Woke-ness, white privilege, cultural appropriation, intersectionality, mansplaining, ‘cancel culture’, #MeToo, micro-aggressions, tokenism.
These terms, and the arguments which go along with them, have often come to be grouped together under the term “identity politics”. On a basic level, this can simply mean advocacy on behalf of an identity group, but it is usually associated with the arguments of modern feminist, anti-racist, and pro-LGBTQ movements. Referring to someone being ‘woke’ is a slightly tongue-in-cheek way of saying they are alert to identity-based injustices.
Despite the equality and dignity of all people being a key tenet of Christian belief, the Church as a whole is yet to substantially engage, either in support or opposition, with the language and arguments of these modern movements.
The “Megxit” debacle (Meghan Markle and Prince Harry stepping back from Royal duties) has provided another vessel for the debate around identity politics to resurface. This came to a head on a recent edition of BBC’s Question Time. A University researcher in race and ethnicity pointed out that the assertion of one panellist that press treatment of the Duchess of Sussex was not racist might carry less authority due to his position as a white man, and the lack of experience of racism that entails. In response, actor Laurence Fox groaned and suggested that this often-heard argument was “boring” and in itself racist, prompting much outrage as well as some support on social media.
Whilst it would be most inappropriate for me (a white man) to claim expertise on such issues, it is notable that the broader conversation about identity politics has been (re-)sparked, and will undoubtedly crop up with increasing regularity in the coming years. In light of this, the Church should explore how it might have something distinctive to say.
A browse of #ChurchToo on Twitter reveals what is arguably a positive Christian outworking of identity politics – survivors of abuse and sexism in churches sharing their experiences and calling for radical culture change within the Church.
Some Christians, however, have argued that the language of identity politics undermines Christians’ shared identity in Christ, by deeming social identities as more important than church unity. On a previous edition of JPIT’s Faith in Politics Podcast, former Lib Dem leader and high-profile evangelical Tim Farron claimed “identity politics…is a colossal threat to stability, moderation and liberalism” due to the way it is perceived to be used to shut down debate.
Many individual Christians have been attuned to how discussions around identity have shifted, institutional engagement is fairly rare however, and the quietness of the Church is exacerbated by the prevalence of the debate elsewhere. Increasingly, identity politics is the lens through which conversations about social justice are had. A Church passionate about social justice needs to be able to participate in one way or another.
The debate in society more broadly is much more active, and cuts across the traditional political spectrum. Shortly before his recent death, conservative philosopher Roger Scruton called it “a new kind of censorship and intimidation.” Some voices in the Labour party have called on the party to ditch the language of identity politics as a way of winning back the “economically liberal, socially conservative” demographic.
Ironically, supposed proponents of ‘identity politics’ are less likely to use that term. The Black Lives Matter movement sees that police violence is disproportionately experienced by black communities and so campaign politically from a place of identity-based solidarity without naming this as identity politics. Similarly, the #MeToo movement both amplifies the voices of people who have experienced abuse and recognises sexist systems and attitudes which make such stories so common for women, without using such terminology.
Social media unhelpfully amplifies more radical voices like Fox’s, meaning nuance is easily lost in the broader debate. Some “anti-woke” commentators are seemingly simply unwilling to tackle racism and sexism, whilst others offer helpful caveats to identity politics without rejecting its premises entirely. Barack Obama for example recently argued that woke culture based on being “as judgemental as possible” is not effective activism, but he would not reject the benefits of identity-based solidarity and analysis.
Too often the church ends up having substantial conversations about important social issues years after the rest of society has moved on. I fear identity politics is one such area where Christians will struggle to catch up if institutions don’t start asking important theological and practical questions sooner rather than later.
Questions such as these:
- How does our identity in Christ relate to our other embodied and socialised identities?
- How highly do we regard collective experience of oppression as a source of theological and social authority?
- What is the best way of tackling the ongoing realities of identity-based discrimination?
The debate has moved beyond ideological affirmation of equality between identities, and my hope and prayer is that the church may move with it.