Identity Politics and the Death of Christian Unity
Below is both the outline and the manuscript for Jonathan’s T4G 2020 breakout. You can watch it here.
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I. What Is Identity Politics?
- It is an approach to politics based on one’s group identity.
- It comes with a basic worldview which measures life in terms of power generally and the division of groups between oppressor and oppressed specifically.
- It views life and truth as socially constructed.
- The primary political activity of oppressed groups is consciousness-raising and collective action.
II. Identity Politics Offers a Few Points of Agreement
- It reminds us of what the Bible teaches about the pervasiveness of sin.
- It helps us better understand the Bible’s call to repentance and the unity that only come through repentance.
- It encourages us to consider more carefully the prominent role the Bible gives to justice.
- It helps us better understand what the Bible teaches about authority, at least perversions of authority in the fall.
III. Identity Politics Is a Misleading Ally—An Anti-Theology.
- Its doctrine of creation: It treats both group and the individual as god. Therefore, there is little basis for human unity or dignity.
- Its doctrine of sin and the fall: It offers a different list of sins than the Bible’s, which creates new injustices. It also overlooks the universality of sin.
- Its doctrine of redemption: It offers salvation by merit, which yields self-righteousness. And it insists on political agreement, which yields division.
Big idea: Are our present divisions the fault of identity politics? Identity politics is a cause of some of our divisions. But identity politics is also the symptom of older sins, sins which are also responsible for our present divisions.
IV. Where Do We Go From Here?
- Preach the political power of justification by faith alone, which is the source of the church’s spiritual and political (not partisan) unity.
- Point to the church as the political hope of the nations and where we find our primary identity together in Christ.
- Preach the whole Bible.
- Maintain both love and truth.
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Summary: Are our present divisions in the culture and in the church the fault of identity politics? This talk explores the ways in which identity politics is a useful ally for Christians, insofar as the experiences and challenges of people who have suffered one form of oppression or another offer Christians an opportunity to read their Bibles better. Yet it also asserts that identity politics is a misleading ally—an anti-theology even—whose gods are the group and the individual. Even as it helpfully addresses some injustices, it creates new ones. In short, identity politics is a cause of some of our divisions. But identity politics is also the symptom of older sins, sins which are also responsible for our present divisions.
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Is identity politics a threat to Christian unity? That’s the question I’ve been asked to consider. To answer it, I’ll start by talking about what identity politics is. Next, I’ll talk about how identity politics offers a few points of agreement for Christians. Then I’ll observe how it’s a misleading ally. Finally, I’ll conclude with a few remarks on where to go from here. First…
I. WHAT IS IDENTITY POLITICS?
Here I’ll say four things.
First, it’s an approach to politics based on one’s group identity.
The primary actor through which we view the political landscape is not the individual or the party or even the whole nation, but the group. And while potentially that could mean any kind of group, in today’s political landscape that basically means one’s ethnic group, gender group, gender-identity group, sexual orientation group, religious group. Of course, the number of groups asking for political recognition and participation as a group seems to expand. First, it was L and G. Then L, G, B. Then L, G, B, T. Then L, G, B, T, Q. And so on.
The point is, political perspectives, political alliances, and political goals are all cooked up in the cauldron of one’s identity group. That’s the starting point. The group is the primary actor.
Yet if identity politics were merely a group-oriented perspective, that would be nothing new.
Second, identity politics comes with a basic worldview in which nearly everything in life is measured in terms of power generally and the division of groups between oppressor and oppressed specifically.
Even more specifically, straight, white, Christian men are the oppressors, while everyone else belongs to one or more—an intersection of—oppressed groups. It is very much a postmodern perspective in that regard. How? Because a major theme in postmodern thought generally, and identity politics specifically, is that everything is political: sports, entertainment, certainly family, marriage, children, and sexuality, the kind of home you buy, the kind of clothes you wear, the way you speak. Think about how politicized where you stand on quarterback Colin Kaepernick became, or whether or not you eat at Chick-fil-A? Tonight show host Johnny Carson was studiously non-partisan, which is what Americans in the 1970s and 80s wanted. Now the media criticize his successor Jimmy Fallon for failing to attack Trump, like Fallon’s competition Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel do. And apparently, it hurts Fallon’s ratings.
In other words, everything is politicized in a postmodern and identity-politics worldview. Everything is subject to the competitions of power, and power as its wielded between oppressing and oppressed groups. All your decisions, everything you do, is either an act of privilege or a being-imposed-upon—not that you are necessarily conscious of these things.
- The little white boy in the suburbs is not consciously racist as he enjoys a nutritious, four-square meal.
- The little minority boy in the ghetto may not be conscious of his vitamin deficiency and stunted growth through soda-pop and potato-chip breakfasts in comparison to the white boy.
- Yet one is “privileged”; the other’s a victim of injustice. And as that little white boy grows up, he will naturally make a host of decisions that maintain his privilege and power, meaning he will gradually become complicit in the injustice.
In that regard, the perspective of postmodernity and identity politics is totalitarian. Meaning, it’s indictment and attempt to control our lives is essentially total. It reaches into everything, from how we spend our money, to who we sleep with, to how we speak, to how we think.
Consider: it’s not enough to have equalized our laws by overturning slavery, Jim Crow, or the criminalization of homosexuality. After all, says critical race theory, which I’d call a sub branch of identity politics, the dominant groups only overturned these things because they realized that such laws were no longer in their self-interest. Whites politicians may have given you, say, the civil rights act, but it wasn’t altruism. They’re still fundamentally self-interested. They hide behind the claim “everything is legally equal now,” but oppressed groups know that nothing has fundamentally changed.
Therefore, oppressed groups need to continue the revolution. They’ll need to point toward both micro-aggressions as well as larger structural injustices, which White men don’t tend to acknowledge or see.
