I ran across this paper I wrote for a Religious Liberty class at McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. I didn’t think it was half bad, so I’m posting it in my blog. It’s a little thick, so I’m adding some cat pictures.
Historical Context of the Controversy
The religion clause of the U.S. Constitution states, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. It is included with freedom of the press, free speech, and the right to assemble and petition the government. It is the part of the first amendment upon which concepts of religious freedom—which I use interchangeably here with religious liberty—are based. According to Davis, religious liberty in the U.S. is based upon the overarching ideal of separation of church and state (p. 81). He cites a religion historian who called religious liberty, “America’s great gift to civilization and the world” (p. 81). Interpretations of the religion clause have evolved since ratification in 1791 primarily through rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on cases involving two concepts: establishment and free exercise. As Flowers explains, cases vary according to topics, such as taxation, school prayer, human resources, and insurance—but all of these share a tension of whether the government violates establishment when it supports religious organizations or free exercise when it does not.
Understandably, decisions passed down by the Court are influenced by its makeup; it has in fact changed its position over time. Nearly eighty years ago, Justice Hugo Black famously declared, “In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by laws was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State’” (in Davis, p. 84). Over the last decade, however, the idea of religious liberty itself has undergone an odd reversal. No longer is its chief principal the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs and practices protected by the wall of separation from the government. Rather, religious liberty is now evoked by conservative Christians in order for them to freely exercise their right to discriminate against individuals or groups whose ideologies do not align with their religious beliefs. These Christians are, then, seeking establishment via rulings to substantiate discrimination, which they consider free exercise. Tracing the course of the transformation of religious liberty is beyond the scope of this paper. From my own historical memory and research, I trace it to the overt courting of the religious right in the South by Nixonian republicans in 1968, culminating with Ronald Reagan’s alliance with the Moral Majority that led to his victory in the 1980 election—in which he unseated an incumbent President who is unequivocally a devout Christian. This was the beginning of the narrative shift of religious liberty that supports the blatant politicized overreach we see today. For this paper, I did a Google search for “religious liberty.” I focused on articles and blog posts whose topics related directly to the cultural cooptation of the idea of religious liberty as I describe it above. Left of center publication, The Week, writer Joel Mathis sums up the premise of my paper:
The term “religious liberties” sounds anodyne enough: The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of faith. And conservatives frame the recent debates with a libertarian gloss: Government shouldn’t make religious folks violate their faith-informed consciences to provide contraception to employees or make wedding cakes for gay couples. On the surface the message is: “Leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.” What could be more American?
But that message isn’t honest.
Unless you’re a Christian — and let’s be honest, unless you’re a conservative Christian — conservative advocacy of religious liberties is a big con, a consolidation of rights and privileges not meant to be shared with Muslims, atheists, or other religious minorities.
You don’t have to reach far for examples. (https://theweek.com/articles/784953/conservatives-religious-liberty-con)
And I did not. What follows is a sampling of what I found.
The day I was writing this, May 22, 2020, an op-ed piece popped up on CNN’s website: This Isn’t About Religious Freedom (Graves-Fitzsimmons). It outlines issues surrounding Covid-19 religious liberty litigation, written as a response to President Trump’s push for governors to allow churches to re-open. The president’s invocation of liberty, prompted the author to note, “From a wider perspective, the Covid-19 crisis also reveals a new dimension to how some conservatives have distorted our treasured American value of religious freedom” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/14/opinions/religious-freedom-lawsuits-on-social-distancing-graves-fitzsimmons/index.html). He goes on to cite examples of the exploitation of religious liberty to further conservative agendas, he lists groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom that spent 54 million to argue the Masterpiece Cakeshop anti-LGBTQ case at SCOTUS. Graves-Fitzsimmons connects Covid-19 religious freedom lawsuits to current and pending cases involving whether “religious or moral beliefs of an employer should be an acceptable excuse to deny people birth control and whether taxpayer funds may be used for faith-based foster care agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ people” (ibid). He points out what is a recurring theme in my research—discriminatory conservative agendas are out of sync with public opinion surrounding these issues. The twisting of religious freedom, according to the author, is about winning the culture war and thereby bolstering the conservative voting base, Trump’s lifeblood. He concludes with a call to expose the bigotry behind the thin veil of religious freedom that covers it and “reclaim a religious freedom that does no harm” (ibid).
My research led me to The Berkely Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, an organization that examines, “the intersection of religion with global policy challenges of diplomacy, democracy, development and dialogue” (https://charterforcompassion.org/berkley-center-for-religion-peace-and-world-affairs?gclid=CjwKCAjwtqj2BRBYEiwAqfzur7FiTtxXPCn-_a4r4LjVhNdG9NLoy1QudwMV5MKW8mNOBRXOBabq3xoCW6gQAvD_BwE).
