Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Unicorn Appears: Racism, Progressive Christianity and the Media

A great discovery has occurred.  Not since the New York Times was dumbfounded by noticing that Brooklyn had reappeared after hiding in plain sight has the mainstream American media been this
Back in '92, NYT discovered "grunge."
astounded by noticing something which has surrounded them for decades.  After the Democratic National Convention last week, the following facts which have existed for decades if not centuries have been noticed by media outlets:

Hey, African American Christians tend to support the Democratic Party.
Hey, there are progressive Christians.

This has revealed a yawning gap in the mainstream media's coverage and understanding of religion in America.  The term "Christian" is all too often been synonymous with "evangelical", which actually is a term that in reality defines "a politically conservative person who goes to church maybe once a month."  This overidentification of "christian" with "evangelical" and the fact the term "evangelical" doesn't really mean anything as commonly used helps explain the utter incomprehension of why people can't seem to fathom why "evangelicals" voted overwhelmingly for Trump than, say, candidates like Rubio or Cruz.  Because we have an unthinking, uncritical definition of what an "evangelical" is.  The reason Trump carries these voters is because the term "evangelical" actually defines a constituency which barely goes to church, self-identifies as an evangelical, and is really a political and not religious label. Russell Moore, the Director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, certainly no liberal himself, even announced he was going to stop calling himself an "evangelical" because “The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Now, to be sure:  yes, there are lots of people out there who identify as evangelical, are deeply immersed in the theological components of evangelical Christianity, and who are politically and socially conservative.  And yes, there are people who identify as evangelical who are pretty much doing the equivalent of faith money-laundering for Donald Trump.  Dozens of religious leaders have sacrificed their own integrity to vouch for a man who has no discernible connection or understanding of the Christian message, solely because doing so gets them closer to the levers of power.

No arguments to any of these and other concerns, my main concern here is the oversimplified approach to "evangelical" and unsophisticated grasp of the American religious landscape, with attention only really given once every four years during a presidential election cycle.  What the media and broader culture simply have to understand, because failure to do so clouds the ability to perceive the actual dynamics at play, is that

a)  not even all conservative theological persons fit the stereotype of "evangelical" that is peddled and accepted as definitive.  Real evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist Convention, have staunchly supported immigration and support for refugees.

b)  there are ALL SORTS OF OTHER CHRISTIANS OUT THERE.  The Roman Catholic Church alone has huge numbers of conservatives and liberals, as well as a substantial charismatic movement which has links to Pentecostalism.  Look, Crusty knows he has a PhD in this subject and doesn't expect everybody to know every nuance or detail.  That's fine.  But just do a little f****g research.  Much of religious coverage, to Crusty, is the equivalent of having someone writing for the science and technology beat marvel about how incredible it is the world is round and the internet is a series of tubes -- a series of obvious, ill-informed, over-simplistic caricatures.

So, now on to the unicorns the media have breathlessly discovered in their hyperventilating wanderings around the Wells Fargo Center this past week:

At Vox: "The Democratic convention's most surprising argument: Christianity is a liberal religion", which somehow stated that "Just think...of how Christian [emphasis in original] it’s been, and how the convention tried to argue for Christianity as fundamentally liberal. Yes, there’s always been a Christian left, largely dominated by Jesuits and the black church. But the Christian left has been positively anemic in influence since the end of the civil rights era."

This is so utterly mindbogglingly oversimplistic it's hard to fathom. "largely dominated by Jesuits and the black church"? Maybe you could have done more than just name the first two Christian
organizations you could think of.  Seriously, just because you read that Kaine had been a Jesuit missionary, and saw some African American Christians, you leap to saying progressive Christianity has been dominated by Jesuits and the black church?What about groups like Sojourners or Evangelicals for Social Action? What about faith based organizations coming together around climate change? What about progressive women's religious orders, everyone from Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty activism to Nuns on the Bus? But that would take, like, research and not just walking around the Convention floor.  Positively anemic? What about the religious left groups that been at the forefront of marriage equality and LGBT rights?  that helped rebuild black churches after they had been burned during arson attacks in the 19090s?  Hey, here's a married Episcopal priest and her wife who is part of the group challenging Mississippi's religious freedom bill.  "Anemic"?  Sure, while dynamics have changed, spend a little time with Google.

