No, Black Women Didn’t Save Evangelicalism

Freddie deBoer describes a particular sort of unhealthy progressive politics as the ‘politics of deference’:

I have personally taken to thinking of a particular kind of misguided progressive political engagement as the politics of deference — that is, the political theory that suggests that people of a progressive bent have a duty to suspend their critical judgment and engage in unthinking support of whoever claims to speak for the movement against racism and sexism. This is the common notion that allies should “just listen.” There are all manner of problems with that attitude, first and foremost among them the question of who, exactly, we should just listen to when different members of marginalized groups disagree, as they inevitably will. But more, the notion that we should just listen asks us to forego the most basic moral requirement of all, the requirement to follow one’s own conscience. Just listening is easy, and you will find many armies of privileged people in media, academia, and the entertainment industry who have made a career out of it, coasting along with whatever the day’s progressive fads are. But just listening leaves us bereft of the kinds of ruthless self-review that are a political movement’s only defense against drift, complacency, and corruption. Just listening is self-defense; just listening is bad faith.

If a person can tick off more boxes than you on the intersectional checklist, you must ‘just listen’ and morally defer to them. It seems to me that just this sort of thing is increasingly occurring in certain sections of Christianity and even evangelicalism, where people are elevated, deferred to, shielded from criticism, or otherwise treated as morally superior in no small measure because they belong to some historically oppressed class.

The politics of deference, by elevating victim classes beyond such things, and by constantly performing its ‘genuflections’ towards writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, can end up implicitly demeaning the agency and the thought of people of those classes. People and ideas emanating from that class are deemed morally superior and held to be immune to robust challenge, which patronizes members of those groups who want their agency to be taken seriously, rather than merely pandered to. John McWhorter discusses this dynamic in the clip below:

Obsequious praise for people of colour, sexual minorities, women, and other victim classes may seem to help those groups. However, it often comes at the cost of diminishing and demeaning their agency. Furthermore, in the context of the Internet, where one is largely defined by what one says over what one does, deference to victim classes can function as a sort of public performative piety, serving primarily to identify the speaker as morally enlightened themselves. One of the many lessons that should have been learned from the recent revelations about abusers in Hollywood and elsewhere is that many people who play what proves to be a self-serving politics of deference game in public can be deeply abusive or indifferent to those same classes in their personal lives.

This recent article by John C. Richards Jr. over on The Exchange is illustrative of the politics of deference. We are told that black voters, and black women in particular, ‘stepped in to save the day’ in the Alabama election and, indeed, that in so doing they ‘saved evangelicalism’. He writes:

Fifty years ago, Blacks fought for voting rights; yesterday, they fought for human decency.

That’s how the Black community has always been wired—especially Black Christians. For Black Christians, sexual harassment and assault (yes, even accusations) are as much of a gospel issue as abortion. For them, there is no separation of voting values and a social ethic because they have lived that reality for over 50 years.

Besides troubling echoes of the ‘magical negro’ trope, with morally courageous black women stepping in to save (white) evangelicalism from itself, it seems a trifle odd—nay, absolutely ridiculous—that a group that is one of the most predictable voting blocs in American politics should be regarded as peculiarly morally astute for voting the same way as they always do. Holding for the sake of argument that voting Democrat is a wise ethical choice for such voters, it is also strange that they should be praised for the strength of their moral voice when Democrats can so presume upon their vote that their party’s steady freezing out of abortion critics can proceed largely unarrested by concerns of alienating them or provoking strong resistance from their quarter. Yet those celebrating the moral heroism of black women don’t seem to consider the possibility that they might be morally compromised by the fierceness of their party political loyalties in a manner comparable with white Christians on the right. Because reasons.

Of course, many black women can see through what is going on here too, and don’t buy into the black saviour narrative that is being peddled:

On “The Daily Show,” host Trevor Noah asked correspondent Dulce Sloan if it’s been nice to see “black women’s contributions finally recognized.”

“Yes! We’ve been through so much!” Sloan said. “And you’re welcome, white people. But let’s be honest: We didn’t do it for you. We did it for ourselves. No black woman cast her vote going, ‘This one’s for Scott!’” she said as the audience cracked up.

