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It’s been six weeks since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri. The intervening weeks have told us much about issues of race in America, little of it good. Media coverage of the protests were mixed at best and not able to get to real grievances (perhaps because the media wound up in the middle of the story for awhile). Autopsies were performed, eyewitness testimony was reviewed, and a grand jury has been established. For a variety of reasons common to situations like Ferguson, it’s fairly unlikely that there will be any outcome that will satisfy those following the story.
I keep following the stories. They are heartbreaking on many levels. They’ve also provided excellent teaching material. I opened my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class two weeks ago reflecting on Ferguson. I divided the story into three levels: the shooting, the protests, and the larger structural backdrop.
This past week we celebrated Constitution Day at Spring Arbor by showing the documentary Freedom Riders (you can watch the whole thing on the PBS website here). It’s the story of a group of students: black and white, male and female, who decided to ride interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways) into the deep south in 1961. My American History colleague Mark Edwards debriefed the film and talked about the significance of the 14th amendment extending the bill of rights to the state (as well as guaranteeing due process) regardless of race, gender, or religion. I talked about the Bill of Rights and how aspects of the Ferguson situation appeared to infringe on at least half of those 10 amendments (first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth).
But the movie underscored something I’ve been pondering for awhile: our focus on individual racism continually distracts us from institutional racism.
The Riders were going in to the South specifically to engage in civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws. At the time, bus station waiting areas were segregated with clear signage stipulating white waiting areas from colored waiting areas. A Supreme Court decision declared segregated buses unconstitutional but the decision had been ignored in the south. The riders would also sit in restaurants with blacks and whites at the same table. Their task was to expose the institutional racism that was rampant in the deep South.
When they get to Anniston, AL, one of the buses is surrounded by an angry mob who then firebomb the bus. The other bus gets to Birmingham and there is a violent attack with men and women beaten with fists, bats, and chains. The anger and racial animosity from the attackers is overwhelming. The media is outraged (there’s a remarkable newsreel from Russia condemning America complicity) and the Kennedy administration reluctantly gets involved.
After the violence, the original bus riders return home. But they are replaced by a new group from Nashville. Their story is even more fascinating as they are first trapped in a church in Montgomery, and then are arrested in Jackson, MS and immediately put into prison. More and more people come to Jackson just to be arrested and imprisoned to point out the lack of legal recourse and thereby force change.
The most vivid images are those of angry bigots and self-serving political figures “protecting their culture”. It’s harder to see the legal system that was bent to protect their interests.
Which brings me back to Ferguson. As I have written, we seem to fixate on the motives of individuals. Was Officer Wilson reasonably responding or singling out Michael Brown? Was Brown a thug who didn’t respect authority? Can you trust the eyewitnesses? Are the prosecutor’s motives in question?
This is also the dynamic when we interact about Ferguson on social media. Share the Facebook post raising questions about the distance between Wilson and Brown or the video of the construction workers, and there’s a chance your grandmother will post on your wall that Wilson acted honorably and you should be ashamed of suggesting he was a racist.
Then you get the standard meme of someone misquoting Martin Luther King’s Dream speech by suggesting that we should all just judge people on the content of their character. Or the person who asks the inevitable black-on-black crime question. Or the one who starts talking about challenges in black families.
Point out that these are the wrong questions and the speaker will act like you’ve called them a bigot. They will get defensive and shift blame to something else. And if you push back, you’ll get a response that they aren’t racist but simply refuse to be politically correct.
So I have a proposal. Nobody is a racist or a bigot for the next five years.
Ask any question you want. Make any statement you want. I will not raise doubts about your commitment to racial harmony. I won’t police your language or tell you that I don’t appreciate your joke. Have at it.
You aren’t a racist — at least until 2019.
But it’s not a completely free pass…
For the next five years we will only talk about institutional racism.
We will talk about the kinds of structural inequities that Ta-Nehisi Coates described in The Case For Reparations. We will talk about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and the impact of non-representative incarceration. We will talk about the issues of educational quality raised in the sociological study The Long Shadow (that I just started) which shows the barriers to advancement experienced by a sample of school children in Baltimore as they grow to adulthood. We will talk of political representation and equal opportunity to cast ballots in elections. We will talk about differential enforcement of laws and police departments treating neighborhoods as militarized zones. We will talk about a shifting economy that leaves behind segments of the population. We will talk about the linkages between suburbanization and urban decline. We will talk about government programs that do harm to black communities in the guise of providing assistance. We will talk about gangs and drugs and the challenge of local neighborhoods.
As I’ve written before, King’s Dream speech has a tremendous laundry list of institutional wrongs. It was only as those were addressed that we get to the children holding hands and singing Free at Last.