I found three essays in response to the Politics of School Prayer post in the Center’s Forum that address what one calls the “false narrative” of religious freedom. This pre-Covid post uses as a prompt President Trump’s announcement on 2020 “Religious Freedom Day” of new guidelines regarding school prayer during non-instructional time and the rights of students whose “freedom to pray has been violated” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/politics-of-school-prayer). Additionally, he announced plans to remove “regulatory burdens” on faith-based social service providers that are supported by the Department of Health and Human Services—that is, by taxpayer dollars. The post suggests that while Trumpian Republicans have conducting an offensive front in the culture wars, Democrats have spent (frittered?) their energies trying to “connect with evangelical voters,” a heretofore fruitless effort.
The first response, The Debates Over Religious Freedom in the United States: What Debates?, by James W. Fraser, refutes the president’s claim of burdensome regulations of religious freedom by pointing out the new guidelines were nearly identical with previous guidelines issued by the G.W Bush and Clinton administrations. Fraser argues that the president’s fanfare over existing guidelines has deeper motives—first, to “warp the truth to stay in power,” that is, to fire up his conservative White Christian base, many of whom believe themselves to be discriminated against by progressives. If Trump can maintain the fiction of an “assault on faith” and the greater fiction that he alone can fix it, he will keep the support of his base. An even darker motive, according to Fraser, of touting his guidelines was to serve as a “cover for other policies which represent a dangerous infringement of rights”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/the-debates-over-religious-freedom-in-the-united-states-what-debates). He concludes with this stark statement, “…the obvious conclusion is that retaining voting blocs is more important to the administration than any concern for the rights of American citizens, religious or otherwise. We are better than that” (ibid). One hopes, but are we?
The second response, A False Narrative of Religious Freedom Threatens Americans’ Rights, by Rob Boston, begins by pointing out ways Trump’s school prayer guidelines in fact differ from Bush’s and Clinton’s, most significantly, that student- and teacher-initiated prayer at school functions may be legal. He then quickly turns to the problem of terminology in the evolving narrative of religious freedom, namely, that as it is used today demands religious privilege, which is very distinct from liberty. Boston offers a helpful definition of what religious freedom has historically meant in the U.S.: “the right to worship (or not) as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others. It means the right to join together with fellow believers to build houses of worship, spread religious messages, and create a sense of community bound together by shared beliefs” (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-false-narrative-of-religious-freedom-threatens-americans-rights). Conversely, today’s conceptualization of religious freedom is a coersive and compulsive denial of the rights of others [and] is alien” to our core values (ibid). He points out that Americans are used to wrangling over issues, but this is a different age—one where polarization makes old ways of debating obsolete. When it comes to the minority voices of conservative White Christians, he concludes, “It is dangerous to accept even a little bit of oppression based on religion. The answer is always to resist it, by all legal means” (ibid).
The final article I examined from the Berkley Center Forum was A Free Exercise Argument Against Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Rules by Peter Henne. His approach is somewhat different from other responses, as he approaches the issue with the onus of rectifying the cooptation of religious liberty on progressives. “The problem is that progressives have accepted the conservative framing of religious freedom”
(https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/a-free-exercise-argument-against-trump-s-religious-freedom-rules). He charges us to retake a narrative whose subsequent policies discriminate against all but a small group of Christians. When progressives begin asserting that our own religious freedoms are infringed upon, the historical conceptualization will re-emerge. Practically, Boston proposes this: “Rather than religious freedom vs. non-discrimination, it would be a debate over the nature of religious freedom. And Trump-wary conservative Christians are more likely to be responsive to progressives explaining their approach to religious freedom than they are to calls to curtail religious freedom” (ibid). When my tax dollars go to an organization that refuses, for example, to allow a gay couple to adopt a child because they are gay—and since my faith tradition, the UCC, welcomes everyone, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey,” my religious liberty has been breached.
I argue that conservative White Christian America seeks to be sanctioned by the State through strategic SCOTUS rulings on the First Amendment. Let me be clear: not all conservatives nor all White Christians seek to twist the First Amendment. My complaint is with those of the population who overtly and intentionally seek to deploy the concept of religious liberty to discriminate. If we correlate them with Trump’s hardcore base, which I am taking the liberty of doing, it ends up being around 40% of Americans (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). I am old enough to remember when Religious Liberty did not have the topsy turvy meaning it has now. Growing up a white child in the South in the 60s and 70s, God and Country had distinct meanings for me; we were a “Christian Nation.” By the 2016 election, I began to have the disappointing realization that the country I live in is not the one I thought I grew up in. As Black and Brown Americans could have told me, my imagined America was never real; it was only a narrative that kept social and political hierarchies in place. I agree with the argument that upholding both the establishment and free exercise components strengthens religious practice in this country. I hold the position that the current rally cry of “Religious Liberty” signals a license to discriminate and thereby to enforce through subterfuge a morality code that bolsters white supremacy nationalism. This is not Christian.
Again, not all conservative White Christians are white nationalists. Just as politicians like Leader McConnell who actively work to pack the judiciary with conservative judges are not all actively forwarding a religious agenda. And yet, these groups are strange bedfellows.
