Tag Archives: identity politics

Who Am I?

 

A recent study released by Barna Group reveals a great deal about the way people self-identify. It startled me, yet it explained many things that have bothered me about news and events in the culture. This study looked at a group made up of people of all ages in the US population, and asked questions that probed the way they think of themselves. The way someone thinks of himself will certainly shape the way someone thinks of other people. There can be no question that a person’s sense of identity affects the way he thinks about the many issues facing our churches and our country. I will just dive in. I will share my analysis and my conviction about the meaning of this information. At the end, I will ask for your reaction and your own convictions. I hope you will share your comments in response to my report.

In the group as a whole, less than half, only 38%, consider their religious faith to be the first and most important element of their personal identity. When I consider the importance of faith in my life, and when I consider that the call of Christ is to put everything second to him, I see right away that few Christians actually believe that obedience to Christ is more important than anything else in their lives. Self-identified Christians constitute about 75% of the US population, but if only 38% of the population considers their religious faith to be their primary identifier, it is clear that Christ is not first in the hearts and minds of most Christians. After all, even that 38% may not be exclusively made up of Christians. Church pastors and church members regularly discuss what it means to put Christ first. It is very clear from this study, that this idea does not have a lot of traction in the culture.

In the group as a whole, barely more than half consider their country to be the primary element in their identity. That, too, is startling, but it explains a lot of the controversy about immigration. If almost half the people consider their country to be less important to them than all other elements of their identity, then they do not think that someone who crosses the border without legal authorization has done anything threatening to them. Their citizenship is not an important element of their identity. They are not proud of being citizens. They don’t like the idea of excluding anyone for any reason. It’s hateful, they think. Someone who considers his national citizenship to be of paramount importance in his very identity considers that people without legal standing are alien invaders. The person whose identity includes national citizenship as a “ho hum” generality will not feel that the country is threatened by illegals. What, he will ask, is illegal about them? What is the big deal?

By far, the largest element in the personal identity of most people is their family. There is no question that family is important. Most people find their closest relationships within the family, and people without strong family connections often have difficulty connecting with anyone. The family is the first institution God established among humans, but even God expects allegiance to him to transcend allegiance to family. The dominance of family in the personal identity of most people makes me wonder why so many people line up to speak publicly in favor of redefining marriage and family. This particular element of the study makes me wonder where the real energy of the LGBTQ agenda is. This study reaffirms my doubts that most people in the USA want any part of the LGBTQ agenda.

For most people, the additional elements of personal identity—career, ethnicity, home city and home state—are minor by comparison to the top three. It is interesting to observe those items are important to about 20% of the group, a very small segment. The political rhetoric and the media would have people believe that ethnicity and career are the most important issues in the world. Clearly, no matter what your definition of racism and unequal pay for women is, these issues are not nearly as important as family, religion and citizenship. To read this study is to have your eyes opened to the fact that the media is clearly in partnership with political leaders to divert Americans from thinking about the things that are most important to them. If leaders actually wanted to serve the American people, they would assert a strong, traditional definition of the family, protect the nation from invaders, whether they invade with guns or spades, and guard freedom of religion aggressively. Instead, political leaders assert that the future hangs on issues most people hardly care about at all, and the media, the fourth estate, the group that is supposed to hold government at all levels accountable to the people, instead marches in servile lockstep with political language and objectives that destroy the very people politicians and the media are called to serve.

There is much more to discover in this study.

The high-level population groups in the study were Elders, Boomers, Gen-X, and Millenials. Individuals in the study did not self-identify for these groups. They were identified according to birth date. Participants were also asked questions that identified their participation in a separate set of groups such as No Faith, Practicing Catholic, Practicing Mainline, Practicing Christian, No Faith, Hispanic, White, Black, All Non-White, Evangelical, Unregistered Voter, Republican, Democrat, Registered Independent, Married, Ever Divorced, Never Married, Some College, College Graduate, Unemployed, Employed, Income> $100K. This list does not include all the groups studied.

The study across the second set of groups reveals some truly enlightening results. For example, three of those groups showed up as consistently less likely than others to consider faith, family or country important to their identity: Millennials, Democrats, and No Faith.

It is not hard to understand that people with no faith would value those items less than other people. People with no faith will not likely value faith, and the inherent connections of faith with family in all religions tend to mean that people with no faith will set less value on family. It is not clear what lack of faith has to do with valuing American citizenship, but this study shows that connection.

It is quite surprising to discover that people who identify with one of the major political parties are less likely than citizens in general to value faith, family or country as part of their identity, yet Democrats show up as statistically less likely in all three categories. There has never been any indication that the Democrat party officially scorned religious faith, but a reader is entitled to wonder why the statistics show that people who consider themselves Democrat set less value on religion in their personal identity than other citizens. It is disturbing to see them show up as less likely to value family, too, and it is tempting to believe that this fact underlies the Democrat parties alliance with the LGBTQ agenda to normalize aberrant forms of sexual behavior, confuse definitions of gender, and redefine marriage altogether. The really frightening problem is that Democrats are less likely than other citizens to consider the country to be part of their personal identity.

It is enlightening to see that Millennials appear less likely than others to consider faith, family or country integral to their identity. Of all the elements Millenials include in their identity, family is the most likely choice, but even that accounts for barely half of them. After family, only American citizenship, at 34% exceeds a 25% value in the minds of millennials. You might say that their values are spread widely, but no value is deeply rooted in the group.

What does this mean for me, for you, for any Christian citizen? How does this study inform the way Christians live in the culture. I believe it is like having a bit of a map to the culture. This is the value of Barna Group. Any one of us may observe some of the same issues addressed in this study, but few of us have the time or the statistical skill to do surveys and analysis that Barna does, and if we did, all our real work would go undone. We can be very thankful for the commitment of Barna group to study the culture in ways that help all of us minister to the culture more effectively.

