The Cheap Grace of the Ascending Civil Religion

In 2008 Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were against Same-sex marriage and for “civil unions”.  While we don’t know what they believed personally.  Politicians prevail by reading the room. From 2000-2012 the cry was “don’t you judge me!”. From 2012 to today the cry is “shame shame shame!” The irony of the tweet above is that it assumes the progressive narrative-complaint that racism elected Donald Trump by simply declaring it so. This of course sets up one of the best SNL skits in years.

Tracking the ascendant morality isn’t hard, just watch who has the power and why. Who deflects, who keeps silent, who turtles up. Figuring out how we got here is important if we want to understand what its doing to us and why.

What do We Really Think About Closets?

The prevailing opinion on the damage done to women, sexual and racial minorities has long blamed “the closet”. Weaker groups have not been able to “speak their truth” or “speak truth to power” because of their lower status, overt and implicit victimization at the hands of dominant groups. The hope was that letting these groups out of the closet would “normalize” their status and insure equality of outcomes. As a gripping article on gay loneliness demonstrates while faith perseveres in the mechanism for equality realization of the hope remains deferred.

As the ascendant morality continues to dominate the commanding cultural heights we are discovering that closets are useful for all sorts of people and reasons. People closet themselves because they can read a room and will learn to employ a closet for their own survival or advantage.

CRC Anti-Racism

The CRC has for many years run a number of “anti-racism” programs designed to educate the majority CRC culture about the sufferings and disadvantages suffered by ethnic minorities throughout our history. You would imagine that given the near universal triumph of agreement that racism is evil that those who run these programs are happy as clams. Hasn’t “their side” won and continue to win?

That has not been my experience. I find many in the CRC who try to work anti-racism programs to be frustrated. If they gather a group together few will challenge them but neither do they find a lot of appetite among the factions and zip codes of those they wish to impact. What they are selling no one seems to be buying which in their minds means they are kept out of shining their light onto those places they imagine are most dark. Both overt and imagined unconscious bigots have been driven into the closet and to the frustration of the would-be liberators they are holding the door shut.

Where this leaves them are a series of proxy wars where the anti-racism vanguard has to perpetually uncover implicit racism in more and more places that they do have access to.

Others watching who have by now been socialized sufficiently to offer all the right answer to the standard racism questions figure out this dance of racism avoidance only to perpetually suspect that this effort has long transcended in-house CRC conversations about race but has in fact “jumped the shark” and become proxy battles in the culture war far beyond the CRC. They suspect the OSJ has little to do with a CRC voice of discernment but is simply a fifth column action to see the CRC embrace the eschatological vision of mainline, progressive evangelical, and even the non-religious as their march of progressive liberation follows that long arc of history. James Schaap was right that in the CRC our fights are no longer our own.

Righteousness by Doctrinal Ascent

A perpetual concern of the confessionally conscious CRC at the end of the 20th century was that one might formally embrace and give ascent to the doctrinal standards of the church while not actually applying them to one’s life. The easiest place to begin with that was always the doctrine of total depravity. The fear was that declaring you could do no saving good for yourself became a substitute for a full realization of this truth in your life. In this case you wouldn’t need Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf for salvation but instead a profession of your unworthiness and this itself bestowed righteousness.

I’m constantly chewing on our culture’s ascendant morality and as 20-teens were developing it seemed to me increasingly true that this very same dynamic was at work in the culture’s ascendant civil religion. When I read these paragraph’s in a Wall Street Journal piece (Sorry about the Rupert Murdoch paywall) I knew I needed to take a deeper look at this author.

America, since the ’60s, has lived through what might be called an age of white guilt. We may still be in this age, but the Trump election suggests an exhaustion with the idea of white guilt, and with the drama of culpability, innocence and correctness in which it mires us.

White guilt is not actual guilt. Surely most whites are not assailed in the night by feelings of responsibility for America’s historical mistreatment of minorities. Moreover, all the actual guilt in the world would never be enough to support the hegemonic power that the mere pretense of guilt has exercised in American life for the last half-century.

White guilt is not angst over injustices suffered by others; it is the terror of being stigmatized with America’s old bigotries—racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. To be stigmatized as a fellow traveler with any of these bigotries is to be utterly stripped of moral authority and made into a pariah. The terror of this, of having “no name in the street” as the Bible puts it, pressures whites to act guiltily even when they feel no actual guilt. White guilt is a mock guilt, a pretense of real guilt, a shallow etiquette of empathy, pity and regret.

I read that and it connected with what I had been seeing so I picked up Shelby Steele’s Shame: How America’s Past Sins have Polarized Our Country and experienced it as something of a revelation.

Black Politics

Because this book is primarily a political book I think its important to say something my own politics.

Most who grew up when I did in the CRC grew up devoted to the Republican party. When I was at Calvin College I was one of the few Democratic voting students in a sea of Ronald Reagan young Republicans. I protested Reagan when he came to speak at the Ford Museum and I toured the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. I don’t try to parade my politics in public much because it’s a higher value to me that I am able to pastor a politically diverse congregation.  The best way to understand my politics is that it has almost always mirrored the politics of the black community. I’ve been a reliable Democratic voter mostly indistinguishable from many black voters in the communities where I live.