It is always easy to moralize one’s vote when such moralizations neatly coincide with one’s tribal alignments or personal interests. If we have learned anything from the profoundly shameful political behaviour of white evangelicals over the last year or so, it should be that tribal loyalties and party interests can count for a lot more than moral principle. The fact that Roy Moore was ‘a bridge too far’ for many (white) evangelicals, as Al Mohler argued, is not especially encouraging when they are so far into compromised territory that the crazed crackling of any functional moral Geiger counter will long have receded to their background of their awareness. And it isn’t as if supporters of the Democratic Party enjoy some elevated moral ground, immune from the moral radiation of the nuclear wasteland of American partisan politics. Do we yet know what a bridge too far for Democrat-voting black women might look like?

The notion that our ability to stand resolute against the moral depravity of other parties is guarantee that we would readily sacrifice our own interests to secure the moral integrity of our own should be laughable at this point. True evidence of moral heroism will generally be seen in people’s sacrifice of their interests for their integrity. And there is scant evidence of such moral heroism in American politics today, black women being no exception.

Beyond this specific case, the moral elevation of the victim in the politics of deference involves a subtle yet radical distortion of the Christian recognition of the class of the victim. The Christian recognition of the class of the victim involved a slowly dawning moral concern directed towards those who were the scapegoats and persecuted of society. However, the fact that victims should be the object of our moral concern should not be taken to mean that victim classes themselves are peculiarly moral, which is increasingly the case. In one of the more perceptive and challenging sections of his writing, René Girard remarked upon this modern distortion of the Christian regard for the victim into a twisted ‘victimology’, which he argues has become our ‘absolute’:

The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition. The media themselves notice this and make fun of “victimology,” which doesn’t keep them from exploiting it. The fact that our world has become solidly anti-Christian, at least among its elites, does not prevent the concern for victims from flourishing—just the opposite.

The majestic inauguration of the ‘post-Christian era’ is a joke. We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.

This perverse elevation of victims, Girard describes as a form of totalitarianism:

The attempt by Nietzsche and Hitler to make humankind forget the concern for victims has ended in a failure that seems definitive, at least for the moment. But it is not Christianity that profits from the victory of the concern for victims in our world. It is rather what I think must be called the other totalitarianism, the most cunning and malicious of the two, the one with the greatest future, by all evidence. At present it does not oppose Judeo-Christian aspirations but claims them as its own and questions the concern for victims on the part of Christians (not without a certain semblance of reason at the level of concrete action, given the deficiencies of historical Christianity). The other totalitarianism does not openly oppose Christianity but outflanks it on its left wing.

All through the twentieth century, the most powerful mimetic force was never Nazism and related ideologies, all those that openly opposed the concern for victims and that readily acknowledged its Judeo-Christian origin. The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and “radicalizes” the concern for victims in order to paganize it. The powers and principalities want to be “revolutionary” now, and they reproach Christianity for not defending victims with enough ardor. In Christian history they see nothing but persecution, acts of oppression, inquisitions.

Finally, he points out the direction in which the whole cult of victims tends:

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.

Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.

Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.

As Christians, it is profoundly important that we retain and develop a proper Christian concern for the victim, while being alert to the totalitarianism of the new ‘victimology’ that prevails in our culture. One of the things that this demands from us is a greater alertness of the dangers of allowing a proper moral concern for the victim to be perverted into a moral elevation of victims themselves, as if suffering mistreatment from society meant that one should enjoy privileged moral status. We should also recognize the neo-pagan direction in which the contemporary cult of the intersectionally-classified victim tends.

Black women are creatures made in the image of God like the rest of us. And fallen like the rest of us as well. True morality is not to be found in placing them upon a moral pedestal and deferring to them and other victim classes. Rather, we must reject all idolatries—even the idolatry of deference to victims—to serve the God who made and regards us all.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Politics, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to No, Black Women Didn’t Save Evangelicalism

  1. CW says:


    It’s nice seeing you write so much, I think you should forgo writing another book so you can focus on your blogging ;).

