White Evangelicals and the Dolezal Syndrome

White Evangelicals and the Dolezal Syndrome

 

 

I have been so busy with work that I have badly neglected my blogging duties. However, the conjunction of two events in June seems so revelatory that I can’t resist looking back.

The first event was June 11, 2015.[1] The leader of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, Rachel Dolezal, was revealed by her parents to be white, not biracial as she had claimed for years. Days later, in response to direct questions on whether she was black or white, she responded that “I identify as black.”[2] Hilarity ensued. Panelists on The Nightly Show debated whether you get to pick your ethnicity, and there and elsewhere people debated just what “race” means anyway. After all, well, Caitlyn Jenner. If a famous male athlete can identify as female and even undergo surgery, why can’t a white girl grow up to be a black woman if that is who she feels she really is on the inside? Particularly in a culture that is celebrity-fixated and science-illiterate, this seemed like a valid question (at least to someone who had never actually BEEN black). But to most people, the whole idea that you can just choose your race seemed, and still seems, dishonest or nuts. You can’t really own a history that isn’t yours, no matter how much you may love a culture or identify with the experiences of those who did live that history.

When one white person attempts to claim the black experience as her own, it seems hilarious to many; but what if millions of white people do the same thing? On June 17, 2015, six days after the Dolezal story hit the 24 Hour News Cycle, a young white man walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and killed nine people. No one who had paid any attention to any of the available facts had any doubt what had happened. After all, the vile, “insane” words of the killer were in fact no different than words that might have been heard on the street anywhere in the South when I was born in 1960: You rape our women, you are ruining our country, you have to go. For a century after the end of the Civil War, thoughts like these were not considered “insane” among Southern whites. They might have been seen as ignorant or bad taste, particularly among the more educated and wealthier folk I grew up around; but we all knew that these views were quite common. Even as a white child in Florida, I knew there were other parts of the state where crosses still burnt at night. They were terrorists, and they worried me even though I knew I wasn’t one of their prime targets. So yes, about ten minutes after the events happened, I knew exactly what had occurred. I am too good a philosopher to say I had 100% knowledge that soon, but I at least knew that the motivation was almost certainly racial hatred.

America’s Most Popular News Provider, however, got it stunningly, depressingly, and completely predictably wrong.[3] To them, and presumably to their target audience as well, the only thing that was clear was that this attack was in a church; therefore, the attack was not against black people, but against Christians. That is, this shooting was against “us,” not in the sense that FOX News felt solidarity with the victims but rather in the sense that it was stealing their identity and claiming it for themselves. A veritable parade of Evangelicals stepped up to echo the claim that Christians, the largest religious group in this nation, are under attack.   It is an odd persecution we Christians are enduring. We are over-represented in Congress, with 92% of Congress identifying as Christian while only 73% of Americans overall do.[4] At the state and local levels, our dominance is often even stronger. Recent court rulings have even given us the right to open taxpayer-funded public political meetings with Christian prayers, thus compelling Jews, Hindus, Atheists and others to spend their tax money to honor and invoke our religion.[5] Much has been made of the rise in violent attacks on churches.[6] However, even in the news reports of this disturbing trend, it is reported that more than half of these so-called attacks upon Christianity were actually domestic or personal disputes that were settled in churches. What this report seems to suggest, then, is that in a violent culture, churches are not immune; but of the 75 dead reported in 2013, less than half were targeted specifically because they were Christian. Furthermore, a reported 135 “deadly force incidents” doesn’t sound so bad considering the roughly 350,000 religious congregations in this country.[7] By contrast, consider the violence directed at, say, abortion clinics.[8] In Wisconsin in 2012, one of three Planned Parenthood clinics that offered abortion services was bombed.[9] If one in three churches were bombed, we would hardly be able to walk outside for fear of the shrapnel.

Compared to what our Christian ancestors endured, saying that we today are being persecuted is a joke. Compared to what Christians around the world are enduring in many parts of Africa and Asia, it is an insult to their martyrdom. Why, then, did so many white (and some non-white) Evangelicals leap to the conclusion that the Charlotte shootings were an attack on faith, part of a larger cultural war against Christianity?

Really, ever since Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, Christians have faced a dilemma. Suffering for the faith has been central since the earliest days of Christianity. The Gospel of Luke even goes so far as to report that not only did Jesus say, “Blessed are you when men curse you for the sake of the Son of Man;” he also said, “Woe to you when all speak well of you.”[10] But when the Roman persecution ended, it became increasingly difficult to find ways to suffer for the sake of the Son of Man. By 380, Christianity became not only legal, but the only legal religion in the Empire; being Christian became the path not to suffering, but to safety and prosperity. How can we Christians possibly suffer for the faith, when we are the ones running the world?

There have been two standard answers for that riddle. One is some sort of additional asceticism, either monasticism (in Catholic and Orthodox traditions) or joining a strict, possibly separatist denomination (for Protestants). But there is another, easier answer: delusion. There are two styles of this. One is to interpret something one would be doing anyway as a divine command. The holy warrior who kills his (or her) enemies and seeks glory and power, personally or for some group, is one of these; not only do I get to indulge my hatred, I get to present the Almighty with a bill for my services. (The culture warrior is simply a toothless version of this, fighting for his or her preferred mores and, by selective editing of the Scriptures, fighting to defend the parts that condemn others, like “the gays,” while ignoring the parts that apply to himself or herself, like the books of Amos and Luke). The other, and more perfect example, simply takes events that have nothing to do with one’s faith and interpreting them as religious suffering.

