Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Can White Evangelicals Only See Discrimination Against Ourselves?

Pew is out with a new survey. It's worth contemplating for what it reveals about White evangelical psychology and the engrained racism of the White evangelical community. Here's the question that we're interested in:

"Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against [insert group, randomized], or not?"

Pew asked the question about religious and racial groups, as well as atheists and gays. Here, in chart form, are the results for some of the groups:

50% of White evangelicals say there is a lot of discrimination against evangelicals in the United States, while only 36% of White evangelicals say Blacks face a lot of discrimination in the United States. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against evangelicals is 19%. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against Blacks is 18%.

Before going further, it is important to mention two mitigating factors. First, even though this is specifically a question about discrimination within the United States, it is possible that some White evangelicals globalized their response as they thought of Middle Eastern Christians and others around the world who do indeed face appalling discrimination. This would be a plain misunderstanding of the question, but perhaps it explains part of White evangelicals' high perception of discrimination. Second, White evangelicals are theologically and culturally predisposed to answer yes to this question. We are often reminded that Christ promised that his followers would face persecution. There is a sense in which we feel we are supposed to be persecuted. At times, this produces an unseemly psychology in which we cast ourselves as a courageous band of righteous believers under siege in a hostile world. Instead of trying to accurately describe the world and our place in it, the perception of discrimination becomes a key tool of self-validation. Our perception of persecution establishes are bona fides as committed Christians.

White evangelicals' high perception of anti-evangelical discrimination is problematic, but in itself it need not be too damaging. Yet when put in context, White evangelicals' perception of discrimination looks far from benign. According to Pew's survey, White evangelicals believe they face more discrimination (a lot more!) than any other religious or racial group in the United States. It is difficult to find charitable interpretations for such gross error.

In particular, White evangelicals are much more likely than any other group of Americans to say that Blacks do not face much discrimination in the United States. Making any sense of this is an ongoing challenge. It's no good to say, "well, White evangelicals are racist." That is apparently true, but it brings us no closer to the why question. One standard interpretation is that White evangelicals, as strong individualists, inherently object to cognitive frames that recognize group discrimination. But this explanation doesn't quite work because, as we have seen, White evangelicals are quite ready to recognize group discrimination against themselves.

There are surely numerous factors contributing to White evangelicals' false perceptions of discrimination coupled with blindness toward actual injustice. Any single explanation is insufficient. Cultural and spatial isolation, conservative political ideology, individualism, racism, and nationalism may all be contributing factors. We must also consider the rampant popularity of middle-class theology, the cult of upward mobility, and the basic reluctance of large segments of White evangelicalism to apply the gospel to American life.

It might be worthwhile to dwell on the gospel a little bit more. Theologically liberal Christians have found the gospel offensive since at least the 19th century. It is too conservative, narrow, dark. All that talk of blood and wrath and miraculous resurrection from the dead is so primitive. Of course, without all this supposed primitivism, you have no gospel at all. I am grateful for the blood; I absolutely deserve the wrath of God, and Jesus literally returned to life to literally rescue me. White evangelical Christians are nodding in agreement at this point.

But it is not commonly understood that White evangelicals are also deeply offended by the gospel. Just as theological liberals have found the gospel too narrow and conservative, White evangelicals do not accept the whole gospel. They find it too expansive, and they mistake basic Christian doctrine for liberal politics or naive utopianism. Try talking about Christian teaching on segregation in the church, as I wrote about recently on this blog. You won't get a response from White evangelicals. Try using the Apostle John's words about salvation in the same way White evangelicals use the Apostle Paul's words. We like the simplicity of confessing with our mouths and believing in our hearts, but somehow we don't really believe that lack of concern for our fellow humanity is proof that we're not Christians. The Bible teaches both. Try actually talking about God's will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. Yeah, Jesus said it, but White evangelicals will tell you to calm down and realize that the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway. Try explaining to evangelicals that Christianity teaches that God has ordered the world in such a way that the materially poor have more spiritual riches than those of us who are middle class. You get blank stares.

White evangelicals believe in a syncretistic gospel (do any of us, truly, believe in anything other?) that is made more damaging by its insistence that it is simply biblical, unencumbered by culture. It claims to be the universalizing truth of God and is thus blind to its own particularity. If you want to be accepted as a leader in many White evangelical churches, be very careful about presenting a gospel that challenges nationalism, patriotism, whiteness, capitalism, and middle-classness. Of course, the true gospel challenges all these things, just as it challenges all human systems and loyalties, whether of the right or the left.

How does this relate to White evangelicals' failure to see discrimination against other groups? If we were applying basic Christian doctrine in an American context (the church is to be unified, we are to look out for the interests of others, we are to have special regard for the poor, etc) it simply would not be possible for White evangelicals to look out across America and see ourselves as the most victimized group. Our own lived experience would tell us otherwise.

I'm not giving up. Like Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God" and it can fix even this.

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