By Matthew Burdette
A colleague recently asked me, politely and obliquely, whether other Episcopalians, when they meet me, assume that I am a theological and political liberal because I am black. I was grateful for the question, the circumlocutions notwithstanding. Few have asked me about the inner experience of this peculiarity, being black and non-liberal.
The question points to a reality. There really appears to be a correlation between being black and being liberal, and, if my experience says anything, this correlation is only more pronounced among black Episcopalians.
I don’t use liberal as a dirty word, but it’s also true that I am not a liberal, or a progressive, or whatever word you might use to describe a person who checks the right boxes to qualify as a rightly thinking person in a post-Christian culture. Plagued by restrictive political binaries, my not being a liberal generally means that I am mistaken for a conservative, which I’ve not generally called myself. I will admit that, as time goes on, the label conservative is becoming less repugnant to me. But I am indeed starting at a place of repugnance. I was a Marxist, like, five minutes ago.
It is peculiar for a black person to think the theological and political thoughts that I think. And this peculiarity raises an important existential question: Have I betrayed other black people?
A friend of mine once told me a disturbing story. He and his siblings were raised in a white neighborhood, and always had white friends. One night his younger brother was arrested — I can’t remember what for — and, instinctively and without thinking about it, he went to sit with a group of white men in the jail, unwittingly endangering himself. Finally, after a while, a black man approached him from across the room. He said, “Son, you need to come be with your people.”
I look around at other theological conservatives in the Episcopal Church and of course I notice that I’m one of the few black people. Only a fool would not ask himself why that is so. Is there something other black people know that I don’t? And only a fool would dismiss the matter of black solidarity, since such a dismissal would constitute a denial that white racism remains a substantial problem, which it clearly is. Are my theological convictions a breach of solidarity? Have I abandoned my people? Am I advancing the cause of racists?
The problem is not limited to matters of race. A radical feminist friend who’s become a theological conservative is now dealing with the same set of questions about solidarity, all too aware that her theological conviction will do nothing to dispel the threat of male sexual violence, but that political solidarity among women is such an effective force. Or ask someone who is gay and theologically conservative (including on moral and not simply liturgical or specifically creedal issues). I am confident that they’re facing the same questions about solidarity, about unconscious self-hatred, and so on.
The urgency of the solidarity question derives from firsthand knowledge that such interest groups have real reasons to exist. One needn’t call all white people racist or fall into anti-white hatred to say that there are lots of racists, that many of them are theological and political conservatives, and that their conservatism often serves as cover for their racism. Or theological conservatives might be right on the sexuality question, but that doesn’t change the fact that too many of them are transparently motivated by their disgust with gay people and with the idea of gay sex.
In other words, it isn’t self-evident that theological conservatism is not a force for injustice, as the post-Christian culture assumes about Christianity. The post-Christian assumes that the Christian faith and those who believe it are stupid, and that Christianity, though it claims to be on their side, is in fact bad for vulnerable groups of people. Conservative Christians who belong to such groups of vulnerable people doubly bear the burden of this challenge to the Faith posed by the attitude of post-Christianity.
The weight of the post-Christian challenge is one of the ways to explain the intuitive appeal of theological and political liberalism. By framing the Christian faith as open to correction and revisable, learning from the experiences of those people who are not adequately represented in the Christian tradition we have inherited, this response to Christianity’s critics is able to say that people are right to criticize Christianity’s past. Moreover, thanks to these very criticisms, Christianity’s present is improving, and Christianity’s future will almost inevitably break free from the ignorance of the past.
By responding this way, such Christians believe that they show that Christianity is defensible — defensible also for vulnerable people. There is, after all, less of a basis for the scorn of other feminists when your priest is a woman and when your church has nothing to say against abortion. Gay friends might not disapprove of your church attendance when your priest is a partnered gay person, or when you can marry a same-sex partner in your church. This sort of Christianity is corrected by its criticisms, so that it becomes a force for progress rather than regress. Insofar as liberal Christianity is characterized by a degree of continuity with the surrounding culture, liberal Christians escape the question of solidarity. A pro-choice Christian doesn’t have to worry about her credibility as a feminist in the same way that a pro-life Christian woman does (and if Twitter has taught me anything, it is that pro-life women aren’t accepted as legitimate feminists).
The liberal response to cultural feedback to Christianity is a valid one. I do not believe it works for evangelism in the long run, nor that it is effective in assuaging the disdain for Christianity that is increasingly endemic in our culture. And most importantly, I do not believe this response to Christianity finally works for Christians, including and especially those who are vulnerable. In a post-Christian culture, liberal Christianity’s continuity with the culture means Christianity’s inevitable self-cancelation.
It would be wrong not to name the failure of a typical and unhelpful conservative response to the culture’s challenges to Christianity, which is sheer denial, and a fixation on all of the dangers of the liberal response. Rather than admitting that there’s a reason feminism exists — i.e., that there really are lots of misogynists and that there are too many men subjecting women to sexual violence — conservatives quickly point out what a theological disaster it is to deny sexual difference and complementarity. That sort of obfuscation is nothing more than an effort to outrun the facts.
The vices of theological conservatives notwithstanding, I remain convinced that theological liberalism is a non-option, especially for vulnerable people, and so I intend to make my case, over the course of several posts. I intend this series especially for my liberal friends who are not white, or who are gay, or are feminists, or are dealing with the question of gender identity. I am going to make my case for a Christianity that is not defensive and does not subject itself to perpetual revision in order to keep up with the demands of a culture that despises the Christian faith anyway. And I’m going to make my case that only this sort of Christianity is viable for people like us.
In another post, I will pay the linguistic piper and deal with the meaningfulness of these labels, and the relationship between theological and political liberalism. Then, in the parts that follow, I will address Christian theology’s promise for matters of race, women, sexuality, and sexual identity.