As Bill Clinton reminded us in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But how might corporate-forward politicians get plain folks to vote against their own economic interests? By appealing to their/our values. In 1980, when the Republicans actively courted religious leaders like Falwell and Robertson to get Christians on board, they promised Christians would have a friend in the White House, a seat at the table—that they would have a voice in governing. So Christians voted Republican. There was no real seat at the table, so the strategy changed to grassroots campaigns and gaining control of the judiciary. Aside from one setback on same-gender marriage from Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, they have been overwhelming successful in influencing politics, which, of course, include the Courts. In his dissent of Obergefell, Justice Alito forecasted—or perhaps signaled—the ruling would have an “inevitable conflict with religious liberty” argument. I am not a political scientist, but my gut tells me that the LGBT victory with Obergefell helped the narrative shift; there would be new, more creative, ways to discriminate. If same-gender marriage was established by an unelected federal judiciary, so too then would cases be decided where refusal of services, for example, be equated with free exercise of religion.
Impact on Local Ministries
A 2019 brief from the Center for American Progress entitled Religious Liberty Should Do No Harm argues that policymakers have a responsibility to enact legislation that will, “ensure the right of religious liberty for all Americans without infringing on the rights and religious freedoms of others”
(London and Saddiqi, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/reports/2019/04/11/468041/religious-liberty-no-harm/). They offer suggestions for building a framework of inclusive, non-discriminatory religious liberty.
One option relevant to local ministries is to consult faith communities in local policymaking. This might be through the formation of interfaith councils, working groups, and task forces that represent a diversity of faith traditions, “in order to ensure that the many voices of the faith community are considered in policymaking” (ibid). This idea gets to the crux of the matter, writ large. Local politics are unduly influenced by conservative White Christians; local municipalities are unable to oppose Republican governors to mandate business closures during a pandemic, let alone establish interfaith policy consulting councils. If we were at a place in this country where rural Alabama had interfaith advisory groups, it might be a good sign that religious liberty was alive and well. But we are not.
My religious affiliation is with the United Church of Christ (UCC), an Open and Affirming (ONA) denomination toward some of the populations against whom religious liberty is being used as a weapon. The most obvious impact religious liberty laws have on my local ministry involves providing sacred spaces of radical welcome who are being discriminated against. My congregation would not only make a cake for a same-gender couple, we would perform the wedding and host the reception! As important, we would show up in solidarity at the state capital.
As Flowers and some of the writers above note, the establishment clause ensures the religious liberty of all who wish to freely exercise religious beliefs, not just of a small subset who would seek to manipulate the First Amendment to suit themselves. For example, this is not a fight for religious liberty of Muslims. It is important that local ministries be vocal in opposition to misuse and misinterpretation of religious liberty. We must, then, employ our own religious liberty to re-establish the concept of freedom inherent in it.
I will end with a story. My congregation is literally on a hill; drivers by cannot see us from the street. As one drives up the hill to the building, we have displayed really powerful signs about being the church and proclaiming that we are an ONA church. Once or twice we tried to put the signs at the foot of the hill; that way, people could see what we stand for. Both times, the signs disappeared. We do not hang a rainbow flag outside our building or display the UCC “Rainbow Comma” logo on our marquee. We do not display Black Lives Matter signs. London and Siddiqi end their brief with this cautionary word, “If policymakers do not ensure that religious liberty protects the free exercise of religion for all Americans, it will continue to be weaponized as a tool for discrimination and political gain and weaken nondiscrimination protections” (americanprogress.org). A “city set on a hill” (Mt. 5:14) can be hidden if it wants to be. We can be visible by being the church, or we can watch as inclusive religious liberty slips beyond our grasp. The work happens at the foot of the hill.
It’s time for white people to check our thinking. Right now.
What are we thinking? I don’t mean, as in, What are we THINKING?? No, I mean, as in, what are we as white people actually thinking right now as the U.S. moves into week two of protests and month three of social distancing? What are we thinking about race, the president, Covid-19, about anything?
As a teacher, I often found that my white college students, who were studying to become teachers in public schools, were uncomfortable talking about race. They did not want to say the “wrong” thing and get called out or challenged. That’s the trade off, though, for talking openly and honestly about race. We get to talk, but we will get things wrong, and we might–will no doubt–have that pointed out. Dont worry, this is a judgement free zone–the point is to think about what we are thinking.
Here is an important point: we must think about what we are thinking so that we can know who we are, and what we support or oppose. To start with, I have a lot of faith in people. I give us credit for generally wanting to do the right thing, to get along with each other, to help each other, and to be able to see injustice and be offended by it.
So I’m going to throw some random thoughts that some of us may or may not be having these days, as we watch FOX or CNN or MSNBC, or even Lifetime. I’m wondering if we’re thinking some of the same things.
- Covid-19 is easing up, so we can go out to eat. Or to church. Or to a ballgame.
- Football should start on time in the fall. Especially college football.
- The cities are on fire. What we need is some law and order. It was necessary for the military to be called up to protect….(fill in the blank).