Like the Freedom Riders, we need to pay attention to the important things: legal structures, legitimated practices, economic incentives and disincentives. Maybe if we pay attention to these issues for five years we can begin to make some change without seeking to charge people with prejudice or bigotry. Maybe, just maybe, if those folks really understand the difference institutional racism makes, they will be less likely to hold on to their judgmental attitudes.
Yesterday I finished Matthew Paul Turner’s new book, Our Great Big American God. It purports to be a biography of God in America. Through most of the book, one gets the idea that God is a taken-for-granted character supporting those around whom the story revolves. The character that seems to be behind everything but always interpreted by others, like Nick Fury to the Avengers.
So in reality, God is only visible in the book through the explanations of the main characters, who themselves only got a quick glimpse of God that fit their understanding of their world at the time. It’s like looking though the kaleidoscope I had as a child. You look through the tube and see an interesting design. A simple turn of the little lens at the end shifted the image and gave rise to an entirely different design. There is little coherence between one and another. So it appears to be with America’s understanding of God.
Turner picks up astutely on the ways in which Americans from William Bradford to Walter Rauschenbusch to Jerry Falwell read God into their work. It’s not that they were using God, exactly. They just only saw one pattern. And that pattern seemed to remarkably fit where their own interests lie. Abraham Lincoln’s caution that we should try to find ourselves on God’s side rather than wanting God on our side was lost on many American religious leaders throughout history.
The Puritans had a harsh God that was impossible to please, which was okay as long as you were one of the elect in spite of your depravity. The kaleidoscope shifts and we begin to focus on a God that speaks directly to people (even women!). Then a great awakening comes to America and Jesus moves to the forefront. Methodism likes the kaleidoscope pattern that best relates to westward expansion and circuit riding preachers. There are different patterns in North and South during the civil war (and for decades afterward). The Fundamentalists tried to hold their pattern in place against a shifting civil society. The Pentecostals brought a new patterns, introducing spectacle and celebrity. The political evangelicalism of the of the 1980s through recent years read a pattern that called for them to act because God needed their help.
There is great history in the book. If you read the endnotes, you’ll find citations from some of the best religious historians around: George Marsden, Thomas Kidd, Mark Noll, Stephen Prothero. In the last year I’ve read Robert McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (on the rise of evangelicalism), and Randall Balmer’s biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. All of these books, plus others I’ve read tell similar stories to what Turner shares in this little book. In other words, his history is solid even if understandably abbreviated.
The writing style is a combination of Sarah Vowell and Kurt Vonnegut; wry, slightly irreverent, managing social commentary while quietly admiring the intent of the actors in the story (for the most part). It made me miss the days when I faithfully read The Wittenberg Door.
What’s surprising about the book is that it’s more than a funny read of issues in American religion. Pay attention and you find a deep analysis of the dangers of syncretism and civil religion. It’s what happens when we pay more attention to ourselves and our own religious systems that we do to the God who is acting in our midst.
The book also provides something of an atlas to the contemporary issues in American Evangelicalism. The kaleidoscope patterns that defined early groups can still be found in today’s expression. While Turner helps connect those dots along the way, it’s pretty easy to see how the varied strands of religious expression continue to take shape.
Yes, the book is a light-hearted look at the way we think about God in America. But more than that, it’s about how people wrestle to make sense of the incomprehensibility of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. It calls out those who would reduce that God to a product to be managed (which he characterizes as GOD®) and requires us to maintain an appropriate intellectual humility.
Maybe then we can understand the story that God is actually writing rather than the patterns we think we see.
I’ve been following the stories out of Ferguson, MO closely over the last two weeks since Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson. There have been many articles written about racial profiling, justice, “White privilege”, and the militarization of police. The cable news media eventually decided there were stories to tell and devoted hours of first-person coverage (which, as Conrad Hackett observes was three days after the shooting and after one million tweets had crossed the internet).
The Pew Research Center asked if the Ferguson story was “raising important issues about race” or that “race was getting too much attention”. They found that nearly half of whites (47%) thought that race was getting too much attention (with just over a third opting for “raising issues”). Conversely, 80% of blacks said that these were important issues compared to 18% saying “too much attention”. My social media feed reflects these sentiments fairly well, although it probably skews a little more toward the issues side. As I’ve read comment threads on Facebook, I find that many commenters are struggling to understand what the issues are and may in some ways be misreading the issues. So I decided to write this letter.
I’ve been paying attention to the comments you’ve made about the events in Ferguson, pondered the questions you’ve raised, and thought quite a bit about how to respond in ways that don’t sound like name-calling. We have way too much of that as it is.
I’ve heard you refute claims that Officer Darren Wilson is a racist. I think it is quite probable that he isn’t a racist. In fact, that is the problem.
