Several days ago I wrote a piece calling on “Evangelical Christians” to repent of their support for Donald Trump.
That piece included a paragraph suggesting that evangelicals aren’t the only Christians who need to think carefully and critically about their political alliances.
While it would have distracted from my main point in that piece to elaborate on that further there, I want to return to it now and walk, as it were, the other side of the street.
Progressive Christians ought to be careful, in my judgment, about a wholesale embrace of seeing everything through the lens of group identification based on race, gender, or sexual orientation a.k.a. “identity politics.” While the intentions of this way of seeing the world may be good, it is deeply flawed. Why? Because of the insistence that group identity is paramount. What group you belong to, not your own behavior or character, are determinative.
A recent piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine offers a bracing analysis of the problem, particularly as it takes form on today’s college campuses.
“If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.
“And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of ‘hate’.” (italics added)
Sullivan, who happens to be gay, echoes a crucial theme that David Brooks recently cited from an essay by the German novelist Thomas Mann. Mann wrote during the 1930’s of democracy. “Democracy begins with one great truth: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible.”
Sullivan: “The goal of our culture now is not the emancipation of the individual from the group, but the permanent definition of the individual by the group. We used to call this bigotry. Now we call it being woke.”
That may be overstated. We are members of groups, influenced by race, class, gender. And we are individuals who exceed and mystify the reductive definitions of group identity. A both/and, rather than an either/ or.
Not only is “the infinite dignity of individual men and women” at risk, so too is any idea of objective truth (and the greatest trasher of objective truth is Donald “it’s false news” Trump). More from Sullivan:
“Objective truth? Ha! The culture is now saturated with the concept of ‘your own truth’ — based usually on your experience of race and gender. In the culture, it is now highly controversial for individuals in one racial/gender group to write about or portray anyone outside it — because there is no art that isn’t rooted in identity. Movies are constantly pummeled by critics not for being bad movies but for being ‘problematic’ on social justice. Books are censored in advance by sensitivity readers to conform with ‘social justice’ protocols.”
The United Church of Christ, especially at the national setting, has thoroughly embraced identity politics/ group identity frameworks. I feel torn about that. Both church and our society must face historic and contemporary racism and sexism and act against them. But taking the further philosophical step of making group identity paramount, construing everything through this lens, and so eclipsing the “infinite dignity” of individual men and women is a bridge too far.
Addendum: one of the nice things about a blog is that I can add updates. So here’s one on the infatuation with being offended sent by a friend in response to my piece above.