- There do seem to be quite a few cops killing Black people, but….(fill in blank with your reason).
- Covid-19 was spread from a Chinese laboratory. Or a Chinese bat. Either way, it was Chinese.
- Sure black lives matter. All lives matter.
- These protesters are all radicals.
- Since Martin Luther King, Blacks have equal rights.
- It’s embarrassing to wear a mask. People will look me strange, maybe even smirk.
- If people don’t wear masks, we will build up herd immunity to Covid-19.
- I feel guilty about race issues. Sometimes this turns to anger.
- It feels like the U.S. is split right now on just about any and every issue.
- Cops would not kill if they weren’t provoked by thugs and criminals.
- President Trump….(fill in the blank with what you think about the president).
- I’m worried this country won’t be the same as it was six months ago, but I hope it does.
- Why aren’t Black people more grateful and appreciative that that I am not a racist?
- I do not have white privilege because I’ve worked hard for anything I have.
- I want to do something to support the protesters, but what?
Again, no judgement or moralizing here. I just think we ought to be clear about where we stand and how we feel about events going on around us. Maybe you are open to new ways of thinking. Maybe you are trying hard to empathize with others. Maybe not. For myself, I feel as though I come up short with being informed and being an ally to people….what do I think I should write here….people fighting for their rights?….fighting to breathe?…people whose cause I agree with? I am weighing out which group of people I want to offend least by speaking my own truth. Maybe you also think these things.
So, IF you are like me, wondering what you can do, wondering how you can be an ally, wondering how you can find out more information on Covid–trying to figure out anything at all, I have some links to share. And finally, if you find yourself feeling a certain way that I have the audacity to write this kind of thing at all, see if you can figure out what is prompting those feelings.
First: Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies, adapted from Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice by Paul Kivel. https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/kivel3.pdf
Here is an excerpt:
- What People of Color Want from White Allies
- “Listen to us”
“Find out about us”
- “Don’t make assumptions”
“Don’t take over”
- “Stand by my side”
- “Don’t assume you know
what’s best for me”
- “Make mistakes”
“Don’t take it personally”
- “Talk to other white people”
“Teach your children about “Interrupt jokes and comments”
- “Don’t ask me to speak for my
“Your body on the line”
- “Persevere daily”
Here is another link, White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy, from Teaching Tolerance.org https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/white-antiracism-living-the-legacy Here’s an excerpt from that site on guilt: Guilt allows white people to maintain the status quo. Guilt creates paralysis. Guilt transfers the responsibility to people of color. Guilt continues the aspect of racism wherein white people put people of color in a situation of taking care of us.
Here’s a list of 17 Books On Racism Every White Person Needs To Read from a cite called WhiteAllyToolkit.com
And finally, Here’s a Covid-19 link from Cedars-Sinai, Reliable Sources for Covid-19 Info https://www.cedars-sinai.org/newsroom/reliable-sources-for-coronavirus-info/. You can also look at your local and state health departments, but in my opinion if you really want to get a good read on the situation, dig into how your local nursing homes are doing and scan your local newspapers.
I really love my seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University. Faculty and staff there are committed to issues of justice and spiritual growth. It is also a place where only about 45% of the students are white. I want to support a place like that and more important, learn from the variety of perspectives and experiences of my classmates. It is a place where I can focus on issues important to me, like being a good ally by attending to my white privilege. I am convinced that my anti-racist work as a white Southern academic should also include theological and religious frameworks. I needed to get in touch with my Jesus.
Part of the institution’s commitment to spiritual formation is the annual faculty, staff, and student weekend retreat, which the founding faculty built into the design of the programs. We just recently had one at the Pinnacle Center in the North Georgia mountains, where we spend two days worshiping together and getting to know one another. We build deeper relationships as classmates at a setting like this, where we pray and take communion together. This year, the dean announced he had been working with friends in Union Point, Georgia, to plan a work day at a historic cemetery near the original location of Mercer University. Here’s what he said:
This summer I learned of a neglected African American cemetery located nearby the Penfield cemetery. I have partnered with African American activists and other leaders to help them with a clean-up effort on October 26. I would very much appreciate it if you would join me as we honor this sacred space and practice remembrance.
He noted that enslaved persons were buried there.
Here is what I wish I had thought: Does it make a difference that the dean is a straight, white, cis-male? Were faculty invited to discuss this topic, welcoming voices from faculty of color? Could groundwork have been laid so that the announcement would have had context for the benefit of the students, most of whom were African American? What is motivating me to want to participate?
What I actually did, though, was volunteer to clean up the cemetery.
A few days later, the dean sent a reminder and included additional information that a filmmaker friend and seminary grad would be filming for a documentary. A few days after that, I learned that a group of African American students had submitted a letter to the dean to express concerns about the project. I have not seen this letter, but the seminary grapevine is real. That was the day I discovered the “Savior Barbie” Instagram account. If you haven’t heard about it, below is a Huff Post article, along with 2 examples of Barbie’s posts.