If Officer Wilson were a racist (apparently like his colleague who pushed CNN’s Don Lemon), we could chalk it up to a bad actor, have a conduct hearing, and remove him from the force. If he went out of his way to brutally attack an 18-year-old young man, there would be clear cause for disciplinary action (the civil rights investigation will likely focus on the disproportionality of his response). But Officer Wilson was doing his job. That is the source of the frustration.
When a regular part of his serve and protect duty requires him to see a jaywalking black young man as a potential threat, there is a problem. When an altercation ensues with the hotheaded young man, it is seen as potentially life-threatening for the officer who may then respond with a resort to deadly force. It’s not the deadly force that is the problem, it’s the combination of factors that made that seem like the right option to pursue.
When you refer to Michael Brown as “a thug”, because that’s the label we use for young men who get in trouble with the police, that is part of the problem. Because we wind up generalizing from sketchy evidence and presuming guilt. It leads us to the presumption that somehow his bad behavior meant that deserved to be shot six times. It’s not that he’s an innocent. It’s that he reinforces images from entertainment media and allows us to use them as self-justifying descriptions of what went on. That’s why it’s so hard to hear stories like those of Pastor Leonce Crump (shared by Ed Stetzer here and here): they don’t align with our preconceptions. Why is it that a minister of the gospel has been stopped by police while walking or driving almost annually since he was 15. At 34, that’s over half his life. But there are factors that cause us to associate violent crime with large black men, so the stereotype is justified.The police officers who pulled Rev. Crump over were probably not racist. And that is the problem.
The protests in Ferguson were seen as a source of threat to the newly militarized police force. Concern over looters (who some have suggested “deserve to be shot”) creates a situation where the police mobilized with the worse case scenario in mind. Their concern over individual agitators might be rational but the vast majority of the protestors were exactly that, protestors . There was no way to isolate the troublemakers from the regular protestors. So everyone faced MRAPs, flash bangs, and tear gas. And that is the problem.
Some of you have suggested that we focus on white on black violence without being concerned about black on black violence. We should be trying to curb violent responses in any situation but instead we try to figure out who’s situation is worse (here’s a hint: it’s white on white). Our entertainment media celebrates street violence with bigger and bigger weapons. Our political establishment is so concerned about infringement of second amendment rights that it blocks any reasoned attempt at limiting firepower. Is it any wonder that police departments see value in larger and more effective military weaponry? But the problem isn’t white on black violence — it’s power on powerless violence. The concern in Ferguson may be worse because it was a white officer who did the shooting, but the issue would still be there had the officer been black.
Some have focused on opportunists who see turmoil as an avenue for anarchy or for looting business or for celebrity grandstanding. There is certainly some of that. But our interaction with cultures other than our own, especially in light of increasing residential segregation, feeds those possibilities. Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey spoke to the issue of assumptions about neighborhoods on NPR this week. He described why he insists his officers walk the beat in the neighborhood.
All of the recruits that graduate from our police academy start off on foot patrol in areas of our city that have a high concentration of crime being committed in public space. Now it does a couple things. One, it does have an impact on crime. Temple University did a study here that showed a 22 percent decline in crime in the areas where we establish foot patrol. But more important than that, it teaches them at a very early age that there are more decent law-abiding citizens living in that challenged neighborhood than there are criminals or people causing problems. You don’t get that when you’re driving 30 miles an hour in a Crown Vic down a street. You do get it when you’re walking down a street and you have a chance to interact with everyday people on a positive note (emphasis mine).
Some have argued that the real problems among urban blacks is one of culture. Quoting libertarian social economists like Thomas Sowell, they pick up the “culture of dependency”, or “lack of male role models” or gang culture in general. As Commissioner Ramsey points out, one can find evidence of these factors but not everywhere. There are far more supportive black families in the city than we might believe. That we so easily think otherwise, whether by wanting them to clean up their neighborhood or by passing liberal policies based on deprivation models, is part of the problem.
Over sixty years ago, sociologist Robert Merton constructed a typology using the relationship between prejudice and discrimination. It’s summarized in the follow chart.
I don’t like the terms “bigot” and “liberal” in the typology, but that’s what Merton called them. But his typology is still helpful. I’m not really concerned about the cell in the upper left. Such folks are deserving recipients of social disapproval. Their comments (like those after the Miss America selection) are rightfully denounced by others. The upper right category is what we see pop up on Facebook, Twitter, or Comment sections of articles. People who wouldn’t say anything prejudicial in public feel free to do so with the relative anonymity of the internet.
It’s the bottom left category that is interesting to me. That is where people live their lives in ways that perpetuate discriminatory practice.
Not by intention but by inattention. Failing to see how their lives differ from others makes it easier to see their lives as “normal” and let systems perpetuate themselves. I’m honestly not sure there’s anybody in the bottom right category.