    Are those Girard quotes from the latter part of “I See Satan Fall Like Lightening?” I would be really interested to read your thoughts on Girard’s thesis regarding memetic violence as the origin of cult and scapegoating as the only way to maintain solidarity of society.

    • Yes, the quotes are all from the latter part of that book. My thoughts on mimetic violence and Girardian theory have developed over the last decade. I might blog on it at some point, but I am increasingly ambivalent about his approach.

      This post was written in just over an hour, so it didn’t take long (it helps that it is largely quotations). When I know what I want to write, I can write 2,000 words or more an hour.

  2. cal says:

    As somewhat related, here’s an article discussing the confusion of identity politics for examining class divisions in the US, which, in certainly a large part, helped elect Trump:

    Turning groups of identities into fetishes, ordered by intersectionality into a totem, does nothing to deal with real problems and injustice. Instead, this is the beginnings of a new form of civil religion.

  3. Patrick M says:

    There was quite a storm a few months back

    where this whole issue was met with much heat and very little light. Listening to the episode was disheartening for a myriad of reasons, but the ugly storm that followed was equally as disheartening. Did you have a chance to listen to this podcast episode?

    • Yes, I listened to it at the time. I wasn’t very impressed.

    • Chris E says:

      I don’t see the relevance of that link to this post; apart from the fact that the podcast is also by black women.

      The podcast itself focused fairly narrowly on two intra-mural issues in some reformed churches in the US – wrt extending the concept or ‘ordination’ to cover a range of things that are not traditionally within the scope of what ‘ordination’ covered.

      The reaction to it was overblown and served to do little other make MoS/ACE look somewhat silly – which is a bit of an open goal.

      • I think the relevance Patrick is thinking of lies in the way that the politics of deference shaped the response to the podcast, as identities tended to be foregrounded over arguments.

      • Patrick M says:

        Chris E- Per Alastair’s comment, I was speaking to the politics of deference more than the subjects discussed (voting blocs and “toxic patriarchy” respectively). Most critical thought and objection to the podcast’s content was summarily dismissed because critics were told to “just listen” and suspend judgment at best, or accused of misogyny and racism at worst (in Pastor Todd Pruitt’s case on the Mortification of Spin blog).

      • Patrick M says:

        Also Chris E- as you can read in my above post, the reaction was overblown, I was as dismayed at the reaction as I was at the post. And that is Alastair’s point- moral reasoning is suspended on both sides in the politics of deference. I was simply trying to bring it home to a ‘church’ context where I’ve seen it played out. Hopefully my response is helpful. Thanks for engaging!

      • Chris E says:

        To be clear Patrick – when I said ‘reaction to the podcast was overblown’ I include Pruitt/MoS/ACE in that.

    • Barbara says:

      Just a Presbyterian lady here who was appalled at what she heard on that podcast and at the doubling-down afterward that insisted that any disagreement was just because of race; I thought it was highly distasteful and unhelpful. A better way (imo) was recently presented by Jen Wilkin who tackled similar (if not the same) issues in a much more faithful, respectful way recently in speaking to an Acts 29 church planting conference. A challenge given in love, in deference to church convictions, no victimhood, but still advocating for the victimized (in a discussion on domestic abuse toward the end).

      • Yes, it led to a very difficult conversation, one in which the issues where held behind a sort of human shield of victimhood. More generally, it should be stressed, the problems in these areas are caused by the politics of deference, not necessarily by those classed as victims themselves, who often don’t desire such treatment. Many such persons want to argue out the issues carefully, and not to stand in the way of them.

  4. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    Alastair et al.,

    The quotations from Girard were very helpful for sorting through vague impressions that had been lingering with me about secular attitudes toward marginalized people. In the light of that, one strategy for evangelism that I’ve both praticed and seen done very effectively is to, on the one hand, point out the shortcomings of secular attitudes toward the poor, and on the other to hold up a more distinctly Christian approach.