White Savior Barbie pokes fun at people who suffer from “White Savior Complex,” the term used to describe the white Westerners who travel to third world countries and make the entire affair an exercise in self-congratulatory sacrifice. (Huff Post). The account owners, who remain anonymous, point out, “We have both struggled with our own realizations and are definitely not claiming innocence here.” “Barbie Savior, we hope, is an entertaining jumping off point for some very real discussions, debates, and resolves.” It isn’t that there is anything inherently wrong with doing volunteer work to help people. WSB targets the idea that Africa needs saving from itself and white people are the ones who can do it. Barbie Savior is there for a photo op, the ultimate selfie. This kind of thinking supported colonialism, conquest, and slavery. It is white supremacy.
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting for a minute that the McAfee dean is in error. I have no idea until and unless he discusses it what the process was for bringing this opportunity to the students. For all I know, he brought it to the faculty first for them to unpack together. The letter from students is said to contain references to a diversity strategic plan, which I imagine calls for voice and conversation and inclusion in initiative planning. I have no doubt he is prayerfully and profoundly considering what they have written and will respond appropriately. This is not about him; it is about my own complicity in maintaining racist systems in which the White Savior Complex operates.
So just what was I thinking? My first thought was what a great service project! As a Southern Christian who knows what “Decoration Day” is, I have cleaned old cemeteries for as long as I can remember. My second thought was about the historical significance of the place, for yes, I was in part motivated by it being a very, very old African American cemetery that was the final resting place of former enslaved persons.
My third thought was about my friend Edeltress in Baton Rouge, who had taken me on a detour to her ancestral cemetery one day while we were on a school visit for work. “Do you mind?” she asked me. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here. I was a little girl and my parents brought me.” So we drove to a countryside in Louisiana that I couldn’t find today if I had to. “Here it is,” she said. But looking around, I couldn’t see a graveyard. Just what looked like woods, undergrowth, weeds–way back, about a hundred feet off the side of the road. Edeltress laughed. “Oh, you’re looking for a white cemetery. This is how our cemeteries look.” We tramped around the site, being careful not to step on the graves, and on the way home, she told me stories about her father, who had driven an old broken-down truck so that his white neighbors would not recognize him for a landowner and successful farmer. My people were dangerous. So that is the image I got in my head when the dean asked for volunteers. I thought of paying tribute, in this small way, to my friend.
That is why I am going to acknowledge my white privilege, acknowledge the concerns of my classmates–for they hold us accountable for thinking of and processing these issues before complying–and then go clean up a grave yard. But you won’t see it on Facebook or Twitter. I will not take a selfie with a tombstone. Does this make me admirable? Is this sufficient acknowledgement, or am I assuaging my conscience? Am I asking the right questions? I don’t know, but it gives me something to ponder as I pull weeds.
White supremacy can look like skin heads carrying swastikas; it can look like angry white people wearing red hats. It can be masked by well intentioned white people who secretly voted for Trump. And it can be a white seminary student who fails to do the work of problematizing a workday over the graves of enslaved persons. There is another White Savior resource I find relevant here. White Savior: Racism in the American Church (2019). The film “explores the historic relationship between racism and American Christianity, the ongoing segregation of the church in the US, and the complexities of racial reconciliation” (imdb). I recommend it. The film closes with an African American minister from the Bronx discussing being an ally. “Being an ally,” he said, “means asking ‘What do you need? and sometimes that means just shut up and listen.”
At the end of the day, I believe in a place like McAfee. It exemplifies the complexity of racial reconciling and justice. The messiness of it. It is a place where we can make all the mistakes–and there are many–and learn that the sky doesn’t fall when we make them. It is a place where, sometimes, we can just shut up and listen.
This week I had to check my whiteness two times, first at the ONA Coalition National Gathering and then at the UCC General Synod. The lesson was reinforced for me that, even though I have more than one historically marginalized marker with which I identify (gender and sexuality), that does not mean I am enlightened or evolved in relation to other marginalized populations. It is no fun having to face this in real world situations, but it’s crucial to remember. It also teaches me that in discerning for the ministry, I have a lot to learn. It is God saying, “You’re not there yet.”
The first was during a talk given by a candidate on the slate for a UCC national office. Right after the UMC vote, I had been a little indignant about African delegates being the conservative votes that put the resolution against LGBTQ ordination over the top. Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson pointed out that the African delegates had been heavily lobbied and probably manipulated by conservative (probably Southern) delegates. Of course they had; it created the narrative that benefitted U.S. delegates while reinforcing the stereotype that Black bodies and Black churches were by nature “essentially” conservative.
