On Being Confessionally Reformed, Politically Liberal, and Black

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by Eric M. Washington

Intersectionality is a social scientific category of analysis in which scholars study and analyze how different, even seemingly disparate concepts, intersect each other. For example, womanist scholars such as bell hooks have been convincing in arguing that African American women have railed against (and continue to do so) “triple oppression” based on their race, class, and gender. Scholars have asserted that one cannot easily tease out the differences in this general oppression. All three categories factor in the oppression, and even the resistance of such oppression.

Taking my cue from the category of intersectionality, here is my story of grappling with the intersectionality of being a confessionally Reformed Christian, a solidly liberal Democrat, and a Black man. My modest contention is that there can be difficulty being Reformed, Liberal, and Black as one navigates his/her way in different Reformed circles.

reformation-wall-genevaIt was late 1998 that I became a Calvinist. Prior to that time, I had been grappling with the doctrine of election and how to reconcile that with what I had learned and believed as a Baptist for nearly my entire life. After reading R.C. Sproul’s Chosen By God, the proverbial “scales fell off of my eyes.” In two days of reading that book I emerged a committed Calvinist. In the next couple of years, trouble ensued. I was a teacher in a Baptist church, and my newfound Calvinism failed to gain a wide-audience. Eventually, under pressure from the pastor, I left the church. I joined another Baptist church, and left owing to similar reasons.

I felt like a theological nomad cut away from the familiar. No home. No haven of rest. Yet I was confident that my new theological viewpoint was true to Scripture. One thing I realized quickly though: Calvinism seemed to be foreign to African Americans. The African American pastors I served under railed against my Calvinism. This pushed me out to seek refuge in a predominately white church.

Upon joining a predominately white church for the first time in my life, I had little idea of the impact of the cultural shift. This was a Baptist church that subscribed to the 1689 London Baptist Confession, which is thoroughly Calvinistic. We members had to subscribe to it. I did so gladly. In subtle ways, I found myself confronted with cultural expectations that challenged my cultural beliefs such as mothers remaining at home with small children, Christian schooling, home schooling, and GOP or independent affiliation with strong conservative leanings.

At the time, I had drifted away from my strong Democratic Party affiliation and struggled to strike a balance between my ardent support of civil rights and certain socially conservative issues such as being against abortion and gay marriage. I claimed that nebulous space called a “political independent”: neither liberal or conservative, so I thought. Being in a church with this type of political culture seamlessly woven into the theology made my transition into Calvinism difficult. As a culturally and politically Black person, I could hold to positions that are considered socially conservative, but at the same time hold to positions that are solidly liberal.

obama-church-6-13Being in that particular church context, offered me no space to vocalize my support for candidate Barack Obama or Governor Jennifer Granholm. If I had articulated my support for liberal politicians, I would have received the side-eye from many. I just lacked the energy to offer a history lesson on Black experiences in America that form the larger context of our support for liberalism despite the Democratic Party’s position on abortion and gay marriage. I found this in a Presbyterian church I joined upon moving to another city. Being Reformed meant being a political and social conservative. To be liberal in any sense was a byword. The atmosphere was at time stifling owing to the conversations I overheard that disparaged liberalism and upheld conservative principles. Though I could sign off on the Westminster standards, I could never sign off on the pervasive political culture of this local congregation.

There is no lack of appreciation for the other churches I have belonged to. At every step as a Reformed Christian, I have been challenged either theologically, politically, or culturally until recently. I share this because I have a passion for cross-cultural churches that are intentional about drawing the nations. This is hard work. I now belong to such a church. We are confessionally Reformed but culturally accessible. A Black person is free to worship in her own way as others have the same freedom to worship in his own way. This also means that the worship style will reach everyone, and refuses to cater to one particular ethnic group within the congregation. I love it. The leadership has done yeoman’s work in allowing space for members to hold to different political opinions realizing that the Church is built upon Christ, not a particular political party. I am comfortable being a political liberal realizing the freedom I have in Christ that I have joined the Democratic Party, and holding to historic, confessionally Reformed commitments as a Black person.

Eric Washington teaches history and is the Director of African & African Diaspora Studies Program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Comments 5

  1. I am white so I have not shared any of the oppression or lack of cultural understanding you have because of your color, but so many of your issues about being a Democrat in a largely Republican church culture ring true for me and my husband, in your article. We think that issues of social justice, care for the poor, those who are displaced and in danger, needing refuge– would be the issues Christ himself would be voting for as His priorities. Among most of our Christian friends I wonder sometimes if we are reading the same Bible when I learn their anti- democrat opinions.

    At the same time, these fellow Christians are good-hearted, kind and generous to the people they know.. They are our very best friends, and precious to us beyond words. So we avoid politics in our discussions because it would lead to nothing but awkwardness and distancing. But still…what are we all thinking that helps justify such polar opposite opinions? It should be refreshing rather than confrontational to find out.

    Sometimes it is a lonely experience in church to feel that hardly anyone looks at these issues as we do, and yet all of our decisions should be from a springboard of what Christ has taught us.

    1. Thanks for reading, Barbara. Yes, it can be difficult; and I believe you are on target that the issues you mentioned should be Christian issues. Somehow, GOP ideology seems to label those things as particularly “liberal.” These things require federal dollars to implement; thereby, creating a bigger government. It’s interesting that the alternative according to GOP ideology is to lower taxes so that people can give to charitable agencies to this work. That’s great, but it assumes a lot about people’s charitableness.

  2. “Being in a church with this type of political culture seamlessly woven into the theology made my transition into Calvinism difficult.”
    This fabric- where political positions and Calvinist theology are seamlessly woven together- is so closely knit that I doubt many of us even see them as separate elements of belief. Even I am daily becoming more aware of how my Republican Calvinist upbringing gave me a certain perspective in reading the Bible and loving my neighbor.
    I wonder how leaders in the church can and should position themselves to create space for political differences while maintaining Reformed unity? It is easier to just leave politics out of the discussion, but that isn’t very Reformed as our faith should inform those discussions.
    Thank you for sharing your experience as a Black man- you’ve again opened my eyes to some of these distinctions.

    1. I appreciate your comments, Amy. You are right. Being disengaged politically is Unreformed. We have to be deliberate to speak and address these issues from a biblical perspective. Thanks for reading and your affirming comments.

  3. You think you can separate your membership in the Democratic Party from its position on abortion, or your support of Obama from his support of abortion, but you cannot. Let me remind you that abortion is the murder of unborn children, and 55 million murdered constitutes genocide. Better to stay out of politics altogether if there is no party that represents you. But you cannot say that the Democrats’ pro-abortion stance doesn’t represent you if you are a party member. That goes for everything else on their platform as well.

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