    Really, I learned this from friends who started a home in the tradition of the Catholic worker. The life of the house was characterized by thick practices of formation (like daily mass at 6:30am in room set apart as a chapel). It brought together Christians who were both really progressive and unwaveringly traditional in a culture that was robustly orthodox. And the goal wasn’t to fix anyone. The goal was friendship with poor people–and ultimately therein, friendship with Jesus. People weren’t treated as problems to be solved, but as gifts to be embraced.

    It seems like there could be a danger of trying to one-up secular radicalism and so being to some extent a mirror image of it, but I don’t know if that quite captures what’s going on. One of the best ways to expose a fraud is to call the real one into the room. And there’s something deeply captivating about the witness of someone like St. Laurence, when he gathered the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the disabled and brought the before the prefect, declaring: “Here are the treasures of the Church.”

    A few questions: Do you think I’m underestimating the potential pitfalls? What do you think would be the markers of a more genuinely Christian attempt to love people whose lives have been more difficult than what’s normal? Also, why do you think the poor, imprisoned, hungry, naked, etc. are particularly fit to be representatives of Jesus, such that what we have or haven’t done to them we’ve done to him?



    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment and question, Stephen.

      I think that the emphasis upon presence to and with the poor really is a healthy one. There are clearly dangers of downplaying genuine and important doctrinal points for the sake of co-belligerency, but there are also ways in which such co-belligerency can break certain differences down to size. It is just important to do these things with your eyes open.

      I think that you are implicitly asking about the interpretation of Matthew 25. That passage, I believe, is not about the poor, imprisoned, hungry, naked, etc. in general, but about Christ’s ‘brethren’ in particular. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, those brethren are the apostolic messengers. The welcome to these may entail a broader posture of welcome towards the poor, as I argue here. However, I’m increasingly moving towards the position that the surprise associated with the blessing received on account of the welcome is not that people were unaware that representatives of Christ were in their midst, but that Christ so identified with his emissaries, that the hospitality shown to them should be deemed hospitality to him.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Thanks for the link. I really enjoyed your article, with its emphasis on the unexpectedness of welcoming Christ in the poor.

  5. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    One more question, unrelated to my previous question.

    One other place we see victim culture exploited is, maybe ironically, by generally conservative district attorneys. When a person who’s been convicted of a violent crime is up for parole, they’ll often bring in a sobbing family to persuade whoever would be deciding to not grant release. It fits in with a tough-on-crime approach.

    You’ve probably touched on this, Alastiar, but it seems that being a victim can both help and hurt a person’s judgment about what’s right. On the one hand, they would often (not always) have intimate knowledge, not only about the facts of what have happened, but about the moral texture of what happened–the sheer wrongness of a given injury often being particularly vivid to the victim. But then they’re passions might be inflamed, such that their judgment is impaired. Part of the tragedy of bringing sobbing families into parole hearings is that people are overwhelmed by their feelings of sympathy and are left less able to act in the cause of what’s just. Instead of a justice system, you end up with a vengeance system.

    How can we prudently weigh the opinions of victims, recognizing that to some extent their perception of what happened or what should happen as a result is likely to be skewed, yet embracing the real insight that their perspective brings?

    • Legal contexts generally manage these sorts of things by distinguishing between different types of speech. Judges, lawyers, juries, witnesses, defendants, press, etc. all have carefully managed and distinguished parts in a process of speech yielding judgments that aim at justice.

      Much of our problem lies in the fact that we have flattened out the discursive environment, encouraging everyone to participate in the same way, rather than recognizing different places for different kinds of speech.

      • Yes, there is a need to recognize different sorts of speech. Victim impact statements are about the victim’s experience of the treatment he/she was subjected to by the perpetrator and the ramifications of this in the victim’s life – an account of reality, not a perception or a
        judgement. Judge and jury are on the outside looking in when they hear a victim impact statement and they are left to rely on observation and discernment (and hopefully compassion) when they form any opinions they make about the gravity of the offence and try to establish truth, justice and mercy in court.It is regrettable that the media exploit victim impact statements to the extent that they sometimes do.

      • Amendment – a victim impact statement is presented in court after a verdict has been reached, but before sentencing

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