The second instance was personal. I had a roommate for Synod, a gifted African American chaplain I’ll call Susan. One night, we went to a late evening reception for Members in Discernment for ordination. It was late, so there weren’t many people in the large Hilton hotel suite. In the corner, engaged in conversation with a conference delegate, sat Reverend Traci Blackmon, a rock star minister, prophet, activist in the UCC. She came on the national scene in helping people from Ferguson, Missouri, respond to the Michael Brown murder in 2014. Naturally, we were both star struck. While helping ourselves to the snacks and wine, Rev. Blackmon walked over and began heating up her leftovers from Maggiano’s. The three of us struck up a conversation about a contentious topic in the last session. She was very gracious and seemed to me to be in the mood to talk. It seemed like she needed to unwind before calling the very long day a night. So the three of us sat down in the living room area of the spacious suite while she ate. Even though it was late, I was energized. Like those cop shows where they have to keep the caller on the line so they can trace the call, I just wanted her to keep talking. She is a public theological intellectual, and like bell hooks, a treasure.
When we got back our room, I was revved up from the experience. “Traci Blackmon had a conversation with us,” I said. “Well,” said Susan, “she had a conversation with you. I think I may have made one statement.” Screeching halt. She was right. I, in my white academic privilege, had manipulated the conversation so that I could “own” an engagement with this person I admired. I knew how to guide conversation, to interview a subject, and that’s what I had done. My new friend was gracious, and to her great credit, she didn’t excuse or deny it to make me feel better. The irony is that throughout the conversation with Rev. Blackmon I kept telling myself that I was humbled to be in her presence. No I wasn’t; I was proud. Humility is what Susan exhibited, yet I was so blinded by my privilege I did not see it.
I am not suggesting Susan did not have voice–she did, and she could have called me out severely as we debriefed. What I realized was that in this space where justice and covenant were sacred ideals to be put into practice by all Christians, I had performed a microaggression from a place of privilege, so I am glad the space is also one of grace and mercy. Although, like the tools of privilege in my invisible backpack, I do not deserve them.
Today is June 19th, Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when news of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier finally reached enslaved persons in Texas. It coincides with the National Gathering of the UCC Open & Affirming National Gathering and a Race and Religion course assignment on whether the Lost Cause still exists in the South today. All things work together, and it is fitting.
When I was a kid my parents took my little brother and me to Shiloh National Military Park. This began and strengthened my fascination with the Civil War. Other Southern writers have written about how prominently Civil War lore figured into their childhoods, how it shape their psyches as Southern men. No major battles took place in Alabama like in Virginia and Tennessee, so my parents—who took exactly one vacation in their lives and it was NOT to the beach—hauled us on a day trip to Shiloh. We saw the exhibits with artifacts from the battlefield: bullets, bayonets, buttons. We saw a film that mapped out the two-day fight from April 6-7, 1862, the bloodiest battle until Antietam five months later. It remains the sixth on the top ten list. We walked around sites so horrific they had been named: Hornets Nest and Bloody Pond, water colored red by soldiers’ blood. At the end of the day, my parents took us to the gift shop, where we were each allowed one souvenir. My brother and I got the same memento—a confederate private’s cap. We did not even consider the Union blue cap of the yankees.
I think perhaps the Lost Cause takes on a different meaning for working class Southerners than it had for the old plantation class that evolved into wealth obtained from industry and later, investment. For us, the Lost Cause equated with the tragic romanticism of the lost war. The South is a contested place; it is a place looked down upon by those outside—and sometimes inside—of it. During the tour, my brother and I cheered for the Shiloh story of Day 1, that went to the confederates. On the second day, Grant’s reinforcements arrived, Albert Sidney Johnston was shot, and the battle went to the Union. The feeling I had then is similar to the physical and emotional drain I feel after the University of Alabama loses a big game to Auburn. It is real disappointment that I feel for the rest of the day. Our land had been invaded and we had lost. That was my lost cause, and its symbols took on religious meanings—the Stars and Bars battle flag, the gallant General Lee upon his steed Traveler (yes, I know the horse’s name), and of course, Dixie, our hymn.
Constructing the Lost Cause narrative so strong that is part of the psyche of Southerners who have no discernable connection to the Old South other than geographic location required a national comprehensive campaign. So the question to consider is, in whose interest was it to create the Lost Cause as an organizing theme? The white plantation class, supported by southern newspapers convinced poor whites that they were whiter than they were poor; thus, they allied with the people who looked like them. We continue to do this today, voting and allying against our economic interests because they are white. Northern and Southern Protestants turned defeated confederates into defeated Christians as the Lost Cause became a vehicle for Southern Redemption—redemption that was religious, social, and political.
Yesterday, I attended a session at the UCC Open and Affirming (ONA) National Gathering in Milwaukee, called Offensive Faith: Queering the Playbook for Religious Engagement. Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, of the National LGBTQ Task Force stressed the intersectionality present in dismantling systems of gender and sexuality oppression. People of color are disproportionately affected by violence in this country; the same is true for gender violence. One of the pictures she shared prompted my reflections here, connecting religion, the Lost Cause, and racial (and gendered) violence. I look at it now and am offended, yes, but I see it and know that the stirrings of nostalgia I also feel seeing the old black and white photo that could have been taken at Littleville Elementary School, where I grew up a confederate child. My nostalgia is a fruit of white privilege, and so too is offensive.