If you know black politics you know that there is an outgroup of “black conservatives” that are most often looked at with suspicion. The racial reconciliation tribe might keep telling white folks to “listen to people of color” but when it comes to the black conservative they’d like you to suspend that admonition.

Shelby Steele is well aware of this dynamic. This is how he describes it in his book.

I am used to being in situations where mention of such “conservative” values amounts to an impropriety. On today’s political landscape, there are few people more inherently provocative, more unforeseen and unsettling, than people like myself who are designated “black conservative.” All the other permutations of racial and political identity are expected— white liberal or white conservative, Hispanic liberal or Hispanic conservative, black liberal. We know their cultural profiles: the Hispanic who is hard working, Catholic, and conservative; the upscale Connecticut white liberal; the black of almost any background who is presumed liberal simply for being black. Black conservatives confound expectation. Worse, we seem to put the moral authority that comes from our race’s great suffering into the service of an ideology (conservatism) that many see as a source of that suffering. By this logic, the black conservative can only be opportunistic or, worse, self-hating and sycophantic. So in a setting like the Aspen Institute, where liberalism is simple etiquette and where criticism of minorities is verboten, the black conservative inevitably gives offense.

Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 5). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 5). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

I figured this out pretty quickly going into this book but I decided to persevere. I’ll get into my critique of how I differ from his politics later. What I was interested in is his analysis of guilt and redemption and for me this book did not disappoint.

Steele’s Story

Steele grew up the son of a biracial couple actively involved in the Civil Rights struggle. That will mislead some younger readers immediately as contemporary assumptions of persons involved in this flood in and obscure the religious and cultural complex realities of that movement. Steele does an excellent job of leading us through his story.

He tells his story through a series of defining moments beginning with his experience as the only black swimmer on his high school swim team.

One summer the entire team kept a secret of a vacation to the coach’s mother’s cabin excluding him because of his color. The coach’s mother was a bigot and he knew she’d not allow a black student to use her place. When he learned the Steele discovered by experience the power of the new ascendant morality in America, and it has everything to do with the moral math of hypocrisy.

One great difference between evil and hypocrisy is that people can live rather easily with the former but not with the latter. Evil— and complicity with evil— is usually done under the cover of numerous rationalizations that declare the evil to be everything but what it is. But hypocrisy is established when evil is clearly visible through the fog of rationalization— when rationalization is seen for what it is. So hypocrisy is not an act of evil; it is the pretense of innocence even as one is clearly in league with evil, and with all the duplicities and deceptions that serve evil.

Evil, in fact, is often rewarded (Hitler almost succeeded, slave owners thrived for centuries); but hypocrisy, once it is established as fact for all to see, always punishes rather than rewards. The exposed hypocrite is shrouded in an aura of ignominy and disrepute. His moral authority and power start to crumble. He is now known to have somehow trafficked in the convenience of evil, and all his self-justifications come to seem outrageous affronts to reason.

Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 47). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Steele decided to quit the swim team for reasons disconnected with the racist decision of his coach but he knew he would get resistance from this coach and the team because of his decision. It was then that he learned of the power he possessed.

This was the aura of hypocrisy that began to settle over my coach on that afternoon when I walked away from swimming. He was not bothered much by his complicity with his mother’s evil— the fact that he had orchestrated a little racial conspiracy among my teammates and their families in order to abide by her evil. There were rationalizations aplenty to cover that. He could likely have gone for the rest of his life untroubled by what he had done. But as I sat there in his office, still wet from the pool, I was— whether I intended to be or not— the worst sort of threat to him: as the “victim” of his evil, I had the power to refute all his rationalizations, and thus to establish him as a hypocrite for all to see. I had the power to diminish him in the eyes of the world as well as in his own eyes.

So he tried to turn the tables. He implied that I was the one who was “hung up” on race. With a raised eyebrow he wondered if I wasn’t becoming a “black militant” (a new and terrifying term to whites in the 1960s). Were my parents— well known locally for their civil rights activities— encouraging me in this? And by then he had an audience. Half the team had left the pool to listen outside the door that he had left fully open.

I had only wanted to go home and rejoin life without swimming. I had no memory of life without the burden of competitive swimming, and I was ecstatic at the prospect of laying that burden down. But it was now clear that I would have to fight the race issue to get out of that office. So, speaking loudly enough for my eavesdropping teammates to hear, I said, “Well coach, the truth is that you did go along with your racist mother, didn’t you? She said no blacks, and you made sure there were no blacks. You organized the whole team and their families to exclude me simply because I’m black. And you knew me . . . personally. We spent time together. I babysat your son. And you did it anyway.” Then I said it quietly, almost respectfully, “You and everybody on this team are racists.”

This did it. His eyes widened in shock. A lifetime of rationalizations had sheltered him from the idea of himself as a racist, and now he was astonished to hear himself bluntly described as one. It was a term that linked him to the lowest rung of white society— the Klan, white ethnics in northern cities, George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, white mobs screaming and spitting at black children on their way to school. His family was well to do. He would never have imagined himself in such company.

Steele, Shelby. Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (p. 48-49). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

The world had changed for young Shelby Steele. American had changed.

I’m already over 2000 word. I’ll need to make this multi-volume. Stay tuned for more.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book review, CRC, Culture commentary. Bookmark the permalink.

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