For instance, privileged groups claim to stand up for things like free speech, but did you notice they’re happy to restrict speech if it goes against someone in a position of power, as with laws against insulting a judge, or sharing government secrets, or against defamation and slander, which really only affects the wealthy and powerful (examples from Critical Race Theory, 29). Well, the powerless can play at that game, too. So let’s talk about hate speech, which help protects the marginalized.
In that sense, identity politics seeks something different than what early-twentieth century feminists or many 1960 civil rights leaders sought. Early feminists and civil rights leaders sought the expansion of individual rights for members of oppressed or disenfranchised groups, like women and minorities. They worked within the frameworks of the American founding—classical liberalism. Identity politics doesn’t let go of classical liberalism entirely, but it’s also unconvinced that women and blacks can be equal players in all the systems created by white men. Therefore, it’s more open to tearing down the system and rebuilding it. The government should pay for abortion. Tear down binary constructs of gender. Do away with codes of “free speech.” Reapportion wealth through reparations. Promote affirmative action. And so forth.
In this, you can see why identity politics is often associated with Marxism or neo-Marxism, both by its advocates and its critics. It doesn’t talk about the proletariat rising up against the bourgeoisie as in classical Marxism, but (i) it gives primacy to the group over the individual. (ii) It views all of life as political. (iii) It views everything through the binary of oppressor and oppressed. (iv) And it seeks to overthrow or at least remake the present structures of the market, the family, and the public square. You’re either with the cause or you’re against it. There’s no neutral territory.
So we have groups. We have groups divided between oppressor and oppressed. And then there’s a third definitional element that’s crucial, and it’s a metaphysical assumption lying behind or underneath these first two. Identity politics views most or even all of human life and truth as socially constructed. Things don’t have intrinsic meaning or significance or value. They only have the meaning and value groups of humans give to it.
In other words, identity politics is where a post-religion, post-philosophy, post-truth, postmodern world goes to find its source of belief and morality. God is dead; capital-T Truth is, too. Which means, there is scarcely a common humanity to speak of, and there are no morally impermissible groups. Yet of course we still need something to believe, some moral standards to guide our lives.
Where do we get them? From our group. Our groups give us meaning, purpose, value, a code. People on the political Right and Left do this. It’s not as if only progressives play this game while conservatives maintain some objective posture. We all live and identify with our groups, and those groups coexist in a perpetual state of war, like a Mad Max movie. Indeed, what we think of as “I” or “myself” is a composite of all the groups we inhabit: the values and words we learned from this family, that ethnic identity, that nation, that high school, that professional group, and so forth.
The fact that human life and truth are socially constructed helps you make sense of some of the controversies which get reported on university campuses. I think of a story that Rosaria Butterfield tells about giving a lecture on a university campus. She was referring to a transgender friend who had placed her “large hand” over her own in a gesture of comfort. A woman approached the microphone and blurted: “That’s hate speech!”
Butterfield replied, “So . . . it is hate speech to say that Jill’s hands are large?”
The student exploded: “Of course it is!”
Rosaria: “Jill stands six foot two without heels…I’m five two. My hands barely cover an octave on the piano. Compared to mine, Jill’s hands are large. Large is a descriptive adjective.”
The woman: “Transgender women are hurt by such insensitive observations. It’s hateful.”
Rosaria: “Why is it hateful to say Jill’s hands are large?”
The woman: “This is what leads LGBTQ+ people to suicide!”
Rosaria: “But the size of Jill’s hands is a measurable, objective truth.”
The woman: “Who cares about truth? Your truth isn’t my truth. Your truth hates my reality!”
What’s going on here? Well, remember what I’ve said so far. We belong to groups. Those groups are oppressors or oppressed. Transgender women are oppressed. And reality is socially constructed, not meaning that a hand is physically larger or smaller based on our perception, but the significance we ascribe to the size of the hand bears political meaning. And by calling it a “large” hand, this woman believed Butterfield to be actually saying, “Jill’s hand is ‘not normal’ for a woman’s hand, because Jill is not actually woman, and I’m going to refuse to acknowledge Jill’s understanding of herself, and I’m going to impose my own “truth” on her. I’m going to enslave her with my gender binary.” And that, said the woman at the microphone, is discriminatory. It’s hate speech.
Again, this is straight postmodern thinking. If you know the work of the gay French philosopher Michael Foucault, you know he characterized all of history as a competition in power, and how people would assert their power through language and by characterizing certain things as normal and other things as not normal. So why do heterosexuals refer to themselves as “straight” and homosexuals as “queer,” which (look it up in the dictionary) means strange or odd or even suspicious? Why do the heterosexuals get to be the straight ones and gays the crooked ones? Do you see how language is being used to normalize one group’s sexual preferences and identity and ostracize another’s?
All this brings us to fourth thing to say about identity politics. If reality and truth are socially constructed by our groups, the primary political activity of oppressed groups must be consciousness-raising and collective action. So people need to recognize a group in all its dignity and significance. They need their consciousnesses to be raised. They need to be “woke.” And that can only happen when the privileged groups—straight white men—stop talking and start listening, and oppressed groups are allowed to not just speak but to define the terms of the conversation. Part of this “speech” includes re-telling history in a way that offers the perspective of oppressed groups. Then, second, collective action needs to follow. Insofar as racial or sexist hierarchies determines who get the best job, best doctors, best schools, best party invitations, those hierarchies need to be recognized and dismantled. Reparations need to be made.
In so far as consciousness-raising and recognition are the first crucial steps with identity politics, the duty of all other groups is to offer vocal solidarity. To fail to be vocally supportive on Facebook, in the classroom, or with a rainbow flag on your desk, to be silent, to be passive, is an implicit preservation of the unjust hierarchy, because such silence and passivity is an acquiescence to the former reality. Remember reality is socially constructed. So if you’re not actively sponsoring the new reality, your acquiescing to the old one.
