Of Moscow and Media
or, How a Christian Supremacist Trope Sparked Some Thoughts on Writing and my Evangelical Past
Welcome back, readers! New content will normally appear once a week here on The Bugbear Dispatch, but this week I got inspired to write some more. I’ve also decided that “bonus content” such as this, perhaps with rare exceptions, will be paywalled after the preview to provide another benefit to paid subscribers and incentive for free subscribers to upgrade.
In The Bugbear Dispatch’s inaugural post, I mentioned the former executive vice president of the Executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, August “Augie” Boto, a lawyer heavily implicated in the SBC’s sexual abuse coverup who is now (over a related issue) barred by a legal settlement from serving on the board or as an employee of any SBC entity in the future. As executive vice president, Boto infamously “justified” shutting down abuse survivors by arguing that their efforts to be heard amounted to “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.”
Within evangelical subculture, another way he could have expressed this would have been to describe the push for accountability as a “satanic attack on the SBC’s witness.” As I explained in my latest column for openDemocracy, “when ‘witness’ is used as a noun like this, it more or less translates to ‘reputation’”—but not for its own sake (in theory anyway). The goal of converting others to Christianity, thereby “advancing the Kingdom of God” and all that stuff and nonsense, is the reason for maintaining a good “witness.” The idea is that others who see how “wonderful” Christians are will come to want what Christians (supposedly) have that they (ostensibly) lack. The idea is present in an imminently mockable hymn you may have heard, “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.”
In short, this notion of preserving one’s witness is an inherently Christian supremacist, inherently conversionist one, and that’s why I cringe when liberal-ish to progressive Christians who supposedly support democratic pluralism and equality use the same framing. It’s utterly offensive, but thanks to Christian defensiveness and an unwillingness to examine entrenched Christian privilege, this “witness” framing is widely used outside of evangelical and conservative Catholic circles, among the kinds of Christians who vote for Democrats.
I’m hoping my criticism of this trope might lead to discussion that could change a few minds about the validity of using it, and I suppose we’ll see. In writing about sociologist Andrew Whitehead’s use of the “witness” trope, I wrote that to center arguments about Christian nationalism around Christianity’s “witness” and expect the marginalized people harmed by authoritarian Christianity to respond enthusiastically is “the height of Christian privilege.” Members of minority religions, nonbelievers, and the targets of Christian nationalist vitriol and violence have no reason to give a rat’s ass about the “witness” of “the church.”
“Would you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior, American Jesus?” Once again DALL-E2 did the art for this post.
I also want to note here that I found it particularly galling that in the opinion piece that sparked my response, Whitehead invokes his authority “as a social scientist” while clearly making a theological rather than sociological argument. That’s a problem with a lot of the formal academic study of Christianity to be honest, and Christian scholars really need to take a step back, check their privilege, and stop treating internal Christian categories as if they’re objective categories that all outside observers should be invested in.
But in the immortal words of Arlo Guthrie, “That’s not what I came to tell you about.”
What I really wanted to write up today was a few thoughts about the writing process and working with editors, and how sometimes you just can’t fit something into an article that you really wish you could. Finally launching a Substack gives me a public space to think and write about writing, and also to share some of the things that come to mind when I’m working on other projects but that ultimately fall outside the scope of those projects.
On that note, I’ve got a funny story to share. At least I think it’s funny, but to some of you readers who don’t hail from Jesus Land it might just come across as extraordinarily weird. But before I do that, a few thoughts about writing with vs. without editors.
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