My friend Karen Swallow Prior has been encouraging people to read Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Karen argues that this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the structural issues involved with race, the ways that people’s lives are influenced by the color of their skin and the discriminatory practices that accompanied that distinction.
As it happens, I finished Caged Bird the day before Michael Brown was shot. We were reading it for a book group I was part of in Portland. The early part of the book takes place in the late 1930s in cotton country Arkansas. But the structural difference between what whitefolks (as she put it) could do and blackfolks could do was gut wrenching. That was 20 years before Brown v. Board and 30 years before the voting rights act. But lay Angelou’s book from the 30s and 40s alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates article on reparations in The Atlantic and you see a stunning consistency over time.
This is the real issue with Ferguson. It’s that patterns of structure in which people find themselves create the kinds of animosities and cognitive assumptions that take a confrontation between a young man and a public service officer and make them symbols of everything that has constrained part of the population for literally generations. We talk about “white privilege” but that privilege is really the freedom not to worry about these larger structural concerns. Many of the folks in Ferguson and neighborhoods like it don’t have that freedom.
I apologize for those who have called you insensitive or bigots. I understand that you want to wait on the complexity of the situation to be resolved. But at the end of the day, the folks in Ferguson need you to acknowledge that their situation is different than yours. Not because they’re deviant but because of things beyond their control and beyond yours and beyond mine. The only solution to moving outside the lower left quadrant of Merton’s typology is to acknowledge the discrimination that is experienced and work to alleviate it.
Finally, let me acknowledge that I’ve spent far too much time in the lower-left quadrant myself. As a sociologist, I know what the stakes are but don’t do enough to change those structural dynamics I do control. After Ferguson and New York City and St. Louis and LA, that must change. For me and for all of us.
So what can we do? Consider these words yesterday from the President of the Evangelical Covenant Church (see full statement here):
I thank God for gracious, courageous, and persevering friends. The letter is a call to all of us to join God in seeking redemptive purposes out of the pain of Ferguson. We begin with prayer: for Michael Brown’s family; for police officer Darren Wilson and family; for the witness and intervention of churches in Ferguson; for normalcy in the streets and progress in community reform; for Covenant churches in the region ministering through the complexities. But going forward we will best be God’s agents as our hearts remain pliable to seeing things more clearly, feeling things more deeply, and acting more resolutely. That happens when we continue to call out the best in one another and walk with one another into the harsh realities of a fallen world . Yes, we’re in it together.
I was in Canada when the news of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson broke on my media feed. I was aware of the rough outlines of the story, thanks to updates and retweets by many friends on twitter. I haven’t actually watched any mainstream media coverage as it tends to make me pull my hair out. So my information comes inductively from the internet, primarily from progressive and POC friends. Other voices seemed silent.
I’m not the only one to notice this pattern. Yesterday, my friend Ryan Thomas Neace wrote “From One Middle-Class White Person to Another: Why We Struggle to Get It.” He talks of the isolation we have from those different than ourselves. More importantly, he describes the differing realities the issues of race and class construct in American Society:
As a middle-class, white person, the fact that I have to try to imagine what it would’ve been like if a police officer rolled through my neighborhood and shot me or one of my teenage friends is telling in itself. It means I do not have a frame of reference or standard of comparison from which I can draw to construct Mike Brown’s story in my own life.
As Ryan argues, we’re far more likely to expect Officer Friendly to come visit our classrooms than to see an Officer as Potential Threat.
As I reflected on Ryan’s post, I found myself thinking of Alan Noble’s Atlantic article on Evangelical Persecution. Alan’s thoughts are further elaborated in an interview he gave with American Baptist Press (along with others). It’s evident that American Christians do not know persecution when compared with Christians in other countries like Iraq. (By the way, we should be as concerned about Shia on Sunni violence as we are Isis on Christian — we don’t just root for our team when it comes to justice.)
Still, the persecution mythology is alive in many quarters. A little bit of internet research finds cases where local police departments come and arrest pastors “in front of terrified church congregants”. The story explains that the arrests were staged and that the pastors were arrested for “defending the faith”. They would then be put on trial and have to prove they were REAL Christians. Add to this the fear that the state would FORCE pastors to marry same-sex couples. Or that THEY want to take away our rights to worship as we please. Then there are all the isolated stories of uninformed school teachers or principals who put limits on student expression or the local zoning commission who interferes with a house church.
In all these cases, it is secular authorities set against the religious faithful. The religious faithful must remain true to God regardless of circumstances and in spite of the fact that they no longer believe in the legitimacy of the state apparatus.
To pick up Ryan’s question, “we fail to get it” on one level because we have to try to imagine scenarios where we’re oppressed by officials of the state. But for those worried about religious persecution from secularism, we have imagined it all too well.