II. IDENTITY POLITICS OFFERS A FEW POINTS OF AGREEMENT
So that’s identity politics. I want to turn now to talking about how identity politics offers a few points of agreement for Christians who seek to view all of life through biblical lenses. Identity politics is a cause of some of our division, but it’s also the symptom of older sins, which are also the source of some of our divisions.
No, identity politics does not offer us an alternative source of truth to the Bible. But it does point to people’s experiences, which, sometimes, might help us to see things in our Bible that we hadn’t really paid attention to before.
Here’s an illustration: I’m sure I must have read Psalm 55:21 a number of times over the years: “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.” But I don’t know that I ever gave any special thought to it…until I was involved in a pastoral counseling situation with a verbally abusive husband. With me and the other pastors, this man’s speech was smooth as butter, softer than oil. So it was easy to believe him. His wife would describe how awful he was in the home, but we would think, “What him?” Meanwhile, she knew all too well there was war in her husband’s heart, and his words in the home were drawn swords. And it took the pastors a while to figure out how bad it was. Gratefully we eventually did. One day a counselor showed her Psalm 55:21 and she could say, “Yes, that’s it. God gets it. Even when my pastors don’t get it, God gets it.” Through hearing her experience, that verse now helps me understand the perspective of an abused or oppressed woman.
Identity politics offers a few points of agreement for Christians who seek to view all of life through biblical lenses in at least four ways. So, again, four subpoints:
First, it reminds us of what the Bible teaches about the pervasiveness of sin.
Let me remind you of a few verses from Scripture on sin.
- Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
- Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
- Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
I confess I’m a little surprised when Christians get defensive around some of the topics highlighted by identity politics, because, as these three verses teach us, our doctrine of sin affirms that we’re sinful at birth, we’re sinful pervasively, meaning no part of our lives is unaffected by sin. And our sin deceives us:
Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
No, I don’t want to charge that little white boy in the suburbs eating four-square meals with racism, per se. But if he is indeed sinful at birth, is it not at least worth considering the possibility that he’ll structure his life in order to give all advantages to himself, and become sinfully partial toward whatever group he occupies, from the high school he attends, to the nation he lives in, to his socio-economic class, to his skin color? To me, that’s a pretty basic application of Psalm 51. Or . . .
Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”
So when a critical race theorist says that white people pass laws like the civil rights act not out of altruism but out of self-interest, I want to affirm common grace, and the fact that non-Christians do love and desire justice. But I also want to affirm total depravity and say, “Duh, of course.” Even our righteous acts are filthy rags. Changing laws doesn’t change the heart. That’s basic Christianity. So we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “The laws are equal.” But you can understand why minority folk, looking around noticing how Whites still huddle in the same neighborhoods and possess 13 times the average household wealth, might ask themselves, “Have things really changed that much?”
Now you might say, “Well, the sword of state cannot change hearts.” That’s true, but my concern here is the Christian’s heart and the life of the church. Isaiah 64:6 should change our hearts. We as Christians should be willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, we’re more self-interested and less loving than we think, even as we give ourselves doctor’s notes that say “racism free.”
Let me also be clear about this: I’m not asking you to think about government policy, at least in the first instance. I’m asking you to think about the posture of our hearts as Christians. Not policy, but heart posture. That’s the conversation I’m having.
Friends, identity politics offers a few points of agreement because it asks us for at least a moment to view people within their group identity, and to ask whether they’ve been oppressed or at least under-recognized, under-loved, under-affirmed, under-encouraged, under-promoted, in comparison to people who share your skin color or gender. It’s an ally because it reminds us that sin is from birth (Psalm 51); it wears camouflage (Isaiah 64); and it deceives us (Jeremiah 17).
Elements of identity politics help us apply the very doctrine of sin we affirm.
In a sense, identity politics functions in the role of Moses and the law. It brings judgment and condemnation. It reveals our sinful partialities, to use a word from the book of James. It reveals our lack of love.
Identity politics offers at least four points of agreement. Here’s the second:
Second, identity politics helps us better understand the Bible’s call to repentance and the unity that only come through repentance.
When Moses indicts, we need to repent, and we’ll only discover unity in the church when there’s repentance.
Which is why Christians—sometimes—might be missing the point when they say (as I often hear on Twitter), “It’s gospel we need, not talk of justice or racism or sexism.” Well it’s true that that unity can only be found in the gospel. But it’s also true that the gospel calls us to repentance, and that we’ll only be united in repentance. So if a fellow church member is living in adultery, he shouldn’t say to me, “We’re united in the cross!” Well, I’m not sure we are. To be united at the cross means being united in repentance, and you don’t appear to be repentant.
To put it another way, we have to be united in confessing our guilt under the law before we’re united in forgiveness through the cross.
It’s especially crucial to recognize the gospel unity depends upon shared repentance in matters of oppression. What good is it for the abusive husband to say to the abused wife, “We’re united in the cross.” Again, no, not until you repent of your abuse, husband.
Now, admittedly, it’s very easy to see that a man committing adultery or an abusive husband needs to repent. And it’s comparatively harder to determine if there are broad, ongoing, systemic forms of injustice between men and women or between majority and minority ethnicities today. Not only that, we all know false indictments are made.
- Still, we live in a moment when 88 percent of Blacks in the United States say, “the country needs to keep making changes in order for Blacks to have equal rights with Whites.”
- Forty percent of Blacks say they have been treated unfairly in a store or restaurant in the last month based on race, compared to seven percent of Whites.
- Forty-eight percent of Blacks say they have experienced it in the workplace compared to fourteen percent of Whites.
Are we sure we want to say 88 percent of U. S. Blacks have been ideologically hoodwinked, while Whites like me maintain the objective perspective on life in this country? The most charitable indictment I might offer is that we lack empathy. We’re failing to live in an understanding way.
Again, I’m not saying there’s an easy solution. Maybe you personally didn’t treat someone unfairly in a store or a restaurant in the last month, year, or decade based on race. What are you supposed to repent of? Maybe…it’s just an unwillingness to say to your minority friends, “What’s your experience been like? How can I help?”
