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.
It 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.
Being 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.