The second photo Rev. Leapheart shared will likely offend Lost Causers—not only them, it will offend many other white people. I think when we as a people can be offended by both images because they stand for a history of racial violence in which religion has been complicit—then we might hope for redemption.
Please also take time to visit the National LGBTQ Task Force web site and read about their All of Me. All the Time campaign for the Equality Act. They have this description:
The National LGBTQ Task Force educates federal policymakers about the need for non-discrimination protections that ensure the whole person is able to advocate for themselves when discriminated against, wherever that discrimination takes place. We work with a wide range of progressive partner organizations across the country both at the state and federal level, like the National Black Justice Coalition. The Task Force shifts the conversation from a political and technical one to a national and inclusive conversation based on morals and values.
Update: CBS News confirmed that an Islamist extremist group claims responsibility as retaliation for the NZ Christchurch bombing. Seems ISIS and the locals are vying for top spot. So my musing is this: if “Islamic Extremist Groups” are terrorists, then are white nationalists who wear red MAGA hats also? They’re playing with and off each other right now. Endgame is the same.
Earth Day 2019
Warrior God. God of the victor David. It is with humble defiance I approach you, calling in my part of the covenant you have with your people~~all of us. Yesterday, at the moment 31% of the inhabitants of this planet shouted Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!, 290 souls on a tiny speck of it were blown up as they worshipped you. Five hundred more were wounded in this execution, 2,000 years after the one we remember. Terrorists, the news tells us. A local Sri Lankan group who couldn’t figure out how to coordinate and carry out a mass murder were provided resources by an international group who made suicide bombers out of them. The local attackers learned well; Sri Lankans know terror today—right at this moment—terror in the dreadful feeling, in the knowing, that it might not be over. Terror leads to terror and death to death. The story is familiar.
Loving God. David’s Good Shepherd. In the cruelest irony, today is Earth Day. This is the day that activists and poets alike remind us that we are destroying the very ground we live on, the very air we breathe. We are indiscriminate in our destruction, though, for we also kill each other. Christ is risen, indeed. So I will repeat the words of the prophet, How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab 1:2). And I ask all of us who praised the Cosmic Easter Bunny yesterday, just what in the world has Christ risen for? Grant us peace on earth, or at least grant that we may want to want it, for peace leads to peace and love to love. I trust you from the depth of my soul. When it comes to this, I do not really have a choice. Amen.
Holy God, we must speak the names. St. Mary Baptist. Greater Union Baptist. Mount Pleasant Baptist. Louisiana smolders. In the names and the smoke our sin is manifest. We do not speak of their pain because the pain is their own—it belongs to their hearts. We do not get to cry those tears. Theirs is not our story to tell. Our story is a 21-year-old in an orange jump suit staring back at the camera. “His dad has been a sheriff for a number of years, he’s a good fellow,” said a state congressman. “My understanding is the son has had a troubled past.” Yes. Sons of the South have troubled pasts. “Not guilty,” he pleads. It is we who need to plea, yet ours can be no other than guilty. In 1963, two other sets of eyes looked back at the camera, in Birmingham; our pasts are troubled. “I tremble for my country,” Jefferson said, “when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Louisiana burns, God, and we tremble in our transgression. Do you yet sleep?
God, we trust you~~that we are not condemned to forever suffer the consequences of our sin by perpetuating evil. At the hearing, the 21-year-old arsonist’s father, the deputy, left the courtroom in tears. What did he cry for? His “good boy”? A lost youth? A youth lost? His boy took pictures of himself. Pouring gasoline. With a blazing building. Among the ruins. He claimed this.
God of justice, God of righteousness, we trust you and we offer you all praise~~but we do not know exactly what to ask you. Has nothing been asked before? Have we not prayed for forgiveness? Have we not prayed for good relations? Have we not prayed white prayers that our white children would not detect our locked-away resentment of freedom ringing? Correct us. Guide our hearts to pray those prayers. Awaken your justice, God, and direct us toward reconciliation and love—discernible in the photographed eyes looking back at us. Amen.
First, I need to acknowledge my white privilege and citizenship in a colonizer nation. Additionally, I am a U.S. Christian in a missionary culture, which has contributed to colonization. That said, I am also a gay female Christian from a rural Fundamentalist denomination, so I also can speak from intersecting places of marginalization.
In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy. This could very well be the issue that splits the UMC; in fact, the fissures started as soon as the vote was counted. The “Traditional Plan” passed with 438 votes in favor and 384 against, 53% to 47%. Yet in 2014, a PEW Research Study reported that 60% of U.S. UMC members believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted. On the eve of the 2018 General Conference, informal guestimates predicted that 66% of U.S. delegates would vote for the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members (https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/groups-are-misusing-survey-results/ and https://religionnews.com/2019/02/25/united-methodist-committee-rejects-one-church-plan-which-would-allow-lgbt-clergy/). So what happened?