I’m not here to pretend there are simple answers. I’m simply proposing, I believe identity politics just might point to a place where many of us have something to learn about love and repentance.
Third, it encourages us to consider more carefully the prominent role the Bible gives to justice.
Having grown up in theologically conservative churches, I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon, a Sunday School lesson, or a small group study on the topic of justice.
Of course, conservative Christians often get nervous at any talk of justice because they immediately associate the word with the political agenda of the left. I get it. Theologically liberal churches, best I can tell, do talk about justice, but their brand of justice often ends up sounding like the partisan agendas of the left.
Personally, I’m not convinced Christians on the political right or the left have done their biblical homework here, yet that’s where we should begin—with the biblical basics.
The word justice occurs 132 times in the ESV. The words oppress, oppression, or oppressor occur 118 times. This is a big deal.
Scripture says that not only can individuals be unjust, so can legal and social structures. Think of how Haman convinced Ahasuerus to enact a genocidal campaign against the Jews in the book of Esther (3:7–14). Think of how Jesus condemned the lawyers for loading burdens on people that are too hard for them to bear (Luke 11:46). Think of the preference shown to the Hebrew-speaking widows in Acts 6 or to the rich in James 2. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isa. 10:1–2).
Scripture also commands us to give greater protection to certain groups of people—widows, orphans, the poor, even prisoners. And I assume the groups needing protection might change from context to context.
In short, structural injustice should be no surprise for Christians. Sinful people will pass sinful laws, erect sinful institutions, and devise sinful social practices.
Now, I think identity politics gets many things wrong in its view of justice because it has an unbiblical standard of righteousness by which it measures justice. It’s unable to distinguish between morally natural groups (such as groups based on gender or ethnicity or being physically handicapped) and groups which are profoundly charged morally (as with groups based on sexual orientation and gender identity).
Still, let me go back to where I began. How many sermons have you heard on justice? If we would be Christians, we should care about justice. God says he “practices” and “delights” in justice (Jer. 9:24), and that he “established his throne for justice” (Ps. 9:7).
And God says of his servant, “Behold my servant…in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” Presumably, we should care about what he cares about!
What’s hard to miss in Scripture is how often justice involves defending the needy and lifting up the downcast.
- “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Ps. 82:3)
- “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.” (Ps. 140:12; also, 10:19)
- “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause (Is. 1:17; also 1:23; 10:1-2)
The advocates of identity politics don’t possess a wholly biblical view of justice by any stretch of the imagination, but might they prompt us to study the topic more than we have?
Fourth, it helps us better understand what the Bible teaches about authority.
Identity politics has little or no use for the idea of authority. Why? Because their attention is focused on the perversions of authority in the fall. Meanwhile, Christians, especially complementarians like myself, work hard at affirming God’s good purposes for authority in creation and redemption.
Yet we need to keep our eyes on both the good and the bad: Authority in creation and redemption and the perversions of authority in the fall. And identity politics helps us with the latter.
If you’re a complementarian, you believe that God has given husbands an authority of counsel in the home (Eph. 5:22–24; 1 Peter 3:1–7). He has established an asymmetry of authority. And that asymmetry means that a husband shouting, “You stupid woman!” to his wife is doing something much worse than the wife shouting, “You stupid man!” to him in the exact same tone and volume. It does more damage by virtue of his position of authority, his wife’s respective vulnerability, and the leverage he has.
How frustrating it is to me in marital counseling situations, therefore, when pastors quickly default to, “Well, there’s always fault on both sides.” Logically speaking, that’s what an egalitarian pastor should say. He (or she!) believes that that husband and wife, structurally speaking, are symmetrical. A complementarian pastor, however, should be quick to recognize that headship, ordinarily, means that a preponderance of responsibility falls on the head. Wives bear their own responsibility, to be sure, yet what headship means finally is that Jesus knocks on the man’s door first when trouble comes (Gen. 3:9).
In other words, conservative Christians or complementarians should act as a “first responders” to any threat of abuse, like New York City firemen on 9/11.
Furthermore, identity politics is not an ally in the since that I can learn from this book (the Bible) and I can learn from a book like this one (Critical Race Theory) as an equal partner. By no means. Rather, this second book gives me a few insights into people’s lives that show me how the Bible is relevant or can be applied. So, not, not two sources of absolute truth. Goodness, no. Rather, this book, whether it’s an actual book or a conversation with a minority friend or even a movie that offers me a minority perspective or a woman’s perspective, offers me insights into human experience, frankly, just like getting married or becoming a dad give me insights into human experience. And then I do my best to view what a book or a friend tells me through the lens of Scripture. Scripture is always our interpretive grid and our only source of absolute truth.
And if nothing else, identity politics should teach us to do this with groups of people who are not like us, what Scripture tells husbands to do with wives: live with them in an understanding way.
Or think of Paul:“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12–13). And then he tells us: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor…[And] If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:22–26).
Identity politics may be helpful insofar as it helps us to do that.
III. IDENTITY POLITICS IS A MISLEADING ALLY—AN ANTI-THEOLOGY
Yet make no mistake, identity politics is also a profoundly misleading ally. More to the point, it’s a deceiver and an anti-theology.
A number of authors have remarked on the religious nature of identity politics. Journalist Andrew Sullivan has argued it’s a religion, complete with its own orthodoxy for explaining all of life, a doctrine of sin focusing on oppression, a call for confession (“Check your privilege”), a doctrine of conversion (“Get woke”), and a call to obedience in collective action. The one thing it doesn’t offer, says Sullivan, is a view of salvation.
Or let me put it my own way: like all postmodern philosophies, identity politics is anti-theology. Like most philosophies, it says some truth things. But remember that any philosophy that isn’t grounded in God’s Word finally opposes God. “Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor.). Our gospel is upside down to them, and they are upside down to us.