In Slate, "Bright Shining as the Sun: Infused with the spirit of the black church, the Democrats became the party of optimism."  Jamelle Bouie came a little closer by noting how "What is remarkable is the extent to which this kind of patriotism—and much of the mood surrounding the convention—is rooted in black traditions of political and religious rhetoric. In ways small and large, the lifeblood of the Democratic National Convention was the black church."  This is true, absolutely, but also leaves out the central place faith has played, and continues to play, in the lives of Hispanic/Latino and white Democrats.  To name two of the top of my head...hmmm...let's say HILLARY CLINTON who
Remember, in 1980 "evangelicals" preferred a divorced guy who was never really a member of a Christian church and whose wife was more into astrology than Christianity than this guy who regularly testified to his faith, taught Sunday school every week, has been married to the same woman for more than 70 years.
has been shaped by her Methodist upbringing.  Or perhaps one of the most powerful models of what it means to be a progressive Christian, JIMMY CARTER  who was PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, won the Nobel Prize, has done more for the world than any ex-president, and even beat cancer's ass.  Seriously, I think he's going to live to be a 120.

While Bouie is on target to note the influence of traditions of the African American church on the Convention, it's also important to note that Conventions themselves, as a whole, are inheritors of aspects of American Christianity.  There's important historical work done that argues that political Conventions are the descendants of the camp meetings and religious revivals of the 19th century -- here's a decent distillation here.  Mass spectacles, with series of speakers, designed to evoke social action.  Kind of like birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, Bare Naked Ladies are descended from They Might Be Giants, and Coldplay are descended from U2, Conventions as a whole are descended from camp meetings and tent revivals.  So in addition to the influence of the African American church, there is the important context of how American religion has shaped many institutions.

In the National Catholic Reporter (admittedly by far the best of the lot of these articles):  "The divided soul of the Democratic Party," noted that "To judge by public perceptions, and more than a few pundits, the Democratic Party is the default home of secularists and atheists, with practicing
Popularized in the 80s, the movie slow clap is descended from Charles Foster Kane.
believers shunted to a side room only to be trotted out when a political event needs a gloss of godliness. But walking around the Democratic National Convention taking place here this week and talking to delegates and activists reveals a much different picture, with people of faith -- almost every faith -- eager to testify to their beliefs and how they in fact bolster their political choice for a party some view as inimical to religion."  Way to go, NCR:  you are honored with a Crusty 80s slow clap for your awesomeness.

OK, so we've noticed the special snowflakes that are progressive Christians.  While Crusty's glad that this kind of light is being shone on the role of progressive Christianity, there's also a couple of things which also need to be called out:

One of the first is to call out the inherent racism and privilege in "suddenly" noticing things that have always been there. The New York Times ignored Brooklyn when it was predominantly poor and people of color and only noticed when white people started moving there.  Does it really take going to a political Convention to notice black Christians?  Is this like the trope popularized by the movie "The Help," that people of color don't exist until white people notice them?

Another is the anti-Christian myopia of the secularized left.  Crusty, frankly, is tired of the knee jerk ignorance and prejudice from lots of folks on the secular left who simply assume all Christians are hateful, bigoted, stupid, homophobes.  Here's just a few examples:

--Someone once asked me how I could possibly be a Christian given all of the injustice done in the name of Christianity.  This person was(is) a huge soul music fan.  I replied, "How do you listen to the music of James Brown, given that he was repeatedly arrested for domestic violence?"  The person then went on an extended discourse about separating the music from the person involved.  I said, "Yet you don't offer me the same right to separate myself and my actions from those of others."

