Race, Identity Politics, And Evangelicalism
I was really struck by this comment from a reader this morning. He said he left his conservative Evangelical church when it embraced identity politics, and held a seminar about “white privilege.” He adds:
“Racial politics will be to conservative churches what sexual politics was to liberal ones.”
By “conservative churches,” he surely means “conservative Evangelical churches.” It’s not that racial conflict is not, or could not, be an issue in Catholic and Orthodox churches, but rather their ecclesiology prevents the racial fault line from emerging like it would in Evangelical churches.
As readers know, I am not well informed about the culture inside American Evangelicalism, so I would like to know what you Evangelical readers have to say about this. I have read that the number of white Evangelicals who have embraced Trump has caused racial animosity in some churches and communities. I’m not disputing that this is real. What I’m asking is if racial conflict will divide conservative churches as the homosexual issue has divided predominantly liberal ones over the past generation. If you answer, please be specific. I would like to learn more about this.
I have only one story to tell. After my Dante book came out in 2015, I spoke on it at a Christian study center, where I had standing room only crowds. These were overwhelmingly white Evangelical college students. I talked to a group of them afterward about my Benedict Option idea, and made plans to return to interview them for that book.
Before I could get back there, I wrote (in January 2016) critically of Michelle Higgins, a Black Lives Matter activist, who spoke at the annual Intervarsity Christian Fellowship national gathering. I wrote that she
said that the pro-life movement is “a big spectacle.” At about the 13:30 mark in her presentation, she began denouncing pro-life Evangelicals as hypocrites:
“We could end the adoption crisis tomorrow. But we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned. We’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood,” charged Higgins. “We are too busy withholding mercy from the living so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn. Where is your mercy? What is your goal and only doing activism that is comfortable?”
Her entire talk was more or less progressive boilerplate, some of it worthwhile, some of it absurd (e.g., praising pro-Soviet radical Angela Davis as an apostle of “hope,” accusing white Evangelical churches of being racist if they don’t embrace exuberant African-American worship styles), some of it bizarre coming from a confessing Evangelical (e.g., blaming missionaries to North America for “proselytizing” Native Americans), all of it intended to convince her audience to be ashamed of themselves if they have not joined #BlackLivesMatter.
I went on to quote a Damon Linker column (which was not written about the Higgins speech, but which, I said, reminded me of Higgins’s talk):
And there you have it: the identity-politics-addled mind at work. Its first thought is always an ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological category, like “white privilege,” which it uses to size-up the world in an instant. Next comes judgment, usually quick and severe, using a single measure: relative power among the various ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological groups. And then there is the final ingredient: the moralistic edge tinged with grievance that makes the American style of identity politics so potent and distinctive, an obsessive fixation on justice understood as equality.
That commentary of mine stirred up a lot of discussion, and a response from Greg Jao of InterVarsity, which I posted here, with further remarks. My own view is that “racial reconciliation” — their word — really is important. Race, and racial hatred, has divided Christian churches in this country for far too long. It really is important to repent and reconcile. My objection — and it is a strong one — is that reconciliation cannot possibly mean “agree with and accept left-wing cultural politics, and never criticize anything black Christians say, do, or stand for.” That’s not reconciliation; that’s surrender. It is not the case that seeking racial reconciliation (as all Christians must) requires a Christian to surrender protecting the unborn, or defending religious liberties. It is not the case that racial reconciliation means accepting uncritically the claims of Black Lives Matter, which advocates for some startlingly anti-Christian things. That was my view then, and is my view now.
Well, those comments I made online about Michelle Higgins closed the door to me with that Christian study center community. Again, my understanding was that these were all fairly conservative white Evangelical college students. They were part of InterVarsity. My criticizing Higgins, Black Lives Matter, and InterVarsity’s embrace of it, made me persona non grata there. It wasn’t just that they thought I was wrong; they thought I was so bad that I was not worth speaking to. I was able to convince a couple of the guys there to give me an interview about their work, and I’m grateful for that, because they too were angry at me.
I don’t want to re-argue these events of 2016, but I do want to say that this was the first time I realized how powerfully racial identity politics were manifesting themselves among middle-class white Evangelicals of the Millennial and Zoomer generations. My previous work criticizing LGBT rights and Obergefell — I had been unambiguously clear about this for years — did not make me unwelcome among those white Evangelicals, but criticizing Black Lives Matter did. Most of the students there when I was present will have graduated by now, and I would not be surprised to learn that my orthodox Christian beliefs on homosexuality are now problematic there.