So if identity politics is anti-theology, let’s think through its’ doctrine of creation, its’ doctrine of the fall, and its’ doctrine of redemption.
The doctrine of creation. Who is God in this anti-theology? Who is the creator?
In some ways, the group is god. In other ways, the self is god.
It’s the group in that, as New York University professor Patrick Egan argues in a paper, it’s not just that people choose their politics based on their identity. It’s also the case that peoples’ political groups tend to form their sense of identity. People adopt beliefs, behaviors, and even a sense of themselves based on the prototypical group member. “Conforming to the prototype,” he says, “makes individuals better liked and more popular with other in-group members,” which in turn sustains “in-group cohesion and loyalty.” The group plays God.
In another sense, the individual always remains God. We seek to please ourselves, discover ourselves, define ourselves, express ourselves. I think this is most obvious in conversations about gender fluidity and transgenderism. It’s not biology that determines me. I determine me—who I am.
Identity politics is not pure Marxism. In some ways, you could say it’s the child of Marxism and the classical liberalism of the American founding with all its emphasis on individual rights. “I have the right to an abortion; I should have the right to pick my pronoun; I have the right to marry whomever I want to marry.” To be sure, classical liberalism can become idolatrous, too.
So the God of this anti-theology is the group in one sense, the individual in another. What kind of world do the gods of identity politics create? As we’ve talk about, they create socially constructed worlds. And this provides a prime example of why Christians need to exercise such careful discernment. Contemporary concepts of race are certainly socially constructed. Yet because identity politics has no other moral language or standard of righteousness than oppression-talk from Mama Marxism and freedom/rights talk from Papa Liberalism, it has no way to distinguish between socially-constructed groups like “Black and White” and manufactured groups like “homosexual” or “transgender.” It’s incapable of making a distinction because it doesn’t have the moral resources or language.
So when a Christian begins to think through the lens of identity politics instead of through the lens of the Bible, he or she will have a very hard time not viewing LGBT similarly to how he or she views ethnicity or gender. He won’t realize that the very groupness of the LGBT group, biblically-conceived, is nothing more or less than a group of, say, “burglars” or a group called “embezzlers” or a group called “adulterers.” To be sure, every burglar, embezzler, adulterer, just like every gay or lesbian, deserves civil rights as individuals, and pastoral compassion in addressing them. But do they deserve civil recognition as a specially-protected and affirmed group? That’s something different.
Okay, so identity politics has a doctrine of creation with at least two gods: the group and the individual. These gods create a socially-constructed world. And all this creates at least two problems: First, there’s little basis for human unity. Second, there’s little basis for human dignity.
First, there is little basis for human unity—or little talk of a common humanity. The god of the group teaches us we have different creation stories. If your Genesis begins in Europe, you’re European American. If Africa, African American. Asia? Asian American. And so forth. Whites then want to preserve and reclaim European culture, Blacks African culture, and so forth, as if these were our own gardens of Eden. And don’t try to appropriate my creation story or culture. We don’t have enough in common to allow you to do that. We’re too different.
Meanwhile, the god of self teaches us to self-identify our gender. What’s your pronoun? He? She? Ze? Zir? They? You are self-creating. Your sense of self is its own Genesis.
And when there is little basis for a common humanity, how can we expect to cooperate in the public square or even the church? We want fundamentally different things, no? Separatism is endemic to identity politics. It is a worldview of protest. And while there’s a place for protest, it offers little more than protest.
There is no basis for human dignity. So identity politics offers no basis for a common humanity; it also offers no basis for human dignity. Which is ironic because it exists to say the individuals in all these groups possess dignity. And Christianity can agree because we believe every human is made in God’s image. But remove God and his image in us, what’s left to sustain that dignity? Nothing really, except desire.
Yet what happens when my desires contradict your desires? We go to battle. We go to court. We fight elections and supreme court nominations with religious fervor. We conduct social media witch hunts against those who have broken our rules. Why? Because I believe your desires and convictions dehumanize me. Therefore, I will dehumanize you. And friends, violence is not far behind when we begin to dehumanize one another. And democracy won’t long work, as Francis Fukuyama argues in his book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.
That’s identity politics’ doctrine of creation.
Let’s consider its doctrine of sin and the fall. And I’ll say two things here.
First, it has a different list of sins than the Bible’s. There’s a few points of overlap. Both agree that misusing power and discrimination are wrong. Yet in other places it celebrates what the Bible calls sin. “Pride,” one of the greatest sins in the Bible, is its rallying cry. Pride has a whole month dedicated to itself. And marches.
One can’t help but think of Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20)
And what happened in ancient Israel when people called evil good and good evil? Injustice followed. So it is with identity politics today. And here is where I want to make a special plea to any listeners who are especially sympathetic with any of the movement associated with identity politics. Please recognize that, even as such movements address one set of injustices, they often create other injustices.
Here’s an illustration: the feminist movement responds to the abuse and inequality of women. That’s good. Yet with the second wave of feminism it began buying into the lies of the sexual revolution and insisting that women’s liberation requires unfettered sexual freedom and that female sexuality is just like men’s. Yet what happens? Listen to an excerpt from Mary Eberstadt’s Primal Scream: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, which I highly recommend. She’s talking about how we arrived at the #MeToo movement.
The arithmetic is simple. The sexual revolution reduced the number of men who could be counted on to serve as protectors…Broken homes put father figures at arm’s length…The ethos of recreational sex blurred the line between protector and predator, making it harder for many women to tell the difference. Simultaneously, the decline of the family has reduced the number of men offering affection and companionship of a nonsexual nature—fewer brothers, cousins, uncles, and others who could have been counted on to push back…against other men treating mothers or sisters or daughters badly. Also simultaneously, the overabundance of available sexual partners has made it harder to hold the attention of any one of them…The result is that many women have been left vulnerable and frustrated” (74–75).