The people protesting in Ferguson have been living the imagined persecution scenario for a long time.
They know what it’s like to be arbitrarily picked out and subject to intrusive questioning with an assumption of “guilty until we determine otherwise”. This is the reality behind Driving While Black, New York’s Stop and Frisk practice, differential drug sentencing, and the like. Not for everyone, of course. But for enough friends and relatives for everyone to have the knowledge of the possibility.
I have never seen a line like this. But folks in the protests in Ferguson received training in how to stand non-provocatively. Not all got the message. Some isolated shots were fired. Stores were looted. But the overwhelming majority of protestors in Ferguson did none of those things. They stood for justice. The expressed their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. They cleaned up storefronts that had been damaged the night before.
They did these things precisely because they have doubts about the legitimacy and altruism of the police force and the state government. They know that the scales are tipped against them and that self-control is essential when confronting that imbalance.
A year ago, the Pew Research Center did a study of attitudes toward institutional arenas when it came to issues of race. Blacks and Whites in urban, suburban, and rural areas were asked if certain institutions were less fair toward Blacks than Whites. Institutional arenas were from police, courts, work, stores, schools, health care, and voting. The chart below summarizes the perceptions across all institutional arenas (scores range from zero institutions discriminating to seven).
Only 1 in 10 urban Blacks thought there was no institutional discrimination compared to nearly half of all suburban Whites.
This, as Ryan observes, is what we don’t get. For us, the institutions work as intended. For “them”, they cannot begin with such assumptions — the world is just too dangerous.
We like to imagine scenarios that have the state calling us out for our faith as a badge of our faithfulness. The citizens of Ferguson know too well that the state calls people out regardless of their motives or their faith but because of their race, class, and neighborhood.
Too often, the coverage of events like Ferguson seems to be looking for ways of justifying the legitimacy of the state’s action. That’s why news sources post troubling photos (check out the hashtag #IfIWasGunnedDown to see how this happens) and use words like “thugs” to make sure that we have good cops acting against bad actors.
As I was finishing this post, Christena Cleveland added this remarkable piece: The Cross and The Molotov Cocktail. Here’s a paragraph that puts the Pew data in its visceral context:
As someone who has walked alongside black men, witnessed their suffering firsthand, lamented with them and fought for justice with them, I can see why black men who have lived under the oppressive boot of society for their entire lives would decide to stop turning the other cheek, to refuse to see the police as anything other than the Red Coats, and to reject “respectability.”
If we were to face serious persecution as evangelicals (as unlikely as that is in our contemporary environment), you can be sure that there wouldn’t be pictures of happy families accompanying the roundups. You can be sure that we would be called names and marginalized in hundreds of ways. It is certain that we’d have little recourse against the power of the state with all of its hardware and assumed legitimacy.
Maybe we need to identify with the protestors in Ferguson to see what it means to stand for justice.
This is not a post about abortion. It’s really about the way in which evangelicals often frame their arguments and the ways in which those can become reductionistic and oversimplified. Too often, our rhetoric suggests that we’re focused on Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal: Is the answer behind Door #1 or Door #2?
I’ve been somewhat disconnected from the internet while on vacation, but I’ve still seen this pattern play out when checking Facebook or Twitter. In response to the suicide death of Robin Williams this week, blogger Matt Walsh argued that we shouldn’t focus so much on tragedy or depression but on the fact that Robin Williams made a choice to kill himself. I’m pleased that much of the Christian blogosphere quickly called out such a callous claim (including some quite conservative voices). I don’t need to add my name to the list, but Walsh’s argument struck a chord.
We see similar arguments made when evangelicals discuss the complicated issue of transgendered persons. Critics who haven’t looked into the psychology and physiology of the transgendered community will talk of people who have “chosen” to be a certain gender, sometimes with a suspicion that the individual will someday “choose” to switch back.
Or take Ann Coulter’s reprehensible article about missionary doctors who contracted the Ebola virus while trying to treat infected populations. They made a “choice” to go to a part of the world where disease was more prevalent so they are responsible for any illness they incur.
Read evangelical articles about homosexuality and there will be those arguing that gay people have simply “chosen” a lifestyle and they could be helped to choose the normative one. The apologies of groups like Exodus Road have helped to combat this thinking but it’s still fairly prevalent. This BBC interview with Christian musician and theology student Vicky Beeching (who recently announced she was gay) contrasts with the choice language of Scott Lively (I have to grant Scott’s point that the set-up piece before the exchange made an actual conversation impossible).
I’m sure there are some people who will treat the situation of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO as a case where he “chose” a behavior that resulted in his death. It’s hard to get those folks to accept notions of power imbalances, latent racism, or profiling because each case involves an individual who “chose”.
Even the abortion argument is based on assumptions that a woman “chooses” to have an abortion. This is why abortion protestors stand outside clinics yelling about the poor “choice” she is making.
