reality is not religiously neutral, shouldn’t force or pressure any person or entity to violate its religious beliefs or conscience. That violates the aspect of sphere sovereignty known as the separation of church and state. People must have the “right to be wrong.”
On the other hand, I believe that Hobby Lobby’s owners are indeed wrong in this case. They are wrong in their beliefs about contraception, for one. But I also have trouble with their use of faithwashing, using the rhetoric of faith in order to sell something in such a way that obscures reality.
Let me put forward two Calvin-related examples of faithwashing. I know someone who, as an engineering major at Calvin, did an internship at with a Christian defense contractor, that is, a weapons manufacturer, called Borisch. The company had a Bible verse in its logo and took employees on annual service trips. (The Jesus fish does look kind of like it could be a bomb or a torpedo.)
The mission statement of Wolverine Oil and Gas Corporation, the CEO of which was involved with the renovation of Covenant Fine Arts Center, begins “Wolverine will find and produce natural gas and oil efficiently so that God is honored…” The CEO cites Deuteronomy 8:18 as a guiding verse: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”
Christian colleges like Calvin or Wheaton also engage in faithwashing in order to sell images of themselves as Christian. Of course, this makes sense—they’re Christian institutions— but it runs the risk of commodifying concepts (such as covenant) that aren’t or shouldn’t be salable or utilitarian.
Nothing is inherently wrong with craft supplies, oil and gas, and even weapons. But many people do have serious ethical problems, on Christian grounds, with the military-industrial complex, the promotion of fossil fuels when climate change is a dire and urgent reality, and consumerism, the proliferation of plastic stuff.
But my point isn’t really about these individual institutions. Hobby Lobby’s practices, described on its website, of closing on Sunday, paying and treating employees well (“sharing the Lord’s blessings with our employees”), and carrying no long-term debt do indeed reflect Christian principles. And likewise I’m eager to give Borisch and Wolverine the benefit of the doubt and affirm their Christian practices (despite “Energy Exploration in Partnership with the Environment” and “find and produce natural gas and oil efficiently so that … our environment is enhanced” being classic greenwashing). These companies’ actions could be far more morally dubious.
Still, I find it jarring that these two sentences follow one another on Hobby Lobby’s website:
“We believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.”
“Hobby Lobby is THE place to shop with everyday Super Selections and Super Savings!”
While greenwashing is usually deliberate, faithwashing may be utterly sincere. But just because a Christian belief is sincere doesn’t make it right. For example, Christians who owned slaves in good conscience (whether in the Ephesians 6:9 sense or the antebellum American sense) were no less Christian for doing that. But that doesn’t mean that they were reflecting Christianity well or that there wasn’t something horribly wrong with their consciences. The same might be said of contemporary Christians who profit from legal yet exploitative and destructive economic practices.
I don’t doubt that God can bless covenant people despite and even through their participation in evil and unjust systems, but this doesn’t change the fact these people are participating in and profiting from evil and unjust systems. If we recognize that religious liberty applies to for-profit corporations, then we should also recognize that total depravity most certainly does as well. Faithwashing obscures these realities.
Faithwashing gives the veneer of purity from involvement in objectionable practices (including, for Hobby Lobby, paying for contraception in insurance plans), but systemic involvement in evil is unavoidable even for those who believe they have been cleansed by Christ to the core.
The rhetoric of faithwashing cheapens faith by reducing faith to rhetoric. I use the economic metaphor intentionally.
For example, faithwashing makes people cynical about claims of faith. Christian leaders can talk Christian-ese out of every side of their mouths yet dishonor Christ with the rhetoric of their actions. Multiple friends have cited such hypocrisy as an aspect of their rejecting Christian faith. I understand how hard it is to accept American Christianity when the fruit it bears is far more American than Christian.
Faithwashing has the tendency to use pious invocations to baptize unjust economic systems (such as capitalism, as Pope Francis has eloquently described) that are counter to Christianity. This baptism comes without the promise of transformation. Faithwashing distracts people from the systemic moral implications of their economic decisions, which should also honor God and God’s creation in their own right. In a greenwashing analogy, Coca-Cola’s widely-advertised recycling initiatives obscure the fact that their disposable beverage containers cause significant environmental degradation. Recycling won’t actually fix this problem, but actually fixing the problem would undermine Coca-Cola’s business. But the message of “recycle instead of trashing or littering” shifts responsibility (in this case to the consumer) away from where the problem really lies.
I also think that faithwashing confuses the spheres of business and faith. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that one’s faith should inform every aspect of life and that God is sovereign over every sphere. But business institutions aren’t institutions of faith in the same way that churches are. In an era when people derive meaning and identity through brand loyalty, Christianity should not be treated like a brand. Churches should not be treated like corporations.
Faithwashing runs the risk of breaking the third commandment against using God’s name in vain. Those of us bound by a covenant that gives us the great privilege of addressing God by name shouldn’t abuse that, even if bearing the name “Christian” necessarily means that we’ll be guilty of hypocrisy. (I know that in my own failures I am as guilty as anyone.)
Finally, lest Deuteronomy 8:18 be used to promote a health-and-wealth faithwash, it would behoove us to remember the verses that follow it:
If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed, inasmuch as you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”