[And the behaviors leading to the #MeToo movement followed]
In short, let’s free women from the “patriarchal structures” of the family, says feminism. Yet what if God in fact intended those structures to constrain men? Will destroying them leave women more or less vulnerable?
Identity politics reasonably objects to one set of injustices, but because it doesn’t have the right foundations, it only creates new ones.
It’s hard to think of a more obvious illustration of this than parents giving their gender-confused children puberty blockers and replacement hormones, or insisting that teachers and other students call a five-year-old by his or her preferred pronoun. And now we’re pushing toward the injustices we associate with totalitarianism. “You will call this girl a boy, or you will lose your job.” “You will put a rainbow flag on your desk, or you will be sidelined in this company.”
Here’s something I observed reading through the biblical prophets lately. The prophets convince me as much as ever that Christians should care about justice. They indict Israel for their injustices again and again. Yet this is also clear: injustice always roots in idolatry. People pursuing idols pursue injustice.
- So number one, what do you expect from all the advocates of identity politics who live for their idols?
- Number two, if you’re really interested in justice, what do you think people ultimately need, if not the true God of the Bible?
So first, identity politics has a different list of sins than the Bible, which creates a new set of injustices. Second, it seems to overlook the universality of sin, or at least indicts some as more sinful than others. Members of oppressor groups are capable of sinning in a way oppressed groups are not. For instance, you’ve heard the term “mansplaining,” which refers to the way a man can speak condescendingly to a woman, belittling her. Yet there’s no equivalent term for women-splaining, as if women never speak condescendingly to men?
Admittedly, history does not offer us power symmetries. Things have not been equal. Go back to what I said about the different greater culpability a husband has for harsh words compared to his wife offering the same words. There is a time and place to give the first word to those who have been abused or oppressed. To be sure. And let me clear about this: some sins are worse than others, with abuses of authority among the worst because such abuse lies so despicably about God and his use of authority.
Yet we also cannot forget, the Bible tells us “all are under sin . . . their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths. There is no fear of God before their eyes . . . for all have sinned” (Romans 3).
Minority and majority, women and men, are alike evil.
Jeremiah charges the Israelites, “Have you forgotten . . . the evils of Judah’s kings, the evils of their wives, your own evils, and the evils of your wives . . .? . . . All the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods [and] all the women standing by—a great assembly . . . answered Jeremiah, ‘As for the word you spoke to us in the name of the LORD, we are not going to listen to you! Instead . . . we will burn incense to the queen of heaven and offer drink offerings to her . . .’” (44:9, 15–17).
Jeremiah, who lives in a much more patriarchal society than our own, seems to find reason to point in both directions. Now, I don’t know of any Christians who deny that all people are sinners. Fair enough. But realize there’s a strange moral idealizing of oppressed groups in identity politics. Don’t you dare blame the victim. Don’t tell me women are accountable for how they dress. It’s up to the man to be self-controlled. Yes, absolutely the man should be self-controlled. He’s culpable. But is that the only thing to say from a biblical perspective?
Let me make this point about the universality of sin a different way. Identity politics views people one-dimensionally. You’re either an aggressor or a victim, oppressor or oppressed—period. And it wants to define all of reality and all our moral agency according to that one angle—that one piece of the pie.
- Biblical Christianity does not want to downplay abuse or affliction or oppression. It speaks tenderly to them. This psalmist says to the afflicted: “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed…” Meanwhile, Scripture promises justice and punishment for the oppressor.
- Yet Scripture also treats all of us as complex beings, and it recognizes that reality is complex.
So I understand the instinct in identity politics to say, “Don’t blame the victim.” There’s something to that. Yet I wonder if there is a way to
- both not blame the victim
- and also not reduce the oppressed person or victim to that one dimension.
Can we both
- not downplay the awfulness of whatever happened to the victim
- and affirm them in all their moral complexity and full human agency?
Identity politics does not have the ability to do that. It has an overly simplistic and primitive anthropology. It offers a simplistic, naïve, and almost-cartoon account of human personality. It effectively denies agency and is deterministic. You desire something? That’s who you are. Period. Something bad happen to you? That’s who you are. Period. When it comes to understanding people and relational dynamics, it’s like a calculator compared to the supercomputer of Scripture.
Scripture cares about the bad things that have happened to us, but it says we are not only the bad things that have happened to us, or that we have done. It treats human personality and moral agency as multifaceted. We are complex, twisted, sometimes perverse, sometimes glorious, strong and weak creatures—all of us—that defy easy explanation.
Listen to counselor David Powlison point in a more intelligent direction:
A girl or a boy who was abused is an innocent victim of someone else’s malicious and treacherous sexuality. But if that same child late becomes a promiscuous adult, he or she is culpable for that behavior. Life is complicated. We are enmeshed in unsettling realities. So Christ’s grace sets out to do something more multifaceted than simply charging the unambiguously guilty and rescuing the unambiguously innocent. He enters sympathetically into the totality of human experience. He touches all our sins and all our afflictions. (Making All Things New, 26–27).
In his book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity, the British journalist Douglas Murray, who is gay, is also correct (I think) when he writes,
Even if we concede—which we should not—that power . . . is the most important force guiding human affairs, why are we focusing only on one type of power? There certainly are types of power—such as rape—which men can sometimes hold over women. And there is a type of power which some old, typically white, males might be able to hold over less successful people, including less successful women. But there are other types of power in this world. Historical old white man power is not the only such source. Are there not, after all, some powers which only women can wield. (83–84)
Again, let’s not downplay the awfulness of the types of power men can hold over women, or one political class over another. Let’s never be guilty of saying anything close to, “Well, let’s keep that rape in perspective.” When it comes to moral accountability, the Bible doesn’t ask for less, it asks for more. And that’s what I’m trying to say here.