Why is it that evangelicals are more likely to see things in dichotomous terms? Why are ideas of structural inequality or biochemical factors or impinging contingencies of life so hard to grapple with?
As Scot McKnight and many others have observed, it is in part due to a soteriological focus. Much of evangelicalism has been shaped more by wanting people to “make a decision for Jesus” than to “take up a cross and follow”. We’re better at Manichean spiritual warfare language imagery than powers and principalities. If I’ve made a decision for Christ I’m in the heaven-bound set and not in the hell-bent set.
There’s also a linkage between rugged individualism and our thoughts about decision making. Rational Choice theory enjoyed favor in both criminology and the sociology of religion. Building from an economic metaphor, the idea is that people make choices based on perceived costs and benefits. The is the basis behind deterrence theory and was a dominant explanation for why people switch denominations. The problem is that far fewer of our choices are rationally considered door #1 or door #2 situations. Life is more complicated than that.
Maybe it’s time for evangelicals to worry less about simple choices and think more about navigating complexity. What happens if we begin our conversations understanding that the work is a difficult place?
Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise has some great chapters about Bayesian Probability. When you make a decision tree outlining all the factors that impinge on a particular action, you get a better sense of what’s going on than looking at a simple coin flip.
Of course Robin Williams made a choice to take his life. But there were a variety of factors that influenced the yes/no choice he made. The question we should be asking about Robin Williams’ suicide, along with those of the sons of Rick Warren and Ergun Caner, is “what combination of factors made this choice seem like the only one possible?”
When we look at a transgendered acquaintance, we have to consider the complexity of circumstances leading up to the conclusion that one is “in the wrong body”. This is not a lifestyle preference but the result of years of struggle. (Does anyone really think people go through sex reassignment surgery to see what it’s like?)
When a black man becomes the victim of police extremism, we have to ask why this keeps happening. Why are there circumstances where the response is so disproportionate? What leads to police suspicion or fear, to black men being singled out, to a culture of distrust?
When a Christian comes out as gay, we have to look at the pain involved in years and years of struggle. This is not a decision that is made lightly by anyone. In most cases, it’s not a “decision” at all.
We need a more robust understanding of both the human condition and of the Kingdom God is building around us. There really aren’t two doors that people are choosing between. It’s a spider-web of forces that impinge on their reality. That spider-web is part of the reality of God’s now-and-not-yet Kingdom.
It calls us to offer to others the very Grace we’ve received. As one social media friend reminded us, this is the story of the seventh and eighth chapters of Romans. Paul recognized the complexity in our lives (as do we all) and we should extend that possibility to others as well.
In another place Paul said that there is another way that depends on faith, hope, and charity. And the greatest of these is charity.
This has been the summer of religious tensions. While issues within the American evangelical church and the broader society pale in comparison to what is happening in Iraq and the Middle East, the balance between perceptions of religious identity markers and shared cultural experiences has been hard to find. From closely held businesses with religious beliefs to colleges requesting exemptions from federal directives to appellate courts ruling voter approved marriage initiatives unconstitutional, it seems that we find ourselves in “all or nothing” battles. [Disclaimer: my employer was one of the colleges requesting exemptions.]
Commentators are fond of characterizing this period in the worst possible light, seeing a secular society punishing Christian organizations for their beliefs in honor of “political correctness”. As Alan Noble observed, such claims of persecution are hard to align with the facts. Furthermore, those who are on the other side of distinctions do so by caricaturing the position of the other side. The religious community presumes that government officials are anti-religious. Secularists characterize the religious as closed minded, backward, and homophobic.
Things are not that clear. It is less that the various parties are opposed to the other’s agenda and more that they are pursuing differing goods. James K. A. Smith wrote that there may be “cracks in the secular worldview”. I think he has a point. But there are also “cracks in the evangelical worldview”. In both cases, there needs to be a stance other than defensiveness and presumption of attack. Each party things they are in the right defending themselves against incursion. Colleges fear they will be forced to engage in certain practices. Secularists fear that religious groups will gain special rights to not be part of the common society.
The dynamics of a pluralistic post-Christian culture will require us to find a way to avoid such dichotomous approaches. Somehow, we have to find mechanisms for simultaneously celebrating religious identity while affirming human flourishing wherever it is found. These are not zero sum options. What we have are predictable tensions between particularized values (of, say, a college or wedding photographer or Campus Pride advocate) with generalized values (democracy, equal rights, due process, non-discrimination).