But it was race that did it. With that group of young white conservative (conservative-ish?) Evangelicals, Black Lives Matter was not an issue that Christians could agree to disagree on; it was absolute. (“Next comes judgment, usually quick and severe, using a single measure: relative power among the various ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological groups.”)
As we know, it became impossible for Mainline Protestant churches to agree to disagree over homosexuality. And I understand why not: if you believe that there is nothing morally wrong about homosexuality, Christians who adhere to traditional Biblical teaching are upholding unjust discrimination. On the other hand, if you hold to tradition, then there can be no compromise. It’s either right, or it’s wrong, and though it makes the vast middle uncomfortable, activists on both sides of the gay rights in churches argument saw things more clearly than the others: there really is no middle ground. Eventually, the orthodox were driven out of most Mainline churches, and now it looks like the Methodists are going to schism over it.
Will things go this way in Evangelicalism over race? It seems to me that the moral lines from a doctrinal Christian point of view are not remotely as clear as they were in the homosexuality debate. Every Christian believes, or should believe, that racism is wrong. As I see it, the conflict is over what constitutes racism, and what to do about it?
Is it racist not to support Black Lives Matter? Is resisting the standard progressive model of race and inequality a sign of racism? If so, well, then you cannot argue with a racist, because his bigotry is irrational. You can only separate yourself from him.
It’s a minefield. If I were Evangelical, I would hope my church was sensitive to the painful, even shameful, history of the church’s complicity with racial oppression. (Michelle Higgins speaks truthfully and winsomely of some of them here; believe me, here in south Louisiana, there are also shameful historical examples of white supremacist bigotry within Catholicism. White Christians of my generation and younger are in many cases simply ignorant of this history — and that is wrong. These things happened, and they were terrible, and they need to be acknowledged and repented of.) And I would expect us to be doing something concrete to overcome that legacy. If my pastor, or the leadership of the church, in any way preached or defended racism, I would be gone.
On the other hand, if the racial reconciliation initiatives in the church amounted to sacralizing progressive principles and rhetoric, which includes conceiving of America’s complex racial conflicts in simplistic Good vs. Evil terms, then I would leave that church. If you conservatives watch that six-minute Michelle Higgins video — that’s not the speech she gave at the IVCF meeting — you’ll find that there’s a lot you can agree with. But Higgins is also the one who praised the revolutionary communist Angela Davis as an apostle of “hope,” and who believes that to prove one’s racial bona fides, Christians have to affirm things that are problematic, to say the least. It is impossible to have a meaningful conversation about racial reconciliation if one side holds the view that to disagree with them is to prove that you are a racist.
The church is not the Republican Party at prayer, nor is it the Democratic Party at prayer — nor is it Black Lives Matter, or Turning Point USA, at prayer. A church that conceives of itself as any of these things is not a church that I trust to form me according to the values of the Gospel. The line between being politically prophetic and politicized is blurry, but if church leaders — clergy and laity alike — aren’t conscious that they ought to be looking for it, and trying not to cross it, they’re in trouble.
I can tell you from conversations I’ve had over the years with white conservatives, not just in religious circles, there is a great reticence to join these conversations, because the whites fear that these are actually just bad-faith exercises in political punishment. I am thinking right now of a specific case some years ago, in which a white conservative friend was invited to be part of a mixed-race dinner in which people around the table would be having frank discussion about racial reconciliation (this was not a church thing). He told me that he would like to go, but he wouldn’t do it because he would be too afraid to say what was on his mind. He judged that anything he said that did not conform to what the white and the black liberals at the table believed to be true would be instantly characterized as racist, and that his words would be held against him going forward. He asked me what I thought he should do. I told him that he was right — that it was too risky to participate in this kind of thing. The “correct” outcome was predetermined, and he had no way of knowing how any confession of what progressives consider to be wrongthink on his part would be used against him in the future. Identity politics and the real-world stakes for getting on the wrong side of them has driven grace out the door.
Again: in the struggle within broadly liberal churches over homosexuality, there were clear Biblical and traditional teachings to appeal to, and the disagreement over moral and theological principle was clear. Looking in from the outside, in the struggle (such as it is) within broadly conservative Evangelical churches, there is no meaningful disagreement over moral and theological principle: everybody agrees that racism is wrong. In one sense, this makes it easier, in theory, to reach a resolution. In another sense, though, it makes it harder, because everything is so subjective.
So, Evangelical readers — white, black, Latino, Asian — what do things look like from your perspective? What’s going on in your church? What do you think is going to happen? What are you going to do? Is it true that “racial politics will be to conservative churches what sexual politics was to liberal ones”? Help this outsider understand.
This is a topic fraught with emotion, so bear in mind that no matter which side you take, I’m not going to publish comments that, in my judgment, are more about heat than light.