Is it just “emotion” that divides us politically?
Earlier this month, the University of Virginia released a poll that showed how polarized the country was. According to the poll, “roughly four in 10 (41 percent) of Biden and half (52 percent) of Trump voters at least somewhat agree that it’s time to split the country, favoring blue/red states seceding from the union.” Further, “three-quarters of both Biden and Trump voters expressing support for censoring extreme media on the left (Trump voters) or right (Biden voters), as well as more than three-quarters of each side’s voters believing elected officials from the other side represent a clear and present danger to American democracy.”
David French, a conservative columnist, suggested that despite this polarization “the mutual loathing is based more on emotion than policy” because most Trump voters support most elements of the Democrat’s infrastructure and reconciliation plan.
Tish Harrison Warren, a conservative Anglican, suggested that to overcome this polarization, which she cites French as dismissing as immaterial, we need “cultural habits that allow us to share in our common humanity,” that we need to “rebuild social trust.” Her solution? “Seemingly pointless conservations with those around us.”
That is what will overcome our differences? That is nonsense. It is not emotion that separates us or small talk that will unite us. That minimization of the real issues we face is dangerous. And I want to respond to it because this is a pervasive attitude among white moderate Christians.
What French and Warren get wrong is that our disagreements, our polarization, are not matters of politics or policy. Most Americans don’t care about policy (or even how it gets made into law), despite what journalists on Twitter think, so their agreement about those matters doesn’t unite them.
It’s racism, not policy, that divides us
Warren writes, “We are more than the sum of our political and religious beliefs. We each have complex relationships with the people we love.” Warren is disembodying our differences, while French is abstracting them, since we, evidently, agree about policy.
Both of them miss the point because what actually divides us is not politics or policy, it is whiteness and white supremacy. Warren’s suggestion that we are not the sum of our politics and our faith is surprising to hear from a pastor, because our faith is deeply connected to who we are, and Jesus very much calls us to an embodied, grounded, and rooted-in-reality expression of our faith. And while it is surprising to hear this from a pastor, it is not surprising to hear this from a white person.
Warren writes, “We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another.” What she should have wondered is why we can’t talk to our neighbors? It is not just because of immaterial political differences, but rather, racism. If we want to talk to our neighbors and build a culture of peace and justice, we need to stamp out racism, and not give it the footholds that Warren does.
Small talk won’t overcome our differences
For white people, especially middle-class, educated white people, perhaps a little small talk with your barista may overcome your political differences. Why is Warren’s point salient for white folks? Because their political differences, by and large, are not material and are too abstract. If relationships, or worse as Warren says, “small talk,” overcomes our political differences, then she is right that they are not significant.
But to suggest that “small talk” is a way to overcome our political differences to victims of racism is, in fact, a white supremacist viewpoint. When people try, and many have, to make disembody my politics, they are oppressing me, gaslighting me, and traumatizing me. They are making me second guess my lived experience because of their fragility. The pain I’ve incurred because of this is devastating, which is why I viscerally reacted to Warren’s racist newsletter.
My body contains politics. Overcoming political differences means defeating racism, not making small talk with your barista. Political differences are only erased via relationships if those differences are abstract, so it is a product of white supremacy to suggest this.
Unity without repentance is white supremacy
Again, Warren’s newsletter, as well as French’s, is intent on minimizing our differences, and convincing white people to stay united, at the expense of their BIPOC siblings. It is damaging to antiracism to convince would-be allies that their alliance is rooted in immaterial political differences, or progressive talking points, or merely ideology. I want to say it more clearly: telling white allies that their antiracism is just ideological, and not rooted in solidarity with people of color, is white supremacy. It is whiteness. And that is the force that polarizes us.
Fancying themselves as uniters, French and Warren’s brand of white supremacy, furthers our divisions and alienates minorities. Their interest is not in rooting our white supremacy, but glossing over it as an issue that progressives made out of nothing. Theirs is not a far cry from right-winger hysteria about critical race theory. So, for those who refuse to take a side, and those who side with white supremacy, I, personally, do not see a material difference.
Jesus emphasizes our differences to transform us
Jesus takes a much different posture than these two Christian commentators, who also represent common Christian political commentary, including many in my own church (which is why I am writing this at all). Jesus doesn’t minimize differences between enemies, he hyperbolizes them. Heschel called it “prophetic hyperbole.” Jesus exaggerates differences to make it clear that to side with him, means siding with the oppressed. He never disembodies or dematerializes differences for the sake of unity. Jesus turns “thought crimes,” such as anger, into material sins such as murder. He argues that lust is equivalent to adultery. He radically changes how we think, to transform us. Dematerializing and disembodying our politics to curb anxiety maintains the status quo and does nothing to transform our society or uproot racism. In fact, it maintains it.
Jesus knows the cost of following him. He asks his followers to give up everything to do so. That doesn’t just mean material possessions, but our homes, our fields, even our relationships with our families. The idea that relational love can overcome our differences is antithetical to the Gospel because Jesus expects that following him in the way and carrying our cross will collect us enemies, people who persecute us and divide us from our family. If we don’t face any resistance for the work we are doing, it is hardly going to be transformational. Rather, it will continue to make Christianity an irrelevant faith, at best, and one that is actively spreading white supremacy at worst.