In thinking of these tensions, I remembered the first time I heard Theda Skocpol speak. It was in the late 1980s and there was a conference at Northwestern celebrating William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. My wife had just read the book for a graduate class so I called the folks running the meeting to see if we could crash. Once we agreed to skip the banquet, we got to hear what turned out to be a invitation-only meeting of some really big names in the study of inequality. As part of that dialogue, Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard, spoke on “targeting within universalism” (I”ll refer to it as TWU). She argued that one solid approach to social policy is to pursue economic stability for all but target particular populations where the situation was more dire. (It was fascinating to see the impact of Skocpol’s ideas play out in the policies of the Clinton Administration.) Here’s a description as the strategy was described by a Canadian health agency:
Targeting within universalism is an approach that blends aspects of universal and targeted interventions in order to close the gap between the most and least healthy, and reduce disparities along the socio-economic gradient. With this approach, public health can modify and orient interventions and services to meet the needs of the entire population while addressing the additional needs of population groups that experience marginalization.
I think we can utilize Skocpol’s TWU approach in thinking about how religious groups function within secular society. This approach posits the generalized values first and then sorts out the particularized values within that context. The two sets of values aren’t set in opposition but are more “nested” one within the other. Taking this approach requires us to drop the oppositional language about “the other” and to see ourselves as pursuing the common good. We establish the generalized/universal value and then make the particular/target adjustment within that.
Let me use a recent illustration. Back in early July, a group of evangelical leaders wrote President Obama requesting that his coming executive order on federal contractors include robust protections for religious groups. In short, there was no opposition to an executive order banning discrimination against LGBTQ employees, but the religious groups working as social service providers should be able to hire according to their faith convictions. (The President did not grant the exemption in the executive order).
One of the signatories was Gordon College president D. Michael Lindsey. To be fair, he wasn’t asking for an exemption for Gordon (in spite of piles of news coverage to the contrary). But his presence on the letter was taken to be a signal that Gordon intended to discriminate against homosexuals. While Gordon isn’t a federal contractor (even if its students receive federal aid), it was seen as violating commonly shared values. Concerns were raised that such a perception could hurt its students and employees (this expression by Jonathan Fitzgerald is particularly good). Others saw this as a natural right on an institution to protect its mission against an aggressive society (this post in The Federalist claiming that “since some powerful people don’t share those ideals they’re set to destroy Gordon College” is particularly egregious and wrong on some key points of fact).
Subsequent stories about Gordon document how the Salem courthouse will no longer rent to the College (because they have clear non-discrimination language in their charter). The regional accrediting body said it would examine Gordon’s case (but they do that anytime a school is in the news). The question remains: does Gordon reflect broader social values or is it seeking to prioritize particularized values over general ones?
If we followed TWU, a school like Gordon would begin by affirming that it is opposed to discrimination in any form. It must be very careful about statements made about the LGBTQ community and not demean it in any way. The first move is to affirm that in modern society we don’t cotton to any form of exclusion. Not on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, national origin, or even religion.
It is after the universal value has been affirmed that we can talk about accommodation. Within a commitment to non-discrimination, how might a religious institution maintain its mission? One can argue that there is a particularized value in hiring Christian faculty, for example, without presuming that non-Christians are demonic. The particularized value would be stated in terms of the positive value necessary to accomplish certain goals (like creating a community that takes Christian faith seriously as a core piece of the educational process). The broader society should be open to such affirmation as a means of understanding how the school functions (which discounts all those who simply write silly comments about academic freedom).If the generalized value is being affirmed, then the particularized value can be affirmed. (And government agencies should guard against forcing the religious group into extreme positions to make their claim).
I think TWU could allow me to make a similar case to the LGBTQ community on how they could celebrate universalism and then couch their special position within that. It can also give guidance to how we resolve issues of rape culture on college campuses (“all women are safe” is the universal value).
Yesterday morning, while thinking about this post, I had breakfast with the president of Warner Pacific College (where I served from 1995 to 2006). What I heard from president Andrea Cook was exactly the TWU approach. It was an affirmation to love the community first and to pursue institutional uniqueness within that context. As she admitted, it’s hard and we don’t have good models for how to move forward. But it seemed exactly on the money as a strategy for evangelical cultural engagement. I came away more encouraged than I’ve been in months about how the evangelical church can move beyond the culture wars.
The Hobby Lobby decision may mark a rhetorical turning point in the interface between religious rights and individual rights. For decades we have been focused on one part of the Pledge of Allegiance (“One nation, under God”). But now I think our social imagination has shifted to the latter phrase (“with Liberty and Justice for All”). Then we’ve individualized that last phrase, so that the focus is on each person’s liberty and justice. Trying to navigate the space between various people’s individuality leads to the conflicts that seem never ending across the internet and media.
