Who speaks for the black Pentecostal?
Last October, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith announced a vision to build a diverse editorial team. Smith wanted a workforce with enough “people of a particular group that no one person has to represent the supposed viewpoint of their group — whether ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, socioeconomic background, or disability.” He explained in great detail why diversity matters, how editors could promote it, and where BuzzFeed stood on key metrics.
In a long Twitter exchange, conservative writers Michael Brendan Dougherty and Ross Douthat argued that Smith’s vision would be incomplete if he ignored Christians and conservatives. Despite the laudable intentions in his opening sentences, Smith’s vision unsurprisingly focused on race and gender. Douthat noted that Smith’s refusal to ask staffers’ their faith and politics restricted his “ability to see diversity in full”, and that a diversity strategy that avoids those issues was “inherently limited.”
I was struck by how predictable their responses were. Of course Douthat and Dougherty thought Smith had a cramped understanding of diversity. Conservatives have been making this type of argument for years. Here is Rod Dreher of The American Conservative almost two years earlier:
But it’s simply untrue that “diversity” in practice means what liberals say it means. If liberals meant what they said, they would push for “diversity” to include political conservatives, Southern Baptists, and others unlike themselves.How often does that happen? It seems that “diversity” only applies to racial and sexual minorities. Conservatives understand perfectly well that the concept of diversity is an ideological construct that implicitly marginalizes them. That is the essence of the conservative resistance to “diversity” — that it’s a racket and a sham.
Now there’s no disputing their basic logic. Politics and faith are important components of diversity, and any strategy that neglects them is a sham. But as sound as this analysis is, there’s a certain duplicity involved. Conservatives imply that they would be fine with diversity if only it were applied more fairly. But that’s not true at all. When has Rod Dreher ever discussed diversity other than to highlight liberal hypocrisy? When has Douthat or Dougherty?
The fact is conservatives don’t care about diversity except when they can use it to bash liberals. So while liberals’ image of diversity is partly hollow, conservatives should stop pretending that’s what turns them away. They should stop pretending they’d support diversity if only Ben Smith tweaked his criteria. Conservatives simply don’t value racial and gender diversity, just as liberals don’t value ideological and religious diversity. No one is being honest here.
The problem for conservatives is that their own lack of diversity hurts them a lot more than it does liberals. A lack of diversity has made the word conservative synonymous with white conservative, and social conservative with white Christian conservative. Though historically this image didn’t prevent the right from winning elections, they now need more of the black and Hispanic vote to compete for the Presidency. And outside of electoral politics conservatives are in even worse shape. They are almost entirely absent from mainstream cultural and media institutions.
This outcome harms social conservatives — aka white Christian conservatives — above all else. Consider the media. For all the right-wing complaints about bias, it’s socially conservative views that suffer the most. Other types of conservatives do just fine in the end. Free-market capitalists have prominent, mainstream newspapers dedicated to their cause. There’s also no shortage of neoconservative pundits agitating for an aggressive military. But imagine the media had a more inclusive definition of diversity. Journalism would then inevitably contain more Christian social conservatives. Does anyone think this change wouldn’t improve reporting? Would GetReligion even need to exist?
An authentic diversity would probably benefit social conservatives more than any other group. Unfortunately, writers like Dougherty, Douthat and Dreher often seem more interested in scoring rhetorical points than doing anything to solve what even they recognize is a problem. It’s easy to take shots at BuzzFeed’s diversity strategy. It’s much harder to admit you need one yourself. As they lose political influence—the only meaningful influence they’ve had for decades — white Christian conservatives would do well to reflect on the virtues of diversity.
To their credit, Dreher et al. admit that just as a fiercely liberal and secular newsroom can’t effectively report on Christians, a fiercely white newsroom suffers from the same handicap around race. But they should do more than just deploy this observation to win arguments. They should act as if they believe it. Diversity doesn’t have to be the sham Ben Smith makes it.
None of this means they have to support affirmative action or any specific policy. But it does mean that instead of using liberals’ inconsistency to reject the idea of diversity altogether, they should consider embracing a more complete definition. They should try practicing diversity in all its dimensions — racial and gender as well as faith and politics.
But even if they agreed, white Christian conservatives don’t know how to do diversity. They’ve spent years rejecting the idea, and it’s hard to change ingrained habits. So it’s worth considering how they would start supporting genuine diversity in American institutions given where they are now.
Perhaps the way forward, contrary to what the Ben Smiths of the world would suggest, is to turn inward. Rather than worrying about race or gender or socioeconomic status, they should focus on becoming more fully and deeply Christian. Not white Christian. And not Christian who also supports a low tax rate and strong military. But merely Christian.
Whatever their differences, they should remember that the Church is ultimately one body that is united by the blood and Spirit of Christ above all else. As a first step, such Christian unity is more than diversity enough. That alone would achieve a level of racial and socioeconomic diversity the secular left can’t even dream of.
At that point, after they have realized it’s possible to fellowship and form bonds with people much different than them, white Christian conservatives will hopefully find it easier to relate to people like my deeply Hindu aunt. Maybe then they will see that she considers home-schooling her daughters for the same sorts of reasons some of them do. Maybe then they can also reach some of my Muslim — yes, I did say Muslim — college friends, many of whom valued abstinence as much as the average member of Campus Crusade for Christ. Maybe then they’ll understand that they’re not the only ones uncomfortable with a hyper-sexualized culture, and that social conservatives can include more than white Christians.
About a month ago, a Barnard College student wrote an op-ed calling for “an affirmative action policy for non-gender conforming students” and “encounters with difference.” In light of his previous writing, Rod Dreher offered a perfectly predictable response: “I am confident that she does not want to encounter the point of view of the white working-class Arkansas Baptist, or the black prosperity-gospel-believing Pentecostal, or the Republican frat boy from Alpharetta, and so forth.”
Yes it’s almost certainly true she doesn’t care to encounter the Arkansas Baptist or the black Pentecostal. The sad part is that Dreher also shows no real interest in the black Pentecostal, or black Christians more generally.
Which brings us to the most tragically overlooked group in these faux diversity battles: intelligent, theologically serious black Christians. Both the left and right hold a one-dimensional view of their humanity: black Christians are black and not much else. Liberals routinely deride religious Christians, acutely unaware that they are attacking maybe the most important member of their own team. Liberals rarely wonder how faith guides black Christians, wouldn’t dream of soliciting their opinions on the Hobby Lobby decision, and don’t care how angry and upset they feel when colleges de-recognize Christian student groups. Black Christians know very well that on social issues, liberal is code for secular and white.
The right is even worse. Whereas the left ignores the Christian part of their identity, the right ignores them completely. Perhaps the worst part of this neglect is that their fellow Christians are often the most uninterested in them. Their fellow Christians routinely overlook their common devotion to Christ.
As Rod Dreher worries how to be a Christian in an increasingly secular America and considers creating separate spaces for Christian life, I hope he remembers to include all Christians. I hope he realizes that Christians who look nothing like him share his worries and want to be involved.
Here’s a suggestion for Michael Dougherty, Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher: they should want to encounter the black Pentecostal. They should want to give a voice to all of their brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, or disability. If they don’t do this for their fellow Christians, who will?