I am not the first person to draw the conclusion that identity politics functions as a form of religious orthodoxy, but it is something I have been noticing more and more in progressive evangelical circles. I believe this is a serious problem because, while identity politics on its surface appears to be highly compatible with Christian values such as compassion and mercy, underneath it is nothing but resentment and scapegoating of people regardless of their individual guilt. All one has to do is read some of the work that this ideology’s evangelical adherents write to see that they have simply been enslaved by the legalism, guilt, and shame of evangelical fundamentalism, but in the clothes of being “woke.”
Yesterday, I came across an article published on Missio Alliance, a Christian writing collective I have published with. In their earlier years, I really appreciated their emphasis on mission and their broad, evangelical convictions; they really felt like my tribe. However, over the last couple years, I have noticed that the material coming out from them has become increasingly dominated by identity politics. I have submitted some of my own theological critiques of it such as this article, which I wrote in response to a piece critiquing “white privilege.” Sadly, it seems that the religion of identity politics continues to hold sway, and I’ve been finding much of what comes out to be both misguided and uninteresting.
Yesterday’s article, “What the Collision Between Covington Catholic School Boys and Nathan Phillips Reveals About White Supremacy,” was, once again, a predictable exercise in sharing the gospel of being “woke.” For some reason, I read it, and as I thought about it yesterday, I was struck by how much this ideology is truly a legalistic religious message dressed up as gospel. I encourage you to read the whole article to get the full picture of what the author is saying, but I want to draw some attention to the specifically religious elements of this way of thinking.
The author of this article, gives her version of the now notoriously mis-reported conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nathan Philips. It is clear that the schoolboys, who are white and male and wearing MAGA hats (itself, undoubtedly a stupid choice for them) are the bad guys due to their race and sex. The Black Hebrew Israelites and Nathan Phillips, in her narrative, are likewise due to their race, the sympathetic characters.
Throughout the article, she clearly reveals this bais. For example, she describes the Black Hebrew Israelites as “a religious sect that rejects a European Christianity that does not affirm their black identity or connection to Old Testament Israel,” as opposed to a radical, potentially violent fringe group that has raised the eyebrows of the Southern Poverty Law Center, hardly an organization committed to white supremacy. According to her, when they saw the Covington boys in their MAGA hats, this is what happened: “To many people of color, the MAGA message affirms a gospel of white supremacy and an allegiance to an oppressive empire. The Black Hebrew Israelites verbalized this understanding to their historical oppressors.” By “verbalizing this understanding,” she apparently means calling the boys names like “faggots,” “incest kids,” and harrassing one of their black classmates.
Nathan Philips then comes in, drumming, because he “perceives a threat.” She informs us, “his actions communicated that white people are a “perceived threat” to many people of color.” She then recalls a trip she took to the site of a terrible massacre of Native Americans in the 1800s and how it became occasion to highlight the inherent problems of white males. She then concludes with a list of things white males can do to atone for the sins of the past and find redemption, because, “white men do not get to shortcut their way to justice or reconciliation.”
Her path to redemption is the following:
- Repenting of the lie of white supremacy and the idolatry of the American empire in all of its forms.
- Listening to the voices and stories of people of color when they tell the truth with their words, bodies, acts of protest, and worship.
- Submitting to the leadership of people of color, and supporting organizations that are led by people of color.
- Purchasing the books and resources provided by people of color who are committed this work.
- As part of their spiritual formation and God’s redemptive work in them, white men must be willing to sacrifice, to lose something, to count the cost of their discipleship.
The Gospel of Being Woke
This is a pretty typical piece to come out of the corners of evangelicalism that are allying themselves with identity politics and the broader progressive social justice movement. Like most ideologies, it contains certain amounts of truth. Of course, history is full of horrible examples of bigotry, racism, and violence. So is the present. Yes, men who are from white countries have committed many of those atrocities. Yes, and most importantly, being a disciple of Jesus involves humbling ourselves and submitting to one another out of love (though it seems this article requires it out of guilt).
Yet, at the same time, show me any culture or ethnic group of people who do not have blood on their hands. Show many any system or culture that does not, in some way, unintentionally or not, privilege some people over others. Women have also done their fair share of oppressing others.
I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that western culture, while far from perfect, is the most egalitarian culture that has ever existed. We have a long way to go, but at least by aiming at equal treatment and opportunity for all, we have come a long way. Yet, when you read this sort of material, you get the impression that we are the most oppressive culture that has ever existed.
I’m not saying that there are not problems with the way things are, or that racism is not a problem. What I am saying, is that the way of identity politics does more harm than good because it functions in the same way as the most fanatical religion. It’s not even a Christian religion because it seeks again to divide (by race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) what Christ has abolished. Furthermore, it scapegoats as especially sinful certain groups of people based on those things. The only way out of guilt is by following a carefully lined out path of redemption, by which you might at least hope to gain partial atonement for your sins.
The Christian gospel says all people are guilty of sin. No race or gender has the market on being wicked or righteous. All are in need of grace which has come to us in the life and resurrection of Jesus. In response to grace, we are transformed and taught to forgive and to see all people everywhere as deeply loved by God who gave his son for them.
This is the gospel of identity politics:
- Original sin lies in one’s race, gender, sexuality, and some are more guilty than others.
- Western culture is especially oppressive because it was founded to benefit white, straight, Christian males.
- The sinfulness of “whiteness” and “maleness”/patriarchy is so ingrained in us that it is unconscious, but fear not, we have a path of redemption.
- Acknowledge your guilt and complicity in the system, whether or not any of your ancestors actually committed any crimes, much less yourself.
- Once you are born again (“woke”), live in a perpetual state of shame for your complicity in the oppressive system. Vigilantly police your thoughts and your speech, or you will be cast out and beyond redemption.
Progressive evangelicals are in serious danger of letting this form of legalism derail us from the gospel. Just as fundamentalism operates on constantly changing rules, neurotically policing one’s thoughts/ideas, and imposes guilt and shame on certain people whose sins are worse than others, identity politics does the exact same thing! It does not offer forgiveness or the grace of Jesus in any meaningful sense. It simply teaches people to cover up their own sins and come down especially hard on those of others.