As is usually the case on this blog, this thesis came to me due to the contradictions inherent in a number of things I saw on social media. This morning I read a post on The Gospel Coalition blog titled “They Know Not What They Do” written by Greg Forster. He argues that it’s plausible to argue that secularists who oppose religious rights are misunderstanding basic issues about religion and society. He writes:
Such ignorance almost certainly does play some role, but that cannot be the whole story. Given his defective understanding of what religion is—and, for that matter, what a business is—the secularist genuinely doesn’t understand why the owners of a company would feel their consciences were at stake in the company’s actions.
His concluding lessons are fairly optimistic but took some turns to get there. But it was the quote that caught my attention. The “secularists” I read after Hobby Lobby understood that the Greens had issues of conscience. But they also were thinking of the impact of that decision of conscience on other individuals. They were calculating potential harm done to others in the process and found that unacceptable.
My friend David Fitch posted an 2013 article from the New York Times titled “Generation LGBTQIA” (which for some reason was in the Fashion and Style section). It told the story of how the LGBT label became inadequate because it didn’t include enough possibilities to cover each person’s experience. (Q is for Queer, I stands for Intersex and A stands for Ally). The implication is that each personal expression of sexuality and/or affinity must be affirmed as an expression of true individuality.
Still, the alphabet soup of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. may be difficult to sustain. “In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of L.G.B.T. will become quite quotidian [mundane],” Professor Halberstam said.
I read an interesting piece by Derek Rishmawy titled “I Used to Believe X for Reason Y…and the Failure of Intellectual Imagination.” He suggests that our focus on personal story can sometimes lead to overgeneralization and ad hoc conclusions. He says we need conversation with those others to protect us from logical error. Derek was writing primarily about young evangelicals telling conversion stories away from what they used to believe. As much as I think story is really, really, important I’ve always argued that story is only the beginning of dialogue and not an end in itself. But I readily acknowledge that in the broader society we have a tendency to speak only from personal experience and validate that over others’ experiences.
Sociologically, I want to place the impetus for all of the above on the prioritization of individualism within western society. It’s been nearly 30 years since Habits of the Heart documented the damage that rampant individualism does to community. Over those three decades, what Durkheim called “the cult of the individual” has only grown stronger. As Durkheim predicted, this is a result of increasing diversity and changing bases for social solidarity.
I use Michael Sandel’s Justice in one of my fall classes. Today’s social media had me thinking of his chapter on Libertarianism. Sandel says that Libertarians oppose three things:
1. No Paternalism. Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves…
2. No Morals Legislation. Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority…
3. No Redistribution of Income or Wealth. The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others, including taxation for redistribution of wealth…(60)
In the midst of pondering how we shifted to the last phrase of the pledge of allegiance, about liberty and justice, the whole libertarian thrust came clearer to me. All these years of celebrating individualism in politics, movies, reality television, social media, the blogosphere (hello?), and education (especially higher ed) have taken a toll. It seems to me that we are less interested in liberty and justice for all as we are in liberty and justice for each person.
And that’s an untenable situation. There will be winners and losers. There will be some liberties that are sacrificed for others. Some people cannot pursue their liberties without infringing someone else’s.
Also today, Tobin Grant posted some very interesting data on the changing role of religion in society. He analyzed five different measures of religion in American life that Gallup has tracked over the years: religious identity, church attendance, membership, religion’s importance in life, and religion’s relevance for today. All five of these show a dramatic decline. Then he statistically combines them into one measure and shows that change. My initial impression was that I’d tell my stats students that the truncated Y axis makes the decline look more dramatic than it really is. After all, it’s only a drop from 78% to 69% over 20 years.
But then I got to thinking that there may be something more happening. Perhaps there’s some tipping point below which religion is no longer the “one nation, under God” factor (more Durkheim). Maybe once we have 30% of the country thinking that religion is okay if that’s what you choose, then all we have are competing individual values.
Finally today, I came across an article written after the Hobby Lobby and Wheaton decisions by Winifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and affiliate professor of law at Indiana University. In her piece, “The impossibility of religious freedom” she writes provocatively about the nature of religious freedom in legal terms as recognized by courts. It’s a detailed argument, outlining the importance of religion regardless of its broader acceptability. She calls out liberal critics of the court decisions. Of the justices, she writes:
Their common refusal, together with that of their predecessors, to acknowledge the impossibility of fairly delimiting what counts as religion has produced a thicket of circumlocutions and fictions that cannot, when all is said and done, obscure the absence of any compelling logic to support the laws that purport to protect religious freedom today.
So what do we do? Somehow we have to find a way to recast our argument in ways that speak to common values. That can affirm the multiplicity of voices and interests present in the society. Religion will be one of those voices but perhaps not a dominant voice, at least not one with a language the broader culture is prepared to hear. So when we evangelicals make our claims for privilege, we’ll have to do so in ways that transcend our unique group interests and speak to the broad range of expressions within the society.
Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back to that “Indivisible” which connects the “one nation” to the “liberty and justice for all”.