When Does Liberal Discourse Resemble Evangelicalism?

An image of hands holding a Bible with a Black Power sticker, a Human Rights Campaign sticker, a Bernie Sanders sticker, and a resist sticker with a Facebook rosary draped around the pages
Illustration: Ryan Blocker

I wasn’t allowed to read the Harry Potter series as a child. According to the churches my family attended, reading those books was a sin. They were about magic, witches and spells, which made them evil influences that would potentially damage a young, impressionable Christian. When my friend Emily opened a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me to read in the fourth grade, I told her that just looking at the pages gave me a headache. There were TV programs I couldn’t watch either — Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (for obvious reasons) and even Pokémon were supposed to be off-limits. We once had a pastor who devoted an entire service to a takedown of Ally McBeal. As a more liberal and progressive adult, I can look back at that time and laugh. But it was once very serious business.

I don’t discuss this aspect of my childhood very much, in part because these are no longer my beliefs. Nor are they my family’s beliefs anymore. Truthfully, I’m ashamed of some of the things I once believed. Working for racial justice and living in Chicago, I spend most of my time with other liberal-minded folks, including people of faith. As divergent as the ideology of my upbringing and of my present reality may be, I notice remarkable similarities in their modes of discourse.

I raised this idea to a friend recently who said to me in response, “Any rigid belief system is religion.”

Of course, that is a generalization, but I have noticed that, even as a progressive, I can enter political dialogues with communication tactics and dialogical modes that are not substantively different from those of my childhood as an evangelical.

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What I remember most about my adolescence as an evangelical Christian was a deep skepticism of joy. There wasn’t enough space in my theology to hold complexity. Any pleasure was sinful; it was my duty to name it as such. I was to be “in the world, but not of the world.” The fundamentalist sees joy as a distraction from holiness or a righteous life. It wasn’t just that the subject matter of Harry Potter was objectionable. The issue was that if I was spending time reading Harry Potter, I wasn’t reading the Bible. Therefore, anything that is popular and widely liked should be taken down and used as a site of evangelism. The evil was in “being distracted.” Because part of my duty was to share my faith with others and to mark myself as a follower of Christ, this skepticism had to be performed in public.

Liberals performing a certain kind of radical leftist politics sometimes view joy similarly. To them, joy is a distraction from being radical. It’s like an opportunity to parse “problematics” — to call to the carpet (or to the altar) those who have been distracted. For example, I’ve recently been reading quite a bit of critical writing on self-care, an idea that has been around for centuries but which gained popularity in academic circles in the 1980s. Generally, it refers to a set of practices that focus on prioritizing one’s own well-being over service to others. On the left, self-care is often associated with the time one spends away from doing progressive labor in order to recharge and refresh. For people of color, it can mean avoiding painful or annoying conversations about racism.

However, some liberals are increasingly critical of self-care for its potential to become idleness or apathy. Last January, Arwa Mahdi writes this in a piece for The Guardian: “…we need to stay vigilant: one sip of self-care can quickly become the whole bottle. Let’s not spend the next four years in a comfortable stupor of solipsism.”

An article published in The Atlantic highlights how self-care has become sort of a capitalist mantra. What I’ve heard articulated from my progressive friends is that a capitalistic/materialistic self-care regimen cannot be radical.

Text that reads "Me pretending my materialistic *self care* routine, consisting of eating ice cream and taking a bath will somehow fix my depression starter pack." Beneath the text there are images of ice cream, a woman bathing, a glass of wine, a vibrator, the Netflix logo, the Pornhub logo, a chocolate candy bar, a window that says "Delete 'My FitnessPal," a scented candle, lotion, a face mask, a woman sleeping, lotion, coconut oil, and a burger
A meme poking fun at “materialistic self-care.”

These are important critiques and complications. If we are to align ourselves with progressive politics, we should not regularly participate in activities that undercut those aims. But some of this dialogue can lead us to believe that we should view joy with skepticism and doubt. The word “vigilant” also holds a particular resonance because it is so deeply reminiscent of the sermons I grew up with about the danger of “idle hands.” Even when you were still — maybe especially when you were still — God could be displeased. The question was always “Are you being ever-vigilant?” But that vigilance could come at the expense of your well-being.

Radically different ideologies enforce behavior in similar ways.

