Not One of “Those” Christians

Melissa McEwen wrote a post last week that’s fairly labeled “provocative,” and which I am in typical fashion just getting around to reading.

McEwen’s post is long and worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t excerpt from it here. The gist is that when the non-crazy Christians ask her not to lump them in with the crazy, hateful ones, it only furthers Christian privilege in our society. (The rough equivalent of distinguishing between “real” Christians and otherwise, she points out, is something like a white man saying “but the Klan aren’t ‘real’ white people!”)

McEwen has more cause than most to be sensitive to Christian privilege, a history she summarizes in the post. Read it and weep, ye liberal Christ-followers.

Though I agree with much of what she has to say — and have stopped asking people like her to make those distinctions for roughly the reasons she cites — I do believe that it’s in everyone’s best interest to understand that American Christianity is a contested category.

For the sake of accuracy, if nothing else, journalists and bloggers should ask themselves “which Christianity is this?” whenever they get a press release or see the latest outrage. Who does it represent? How does it advance their agenda? We are long past the time, if such a day ever existed, when statements about Christian beliefs or practices could be given neutrally. I wouldn’t expect an outsider like McEwen to evaluate the claims made by various Christians. Like she says, it’s not her job. But responsible writers ought to let their readers know that claims to speak for Christianity itself ought not be taken at face value.

That’s important for two reasons. First, though there’s no arguing that Christianity is privileged in American society, that superiority is not equally applied. As McEwen says, that fact doesn’t relax the necessity of Christians examining their own privilege. But at the same time, the claim of Conservative Christians to speak for all Christians is part and parcel of their exercise of power over liberal co-religionists and non-believers alike. This, I think, is what most liberal Christians are after when they ask someone like McEwen to make distinctions between the various brands: don’t let one fragment of the entire religion speak for the whole. That partly reflects the desire not to be affiliated with people whose beliefs we find noxious, but it’s also the plea of allies wanting to maximize their ability to help.

An admittedly extreme analogy makes the point. Westboro Baptist Church is roughly to American Christianity what the Klan is to white folks. No reasonable person that I know of would say that the Klan speaks for white Americans, even though they hold beliefs that are distressingly widespread. Responsible commentators don’t allow the Klan to become representatives of the wider society because it would empower them. Likewise, most people who write and talk about Westboro keep them in the margins where they belong. That need not reflect anything more than the pragmatic calculation to disempower them relative to other voices.

Now, you might say in response that Westboro, like the Klan, holds beliefs that aren’t all that uncommon. And indeed, some of their ideas are only slight exaggerations of what many people think and practice. Homophobia, like racism, is all over the place.

But just as often, the conservative voices don’t represent the wider view. That’s the other reason not to give them a pass when they claim to speak for Christianity. Because when they say, for example, that Catholics or other Christians are concerned that health care reform might make abortion more easily available, they might be lying through their teeth, and failing to contest the lie makes it that much easier for it to win the argument.

McEwen, among others, might want to check out that last link to see how you can make careful distinctions without ceding an inch of privilege, and without being appointed the judge over anybody’s tradition.

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