Michael Foucault might say that everything is about power in order to protect oppressed groups, such as gays like himself. But if that’s true, that indictment cuts against everyone. Or forget Foucault. How about Bible: “all are under sin . . . their feet are swift to shed blood” (Romans 3). The critical race theorists said that the whites fighting for civil rights weren’t motivated by altruism, but self-interest. Fair enough. Yet doesn’t that indictment apply to the critical race theorist as well? Whether we’re looking at sexual politics or racial politics, everyone wants to feel better than the other side and to lord it over the other side. And isn’t identity politics itself not one big massive power play?
In other words, there’s a place to fight fire with fire, but when you fight fire with fire, you only get…more fire. The terms of the conversation don’t change. The battle doesn’t end. Please realize, identity politics helpfully points to a few injustices, but it offers no redemption or pathways for true healing.
It doesn’t offer medicine for the oppressed that will finally work. Where the Bible offers surgical and pharmaceutical science, it offers a caveman’s club: power! At most, it offers partial remedies that won’t truly heal or satisfy.
Well, that brings us to our next point.
What is identity politics doctrine of redemption? In some ways, I think Andrew Sullivan was right. It doesn’t offer salvation. The battle never ends. Yet to be a little more precise, what identity politics doesn’t offer is salvation by grace. It offers salvation by merit. Remember, it stands like Moses’ law to bring an indictment. If you live by the law, you can be saved.
And here we find why there’s a pharisaical self-righteousness that, in my observation, inhabits so many of the conversations surrounding sexual politics, race politics, and identity politics these days. So much finger pointing. So much virtue signaling. So much writing people off as white supremacists, sexists, homophobes, neo-Marxists, liberals, and so forth. All it takes is one tweet, one comment, and the guillotine of social media commentary lops off the head. The person is condemned. You’re a white supremacist, says the Left. You’re a race-baiter, says the right. You’re a sexist, says the Left. You’re cucked, says the Right.
Redemption inside of identity politics, of course, is finally political. Redemption is a new power arrangement. Or at least, I’ll consider you redeemed when you begin to see things my way politically. And that brings us to the title of this talk: Identity Politics and the Death of Christian Unity. And make no mistake: Christians on both sides of the political aisle can do this to one another. If you don’t have my view on immigration, taxes, Donald Trump, the best tactics for fighting abortion, mass incarceration, reparations, I’m not sure I want to take the Lord’s Supper with you.
A friend of mine, a genuinely godly woman, said she just cannot imagine how any Christian should vote for Trump. It’s an implicit way of saying, you can’t be a Christian and vote for him. Meanwhile, I know other Christians who think that that’s the only moral choice.
Or consider the topic of reparations.
- Pro-reparationists say, “You don’t care about justice. Are you even justified?” They make reparations a litmus test of repentance.
- Anti-reparationists say, “You’re asking for restitution from one person for another’s person’s sin. Do you not believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s work?” They make it a litmus test of orthodoxy.
The bell rings, and two boxers charge out of their corners, ready to dis-fellowship the other. But can we at least have a conversation about it? I want to hear from you. But am I allowed to then disagree?
Or consider the topic of complementarianism. One person writes an article affirming the differences between men and women. Another person accuses that person as sexist and as promoting abuse. There was a time when complementarian and egalitarians could disagree and converse civilly, without calling one another’s basic character into question. Yet now even different varieties of complementarians have difficulty doing that.
And more and more we witness the death of Christian unity. Christian friends divide. Christian movements divide. Churches divide.
Is that all the fault of identity politics? No. Identity politics is a cause of some of our division, but it’s also the symptom of older sins, sins which are also responsible for our present division. You need to be hear me saying both/and.
IV. WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
So what’s the solution? Identity politics is a useful ally in some respects. But it’s also a misleading ally. I’d even call it anti-theology. So where do we go from here?
The solution is not to say, “Forget politics. Let’s just focus on the gospel.” That’s a common refrain today: not politics, just the gospel. This is not the path forward. Why? Because that refrain rests on a theology that too severely separates the gospel and obedience, faith and deeds. It’s like saying Jesus is Savior, but not Lord. Or believe, and not repent and believe.
In fact, friends, we are saved by faith alone, but the faith which saves is never alone. Or to put it another way, the news of the gospel is political. It begins with the affirmation that Jesus is Lord, who possesses all authority in heaven and earth. And we respond to the good news by confessing our sin and repenting. We confess our sinful partiality and we turn from it. That’s political. We confess that we naturally have given a primary allegiance to our natural groups (our nation, our gender, our skin color, our economic class), and now we give primary allegiance to a new group, the church, which relativizes all those other groups. That’s political.
Let me expand these points by pointing to four things we need to do, all of which require further elaboration, but which I’m just flagging here:
First, we need to preach and dig deeper into the political power of justification by faith alone, which is the source not just of the church’s spiritual unity, but the church’s political unity (not partisan, but political).
I wrote about this at length in my book Political Church or How the Nations Rage or this article. But very briefly, justification is a covenantal verdict that declares someone righteous before God and (in that same act) righteous before everyone else in the courtroom . . . righteous in the political community of the church. That’s what justification does objectively.
Meanwhile, subjectively, justification by faith alone robs political actors of the incentives to warfare and domination by giving people one of the primary things they seek—justification, standing, the recognition of existence, worth. In other words, the person justified by faith no longer has to prove or justify him or herself by any earthly measurement: I’m whiter than you, I’m wealthier than you, I’m wiser than you. None of that makes a bit of difference. Justification by faith alone, not by internal merit or group merit, relieves of the need to prove or dominate or one-up or Lord over people who are less white, less wealthy, less wise than I perceive myself to be.
So, yes, the solution is to preach the gospel, but it’s to preach a powerfully political gospel—a gospel that really justifies them and calls them to repentance, full repentance.