For fundamentalists, participating in the popular thing makes you a sinner and potentially irredeemable without public repentance. I remember church being a sort of roll call. Each sermon ended with people coming to the altar to ask for forgiveness for transgressions in front of the congregation. I’ve frequently found the conversation around “problematics” in progressive and liberal spaces frustrating for surprisingly similar reasons. Despite the fact that the term suggests an understanding of complication and nuance, the conversation can be less about identifying a phenomenon or person as problematic and more about naming them as “problems.” Interestingly, public repentance is often also a requirement for behavior deemed “problematic.”

In a brilliant piece for Slate back in March entitled “The Problem with ‘That’s Problematic’,” Haley Swanson writes: “Instead of convincing someone a particular idea is a bad one, the arguments that follow ‘that’s problematic’ tend to merely point out that the text contains an idea thought to be bad.”

She goes on to say:

But in written work and in the social-media world …’that’s problematic’ is far more unilateral, and far more of a rhetorical device than a dialogue starter. The phrase creates distance between the critic and the argument, placing the problem — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. — in the text itself, rather than accounting for the subjective reasons the critic can see the harm the text is doing. Calling a text problematic erases the ways in which it interacts with readers’ own politics and experiences to produce its ‘problem.’

Naming something or someone a sin or sinner was not a way to engage in the complications of sin or to more deeply understand human nature. It was a way to dictate what and who was out of bounds. Simply naming a phenomenon as “problematic” or “sinful” can function similarly: not to interrogate what produces the problem but dismissing the phenomenon outright. It can also serve less complex narratives of “good” and “evil.”

Even the ways we are informing ourselves across political divisions may be more alike than we tend to believe. A Buzzfeed investigative report this February revealed that same company owns some liberal and conservative partisan websites. Articles on conservative and liberal pages sometimes only differed by a few words. 

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The most striking and arguably most troubling similarity between some evangelical communities and some liberal communities is the use of fear as social glue. There has been a great deal of writing and discussion about the complexities and potential harms of “call-out” culture. I won’t delve too deeply into that here. “Calling out” refers to drawing attention to actions that are believed to be harmful in public as a way of holding people and institutions accountable. It is most frequently discussed as a phenomenon of leftist politics, but I first experienced it in the church. In the worst scenarios growing up, a pastor or congregation member would make your transgressions public. Church members were your “partners in accountability” that also served as a warning of what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Fear of being called out shaped my behavior. The ugly truth is that it was a relief when someone else was called to task because that meant it wasn’t me. I was gay, closeted and fearful others would suspect. The church members would enthusiastically participate in shaming, in part, because being invited to shame meant that you were in the community.

It’s my hypothesis that fear of being the next one “called out,” and the sense of relief when another is publicly shamed, are realities in a lot of liberal spaces as well. I will admit it has been true for me. On my journey to becoming a more socially conscious person, I know that I have hurt people for the crime of simply not knowing something that I knew. And I have been relieved when someone else was called out for an ignorance that I might have shared. Rather than engaging with “problematic folks,” I could dismiss them as problematic. If they were obstinate, I could call them out. I believed I was engaging in an intellectual exercise because I am studied and use academic language. But was I actually making declarations of faith? Had I replaced my old sacred text with new ones and just found new words for “sinner”?

I don’t want to delegitimize the work of calling out destructive behavior. Often times, calling out can be the only mode of recourse, especially when legal, political and economic systems don’t hold those in power accountable. And liberals are already contending with the ways that calling out can be misused. What I’m pointing to is how communities with radically different ideologies can enforce and police community behavior in such similar ways.

I think I’m still recovering from the evangelism aspect of my past. For while evangelism is about sharing knowledge, it can show how righteous you are. To be clear, I don’t want to add to the trending chorus of liberals-are-so-gosh-darn mean. Since I started writing this article, the Minneapolis police officer who shot Philando Castile was acquitted. Nabra Hassenen, a 17-year-old Muslim woman, was found murdered. Police in Seattle shot a pregnant black woman named Charleena Lyles after she called to report a burglary. The stakes for justice reform in this country are high — quite literally life and death. I don’t want to argue for prioritizing the comfort of allies when marginalized folks are dying.

Even still, I do think there are some potentially meaningful conversations to be had and new bridges to be built — if our communication strategies can resemble the behavior of those with whom we disagree. And might liberals use models of dialogue that would better serve us?