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Who We Identity With Determines What We Believe

I have had a whole slew of fascinating conversations this week about the value and function of "Christian identity".  These conversations were initially spurred on by the class I'm currently leading on Brian McLaren's newest book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?:  Christian Identity in a Multifaith World".  McLaren spends most of his time describing HOW we can construct a "strong Christian identity" that does not require us to be hostile to the adherents of other religions.  Our class, however, has gotten focused on the question of why Christian identity matters at all. 

The fact that these conversations are taking place during an election season has complicated things a bit.  This past Thursday, for example, Billy Graham ran a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal urging people to "vote for Biblical values" this coming election including "the sanctity of life" and "the biblical definition of marriage".  I found this truly disappointing--I know that Billy Graham is against abortion and gay marriage, but in the past he has really made an effort to be an non-partisan figure, identifying primarily as a Christian evangelist and not as a partisan advocate.  The ad confirmed my growing suspicion that politics really does lead the way in most of our belief systems and we find and support the parts of our religion which support our political beliefs.

But then my husband Dan reminded me of some of the research that has been done around beliefs about global warming.  When people are asked on surveys whether or not they believe that changes in our climate are due to human activity, their answers align very closely with their political party identification.  David Roberts put it this way in his excellent column for Grist:

Say the question is, “Do you believe that climate change is being caused by human activity?” and someone answers, “No, climate change is part of a natural cycle.” For the vast bulk of respondents, that shouldn’t be read as, “Here’s what I’ve concluded based on reasoning through the evidence.” Rather, it’s, “This is what people like me say.” Or perhaps, “The person I see myself as is the kind of person who would say this.” He is performing an act of self-reinforcement, which is essentially a social act, even if he’s alone in the room.

This helps to explain the Graham ad and other appeals like it.  The question is not whether the ad expresses Christian beliefs or political beliefs--the ad appeals to people who identitfy, like Graham, as evangelical Christians, and that identity is BOTH religious and political.  The ad is simply an assurance by a respected elder that "people like us" can in good conscience vote for a Morman.  (Shortly before the ad was published, all references to Mormonism being a "cult" were removed from Billy Graham's website.)

These kinds of appeals are deeply offensive to many people I know who identity as a Christian but who don't share Graham's views on abortion or gay marriage.  As a result, these folks (including a number of people in the class I'm leading) end up feeling wary of embracing a "strong Christian identity".  The title "Christian" seems to carry with it too much political baggage.

"Hasn't the term "Christian" pretty much outlived its usefulness?" one person asked me this week.  Perhaps she's right.  I personally prefer as someone who is attempting to follow Jesus than as a "Christian".  Other people at KC identify as "ecumenical" or "spiritual" or as a "person of faith".  One man in our class called himself, "multi-dimensional". 

But all these terms are descriptive--they aren't really identities.  And as the research on climate change belief shows, identity is important.  It's gives us a lens through which to interpret the tidal wave of information that each of us receives every day.  I really don't evaluate every argument independently.  I respond and react in large part based on what the groups with whom I identity do.  And if my religious community doesn't give me a strong enough identity, there are plenty of others who will happy do the job. 

As always, my thoughts are continuing to evolve.  Keep those conversations coming.  And please add your comments below!




Reflections on Political Identity

There is an often-repeated story in my husband Dan's family that goes something like this:  Back in 1976, Dan's family was heavily involved in Mo Udall's campaign in the Democratic presidential primaries.  At the time, Dan's brother was just 5 years old and soaking it all in.  One day, in the context of a conversation about growing up, his mom explained to him that someday he would probably meet a nice girl and get married.  Dan's brother thought about this for a few minutes and then asked, "But Mom, how will I know if she's for Mo?"

I grew up in a similar kind of home, knowing from an early age the names and the party affiliation of the candidates my parents were supporting.  A typical fall Saturday family activity was "leafletting", walking through neighborhoods and dropping campaign literature for a local candidate at every home. At 14, I had my first job accompanying our State Representative on his door-knocking trips.  "Dick Cohen is across the street, speaking to your neighbor right now!" I would cheerfully explain to whoever opened the door.  "Would you like to read some information about him?"

When people ask me how Dan and I have found common ground considering our different religious backgrounds and beliefs, I often explain that in truth, we grew up in families where liberal, Democratic values and ideals were the one that were most forcefully expressed and most passionately defended.  Our identity as Democrats was at least as strong if not stronger than our identity as Christians or Jews.

I'm not sure this is still the case for either of us.  Personally, my political involvement has become more issue-focused and less candidate-focused as I've gotten older, and my religious identity has certainly become a much more central part of who I am and how I present myself to the world (perhaps an occupational hazard of being a professional minister).  I know who I am voting for in the upcoming election, but I am not an uncritical booster of any candidate.  Still, as I watched the presidential debate this past Tuesday night, I noticed myself rooting for my candidate and hoping the other candidate would fumble.  I wasn't really listening to and evaluating the arguments made by each candidate.  I was rooting for my team.

I bet most of you were doing the same thing.

I am currently leading a four-week study of Brian McLaren's newest book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?:  Christian Identity in a Multifaith World".  The book is a great conversation-starter, touching lightly on at least 50 different topics.  Our group has now met twice and had some great conversations, but we keep coming back to a question that is assumed, not addressed in the book.  Is it important to have a strong Christian identity? 

In order to get into that question, I led the group in a conversation about identity in general last week.  We created a huge list of various kinds of identity we each carry with us.  Some of these things are obvious to everyone (our age, our race, and whether we like it or not often our economic class) and some of these things are not visible to the casual observer.  What parts of our identity are we most inclined to tell someone about when we first meet them?  What parts of our identity do we reveal to strangers with bumper stickers, buttons or other intentional signals?  By and large the group was in agreement--we are much more "out" about our professional identities, our identities as parents and our political identitites than we are about our religious identitites.  People are going to find out who were voting for way before they find out how we pray or what we hold to be true about God.

So does that mean that we all have "weak" Christian identities?

I'm in no way resolved in my thinking about this.  Part of me feels a little sheepish about it all.  I'm a pastor, after all.  Shouldn't I be a Christian before I'm a Democrat?  And maybe I am, but when I read an essay like the one Eugene Cho wrote recently for Sojourner's I feel torn.  Here's a guy who is clearly more identified as a Christian than he is as a member of a political party and as a result he's praying for both candidates (something I am really trying to do myself) and doing his best not to be a jerk (I try, and fail, at that too.)  But something bothers me about his essay.  He sounds almost blase about the election.  He seems dispassionate.

And if there is one part of my identity that I won't give up it is being a person who really does give a damn.  Elections matter to me.  Through them, I express my love for my country and my convictions about the kind of world I want to live in.  That's how I was raised and that is how Dan and I are raising our kids.  A quote from one of my heroes, the artist Kenneth Patchen comes to mind:  "It's always because we love that we are rebellious; it takes a great deal of love to give a damn one way or another what happens from now on: I still do."

Do you?  How does your religious identity compare to your political identity?  Is one stronger and the other weaker?  Or, are they apples and oranges?