The UMC has around 12 million members globally, about half its members. Methodists from outside the U.S. are generally more conservative and favor traditional positions on sexuality, reports Christianity Today. At the General Conference, 41% of the 864 delegates were non-U.S, 30% of those from Africa. I don’t even have to break out my calculator to know that without global delegates in the mix, the Traditional Plan would almost certainly have been defeated. (Take a look at the UMC World Map here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodists-lgbt-vote-umc-general-conference-denomina.html).
There are several issues to eventually unpack, such as how to reconcile the U.S. UMC and whether or not it will lovingly include its LGBT members and clergy within its community. Very briefly, though, I want to consider another ethical dilemma the UMC faces: how to be Christ’s universal church when the majority of half its members oppose changes taking place in U.S. culture. “In this case,” says Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, “culture looks more like the gospel than churches do” (Changing Our Minds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oO81hxbmGM). One delegate from Mozambique said the Traditional Plan “is what God Wants in the church in this world” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodist-lgbt-vote-conference-plan.html). Is it? More important here, is it what U.S. Methodists believe?
Gushee, whose book Changing Our Minds gives his account of changing his mind about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, notes that he is, “convinced this is not a sexual ethics issue, but it’s about human dignity” (YouTube). He goes on to pose three questions for which I propose the UMC hold itself—locally and globally—accountable. Who counts as equal? Who counts as having dignity? And at a level fundamental to the gospel—Who counts as included within the reach of the good news that God loves human beings in Jesus Christ? After all, he reminds us, sexuality is but a “tertiary concern” compared to issues of the sacredness of life and human dignity.
After nearly 250 years, the Methodist Church has accomplished one of the greatest missionary feats in history—preaching Jesus the Christ throughout the world and adding over 6 million souls to its count. Problem is, in many of these areas, it is not even safe to be “out” as a LGBT Christian. And, the UMC usually holds a mainline, moderate stance on most issues in U.S. culture. In February, the conservative global element nudged the church in a direction against itself. At least I hope that is the case—for herein lies its denominational ethical dilemma. What is the Methodist Church today?
I’ll turn once more to Gushee, who argues if we aren’t in solidarity, we’re part of the oppression. He notes profoundly, “this solidarity will be costly” (YouTube). It will indeed. If the UMC—as a microcosm of the greater church—does not actively seek to recover the broader narratives laid out by Gushee—the Kingdom of God, justice, the example of Jesus, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, and compassion for those who suffer—then it admits its own ugly complicity in rejecting human dignity. It will have nearly literally have gained the whole world but forfeited its soul (Mk. 8:36). Now is its chance to do both.
This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know the Wedding Vow: “I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). Schipper didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here—for another time—on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities—personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing and said, “Yeah, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned—used all my skills to persuade her—and myself—that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. For me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, “Good lord, do I have to try them?” “Not necessarily”, she said,” just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.”
My students often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of my simple answer to them). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act—in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
My Spiritual Formation this week is from What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon by Renita Weems. She takes takes the “ten lessons” from the Shulammite woman’s fearless living and loving in the Song. Interestingly, I’ve heard the Song of Solomon called “The Porn Book of the Bible,” which reinforces masculine patriarchal dominance of Scripture. Weems allows the Shulammite woman to claim her identity through characteristics of liberation. Three quotations from this week’s reading on Choice stood out to me. Here they are with my reflections:
The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman (Kindle, p. 80).
Societal rules are powerful, so powerful that we internalize them and regulate ourselves. Growing up, I wanted to be a CIA agent or a lawyer. It was inconceivable to me, my parents, my friends—everyone who knew me—that I would not go to college on a scholarship straight out of high school. But gender role norms are deeply embedded in how we think and act and move about in the world. By my junior year I was “engaged,” in a relationship just like the other girls. I was married at age 18 and had a baby when I was 19. I look at those numbers and shudder—so young! I gave up my own bigger life.
Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? (p. 83).
Before age 35, I had never lived outside of Alabama. That year, I got divorced, came out to myself, got a job at the Louisiana Department of Education, enrolled in a doctoral program at LSU, and moved to Louisiana. After escaping with my identity—which I had fought for 16 years to hold onto—I did not once ask myself these questions. Like the Shulammite, I was living fearlessly. However, and this is important, my communing with God was a one-way conversation. Although God was ever-present with me, I continued to press through under the delusion that I was accomplishing these things by myself. I give thanks now in retrospect.
But what if the path you’re about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? (p. 87).
On the day I moved to Louisiana, my mother was seeing me off. It was a poignant moment. Two women whose love for one another most often went unspoken, said goodbye. “Mother,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s hard. I just…” trailing off, not knowing how to speak the things that were in my heart about my life, about her, about all the years I felt I had lost. She thought for a minute, trying hard to blink back tears so that I would not see them—something I learned years later she had often done. “You go ahead. I know you need to. We always knew you’d leave one day.” The beaten path, my parents knew, was not for me, no matter how hard they had tried—through church, modeling, instructing, shaping—to guide me along it. That day, when the strongest women I have ever known blinked back tears and let me leave, was the day I began to live without a net, yes, but in vivid color.