--Ok, here's another example.   Circulating around Facebook this past week, at least in Crusty's feed, was a photo of the Obama family, stating that they were scandal free, the kids never got caught doing anything wrong, and "MOST WHITE CHRISTIANS HATE THEM BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE." Can't find it in my Facebook feed, Crusty points to anyone who can dig it up.

Crusty's first reaction was, "The glib and incorrect identification of 'most white Christians' as racist is not quite as offensive and ignorant as the racism this calls out, but undermines the point."  This should have been recaptioned, "Let me show my own ignorance while calling out that of others."

--Here's an example Crusty used in an old blog post on Ken Burns' Prohibition documentary:

COD admits having a larger bone to pick. COD has problems with people reading back the disgust and disagreements many have with the religious right in this country at this time into their view of religion at all times and in all places.

COD was outraged in a similar vein many years ago when he saw Spielberg's film "Amistad," which tells the story of Africans who were captured and for the slave trade, who overtook their slave ship, and landed off the shore of Connecticut, sparking a legal battle for their freedom. What shocked COD was the simplistic way Spielberg presented religious abolitionists. There is an appearance in the film of some abolitionists, whose response to the situation of the Amistad captives is to kneel and pray for the slaves outside their prison. This was such a ludicrously inaccurate portrayal that COD burst out laughing in the theater, prompting several folks who were being properly indignant in their reaction of those religious folks on screen briefly to take a break from their indignation and glare at him.

The fact is that abolitionists were actively involved involved in the plight of the Amistad captives. Members of Christian churches were intimately connected with the legal battle for the kidnapped Africans, including raising money for their legal defense. Attorneys who were members of New Haven churches offered their services gratis. Reducing Christian abolitionists to pious do-gooders who do nothing except praying for the slaves was simultaneously insulting and ignorant of historical fact. It does, however, play on the general impression in the culture that religious persons are hypocritical and sanctimonious, whose only response is prayer when action was needed.

True today as when Crusty wrote it four years ago.

--There's the privilege and racism inherent in this ignorance of Christianity.  At a party one time, someone asked me what I did, and I replied "I'm an ordained minister."  Crusty then got a speech on all the evils of Christianity.  The (white) person then said, "The only church I could see myself going to is an African American church, given their commitment to justice and equality."  "Oh really?" Crusty replied. "Are there any you have in mind?"  The person then named a church just down the block. "Oh," Crusty said, "I'm not sure how happy you'd be there.  Their minister brought a resolution to the local ministers' association asking us to condemn homosexuality, and, when we declined to approve it, he walked out and said he'd never come back.  That particular denomination also doesn't permit women to serve in the ministry."  This person, from their place of privilege, revealed their own ignorance and racism.  That had their own assumption of what the "black" church was, untroubled by any actual interaction with the diversity of the black church tradition.  The problem for the secularized left is believing that having African American Christians at their Convention makes them hip to Christianity just like voting for Obama finally gave them the black friend they don't have.

The kind of broad generalizations evoked by the secularized left with regards to Christianity, would, simply, be considered unacceptable when applied to almost any other group.  Picture your reaction to these kind of over-generalizations with regards to Muslims, or Jews.  Or African Americans.  Or "Most women..."

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Crusty says this is a lifelong and proud member of the progressive left, both politically and religiously: he was registered in the Green Party for a while and did his first same sex blessing in 1995.  This frustration comes from someone inside the tent, not outside.  And in calling this out, it is in not meant to equivocate with or excuse the excesses of the religious right, including preposterous "religious freedom" laws intended to enshrine discrimination and efforts to force a particular set of beliefs on a culture.

Get back to your summer, people. Crusty's back to swinging on the flippity-flop.

1 comment:

  1. Nice tip on political conventions and revival meetings.

    ReplyDelete