Or put it this way: Justified people care about justice. In fact, our justification by faith alone in Christ alone should create this care for justice, and our interest in justice displays and demonstrates our justification. It’s the same relationship as you find between faith and deeds. Faith creates deeds, deeds demonstrate faith. Justification creates the desire for justice. The desire and pursuit of justice demonstrates the presence of justification. So when people say, preach justification, not justice, that’s like saying, preach faith, not deeds. James will say, “Show me your faith apart from your deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Paul will say, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace me increase?”
Second, we need to point to the church as the political hope of the nations and where we find our primary identity together in Christ.
Or let me put it this way: remember your baptism. Your baptism testifies that your primary identity is not the things the world uses to identity you: son of a Leeman, male, white, middle class, college educated. My primary identity is son of the King, and citizen of the kingdom, together with all other sons and daughters and citizens of the kingdom.
Now our political hopes rest among the people who share that same citizenship. The nation is not the city on the hill, in spite of what Kennedy and Reagan said. The nation is not the first place where, in Lincoln’s words, we’ll achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. The nation is not where Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of little black boys and girls sitting down with little white boys and girls will first realize itself. The church is the city on the hill, said Jesus. The church is where we should first achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. The church is where we should turn our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks and where we practice loving our enemies.
Now, I know: our churches have been disappointing. 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour, said King. And many have not rightly affirmed or protected women. Or been loving to people struggling with unwanted desires. Yet these failures don’t change God’s program or the call to repentance.
You can enforce a kind of equality through an extremely aggressive state and marketplace, complete with wealth redistribution and the enforcement of speech codes and more, which in some ways is reminiscent of the totalitarian Soviet Union. We can have legitimate debates about the value of that. But of this I’m pretty sure: shouldn’t our churches take a different path toward equality and the full embrace of one another as God’s image-bearers?
So we need the doctrine of justification by faith alone, yes, but we also need the bowl of relationships into which that water of the gospel pours. I don’t think the challenges of identity politics will get resolved outside of relationships where people are sitting under the same preached Word and holding one another accountable.
Think of Paul, writing Philemon, exhorting him to receive back Philemon “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (v. 16). And consider who Paul is exhorting, not Onesimus the slave, but Philemon, the one sitting in a position of economic and political privilege. Yet, still, he was sending back Onesimus. Paul had something for each of them, though a little different. And the church which met in Philemon’s house afforded the opportunity.
Friends, I cannot tell you how much it’s been having patient minority friends in my life and my church, which have helped me to understand the things I cannot understand, and to grow in empathy in ways I lack empathy, concerning such issues.
To my shame, I have found that, in seasons of life when I wasn’t personally engaging with minority friends, or am not reading books from this perspective, my ability to empathize slowly fades, even though I tell myself I’m committed to hearing different perspectives. A reactionary, defensive perspective sets in, as in “What’s the big deal here?!” Frankly, I do the same with my wife when I’m not listening to her, and my children when I’m not listening to them.
We are naturally self-justifying, self-righteous, and tribal in our perspectives. Yet God in his grace, both common and special, uses relationships with others (sometimes) to lower our defenses and help us to hear and understand. We need that in our churches, and he gives us churches for that purpose.
Third, we need to preach the whole Bible.
We don’t need just the doctrine of justification. We need everything the Bible says leading us toward sanctification. Other books and resources can be useful in the ways I said before, but finally the Bible gives us everything we need for life and godliness. It shows us, for instance, how identity politics both is and is not a useful ally.
To use one of a thousand examples, James tells his readers to “show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” by showing preference to “a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing” over and against “a poor man in shabby clothing” (2:1-2). He condemns such partiality: “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts” (v. 4).
Meanwhile, Peter tells us there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). The saints desperately need the whole counsel of God. Oh, pastor, what are you doing to get more Bible into your congregation.
Fourth, we need to maintain both love and truth.
We don’t want truth without love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, and if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” We don’t want love with truth. “I pray that your love would more and more abound in knowledge and depth of insight,” says Paul.
The fact that we need more love is the main thing I take away from the fact that identity politics can be useful ally—my whole second section. Majority folk like myself too often have not taken the time to read the books or, even more, to make friends, to listen, to ask questions, to try and understand. Maybe you’ve heard of the book White Fragility which talks about the fact that white folk can have fragile egos and can’t take criticism around the topic of race. What is that? That’s good old fashioned defensiveness. It’s pride. And one of the best antidotes to pride, of course, is love. Because love helps you to stop making everything about you. Love wants to know what the other person has been through. Love lives with in an understanding way. Love is compassionate. Love keeps short accounts. Love covers a multitude of sins.
Yet we don’t just need love, we need truth. That’s the main take away from the third section and the fact that identity politics is a misleading ally and a deceiver. Too often I see Christian who feel captivated by aspects of identity politics pull toward liberal Christianity. They begin to experiment with doctrine. Or they simply criticize an emphasis on doctrine and truth. Sometimes they even claim that doctrine is simply a way of maintaining power and drawing lines between the insides and outside. In other words, they start to sound a lot like the postmodern classmates or professors I knew in college or grad school.
But we must maintain an emphasis on both love and truth.
Friends, identity politics is a useful ally, but it’s also a misleading ally. I pray the Lord would give us discernment to know one from the other, as well as his love and a commitment to his truth.
* * * * *
Author’s note: When I originally wrote this talk in March 2020, I used the phrase “identity politics is an unexpected ally” to summarize the second section. As the conversation about CRT began in earnest shortly thereafter, I observed that people began to interpret the phrase “unexpected ally” as conveying more positivity toward identity politics (and CRT) than I intended. I had thought that referring to identity politics in the third section as “profoundly misleading” and “an anti-theology” would have made that clear. Nonetheless, I’m happy to take responsibility for my lack of clarity, and have changed “unexpected ally” to the phrase “points of agreement,” assuming that people understand that two opposing viewpoints can sometimes find points of overlap without compromising their basic integrity.