And now we come to the full-blown persecution complex. A group of people were targeted for a hate crime, which is to say they were victims of a terrorist attack aimed to injure not only them but all people belonging to their group. They were targeted because they were black, and the attack was intended to terrify all black people. To pretend this was an attack on white Evangelicals is like claiming the 9/11 attacks were part of a vendetta against the airline industry. It is as if the Iranians had come out on Sept. 12, 2001 with the announcement, “Al Qaeda is attacking airplanes; we have airplanes too so we are the victims here. The fact that those planes yesterday were full of Americans and crashed into American buildings is just a coincidence; after all, they didn’t kill Americans in malls or grocery stores, but on airplanes.” That is exactly the sort of logic that led FOX News to say that since the Charleston shootings took place at a black church and not a black disco, it was chosen because it was a church and not because of the people inside. The only difference is that if the Iranians had said that, we would have immediately been outraged and known it was intended as an insult; but we apparently expect less from FOX News and the Religious Right, so we accept that their stupidity is genuine.

Evangelicals know the Bible says they are supposed to be persecuted; but they are in fact wealthier and more politically dominant in this country than anywhere else in the world. Overall, they seem to have even more influence than their vast numerical advantage alone would explain. Black Christians have a better situation than do Christians in many parts of the world, and racism in this country is undoubtedly less than it was fifty or a hundred years ago; but as Dylann Roof shows, those racist impulses are still alive, and the same rhetoric that was used to inspire lynchings when I was born can be used to inspire shootings today. While white Evangelicals might want to believe they are targeted for discrimination, black people actually are still red-lined and segregated, even if it is not as totally as it was and not legally required.[11] By claiming that Dylann Roof was targeting white Evangelicals, FOX News was able to ramp up the anxiety level among its target audience, making them all the more eager to keep watching FOX for news of the latest threats (and more willing to spend their money on gold futures and other high-risk, low-return apocalypse insurance schemes that advertise heavily on conservative news outlets). And by arguing and believing that Roof was attacking them, white Evangelicals were able to appropriate the suffering and persecution of the black victims for themselves, without having to actually suffer or be persecuted in any meaningful sense. And there doesn’t seem to be anything consciously cynical about this impulse to assume their own victimhood; they seem to be at least as sincere in believing that they too were shot at by Dylann Roof as Rachel Dolezal was in her assertion that she “identifies as black.”

It’s one thing to play the race card; it’s another thing to steal the race card from the deck and slip it into your hand. But if Ms. Dolezal did that for her own personal reasons, FOX News attempted to do so on behalf of millions of white Evangelicals. They chose to “identify as” Dylann Roof’s victims, even though birth and social circumstances make that impossible. And just as Rachel Dolezal became a punch-line by claiming to “identify as black,” the cultural leaders of the Religious Right make themselves and their loyal followers ridiculous. We cannot know the full effect of feeding this persecution complex. Certainly it will affect voting patters and thus public policy, replacing rational consideration that might actually solve the problems we face with paranoid defensiveness. It will make the rest of society regard the Religious Right as millions of Little Boys Who Cried Wolf, and thus quite likely make it less, not more likely that others will be willing to address legitimate concerns they raise. And we can be sure that by encouraging white Evangelicals to seek comfortable, socially dominant lives while simultaneously telling them that they are persecuted martyrs for Christ, FOX News and the leadership of the religious right will create millions more Rachel Dolezals, privileged white people who imagine that they are themselves the impoverished victims of oppression that Jesus calls all his followers to become.

[1] Taylor Viydo, “Parents ‘Out’ NAACP Leader as White Woman;” USA Today June 12, 2015 (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/06/12/spokane-naacp-president-ethnicity-questions/71110110/)

[2] Eun Kyung Kim, “Rachel Dolezal Breaks Her Silence on TODAY: ‘I Identify as Black’.” June 16, 2015 (http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371

[3] Michael Allen, “Fox News: South Carolina Shooting of Black People was ‘Attack on Faith,’ not Race;” Opposing Views, June 20, 2015 (http://www.opposingviews.com/i/society/fox-news-south-carolina-shooting-black-people-was-attack-faith-not-race-video)

[4] Antonia Blumberg, “A Look at the Religious Make-Up of the 114th Congress;” The Huffington Post, Jan. 5, 2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/05/congress-religious-affiliation_n_6417074.html)

[5] Lauren Markoe and Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Supreme Court Approves Sectarian Prayer at Public Meetings;” Washington Post, May 5, 2014 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/supreme-court-approves-sectarian-prayer-at-public-meetings/2014/05/05/62c494da-d487-11e3-8f7d-7786660fff7c_story.html)

[6] “Deaths from Church Attacks in US Rise 36 Percent;” CBNNews.com, Jan. 31, 2013 (http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2013/January/Deaths-from-Church-Attacks-in-US-Rise-36-percent-/)

[7] “Fast Facts about American Religion,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#numcong) accessed July 29, 2015

[8] “Violence and Harrassment at U.S. Abortion Clinics;” Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_viol.htm) accessed July 29, 2015

[9] Laura Bassett, “Planned Parenthood Bombing Suspect Arrested in Wisconsin;” May 3, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/planned-parenthood-bombing-wisconsin_n_1400449.html)

[10] Luke 6:22, 26

[11] Jamelle Bouie, “A Tax on Blackness: Racism is Still Rampant in Real Estate;Slate, May 13, 2015 (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/05/racism_in_real_estate_landlords_redlining_housing_values_and_discrimination.html)

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One Response to “White Evangelicals and the Dolezal Syndrome”

  1. lila1jpw Says:

    Perhaps I’m showing my age, but I remember “Black Like Me” when if was first published. Exploring victimhood from within can indeed be painful as John Howard Griffin discovered. The parallelism or not between Griffin and Dolezal would be interesting to explore.

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