I plan to use this information to help me focus my study and my writing. I write to help Christians understand elements of the culture that reject or restrict Christian discipleship, and I write to encourage Christians to persevere in faithful obedience to Christ. I write, because each of us wants to be like the disciples when challenged by the Sanhedrin:

When [the Sanhedrin] had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that [the disciples] should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So [the disciples]departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:40-42 ESV emphasis mine.

For me, this means that I will do what Christ calls me to do, and I will try to be more like Christ in everything I do. If I suffer shame for his name, that will be a gift for which I give thanks. The evidence of the Barna study supports daily evidence that the name of Christ is not universally respected. When Paul found himself in Athens where nobody knew or cared about Christ, he spent some time studying the culture, and then he preached Christ more powerfully, because he was informed. May we use Barna’s information to be ever more skillful in presenting Christ to the many people for whom he died.

What does this information mean for you?

 

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Religion? Spirituality? Who Cares?

In the culture of the USA there is currently a busy discussion of the difference between being spiritual and being religious. The conversation reveals some fairly huge differences of opinion between people who claim a specific religious connection and those who claim to be spiritual but not religious as well as those who claim multiple simultaneous religious connections. Numerous statements in blogs, comments and articles online make it clear that there are people who practice what might be called identity spirituality regardless of their connections with religion. The practice of identity spirituality is quite similar to identity politics with one very notable difference: identity politics is divisive by design while identity spirituality resolves all differences by simply ignoring them.

In order to contrast identity spirituality with identity politics it is necessary for you to understand what identity politics is. The point of identity politics is to recruit members by identifying commonality of political interest. In fact, activists in identity politics don’t so much make recruitment calls as they project an image with which prospects can identify. The identity Latino is deceptively clear in most people’s minds—a person who speaks Spanish and looks white but not Anglo-Saxon. The reality is that neither the appearance nor the speech of an individual will reveal all the people who might properly be identified as Latino, and the projection of the true factors of identity is actually a call for membership. Identity groups are used in polls and surveys, where participants self-identify with demographic groups and answer questions designed to uncover trends and attitudes within demographic identities.

The practice of identity politics not only demands acceptance and respect for a group’s unique identity (example, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) but it also distinguishes the members of the group from individuals who might fraudulently claim the group’s identity without meeting its unique definition. This practice was displayed when Barack Obama first entered the Democrat presidential primaries. He was easily identified as a black man, yet he was scorned by such public figures as Al Sharpton, because he did not have “slave blood.” His racial identity with other black political figures was marred for his lack of identity with survivors of the civil rights rallies of the sixties. Further, identity politics seeks special consideration for itself as compensation both for past injustices and for the insult of having endured past injustice, a state of affairs that is extended by constantly finding ways to demonstrate that the injustice continues. A prime example is the use of the term racist in the context of events and statements where the obvious intent is not to further an important public conversation but rather to receive the benefit of sympathetic support in words, legislative action and voting power that is occasioned by any perception that real racism persists in public life.

Identity spirituality is a very different concept. People who practice identity spirituality shun identification with any group whatsoever. Yet, in common with identity politics, the practitioners choose the relationship based on an identity. Something in the religion or spiritual practice resonates with something in the individual. The defining element is that the practitioner chooses religious or spiritual practices on the basis of their resonance with the identity of the practitioner. It might even be a resonance with the individual’s search for personal identity.  A person who practices identity spirituality is comfortable saying, “I identify with whatever moves me.” Or he might say,I claim that openness, that exploratory urge, the seeking for “the more,” as my spirituality.” Practitioners of identity spirituality are open to anything that feels spiritual to them, whether it is Christian, Buddhist, or even science. They don’t belong to a religion; they collect spiritual ideas that that they appreciate. The individual shapes a spiritual experience the way a sculptor might craft a mobile. That simile was deliberate, because the choices are fluid and elusive, and most practitioners of identity spirituality prefer it that way. Unlike identity politics where walls are deliberately constructed to foil attempts to reconcile differences between groups, identity spirituality simply ignores any walls that exist between religious and spiritual groups and picks and chooses among spiritual components as if the world of religion and spirituality were a giant shopping mall.

This is a point on the plane of all degrees of religious and spiritual convictions where spirituality fades into agnosticism and atheism. It is a place where ideas that claim a sacred element can be merged with completely secular views. Secular thinkers accept that cosmological hypotheses describe the physical beginnings of the universe, a point in time when no human observer could have measured anything, yet they categorically reject any suggestion of a supernatural power. The practitioner of identity spirituality can comfortably merge an astrophysical cosmology with a Buddhist meditation in the lotus position and consider all of it to be her personal spirituality. This blend of mathematics and mysticism is a place where nothing is firm or solid or predictable. It is the place where Eckhart Tolle took all his readers – that place where a person is his own god. Whether a person says that he is his own god or says that he chooses bits and pieces from the teachings of many gods, the ultimate truth of his spiritual or religious experience is that he chooses elements that satisfy him in some way. The experience is all about the person who experiences it. He may not call himself his own god, but he acts in lieu of any god.

Christianity does not recruit adherents on the basis of identity. There may be people who join Christian churches because of some identity factor, but that is not the teaching of the faith.  People who choose to follow Christ are not identifying with him. They are receiving his forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, but they are giving up self, the very thing practitioners of identity spirituality clutch most fervently. To receive Christ is to be indwelt by God himself. Yet through the mystery of the Trinity, God remains on his throne in heaven, in the eternal and infinite perfection of heaven, while living within each of us messy and sinful human beings in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t identify with Christ; they serve him. They worship him and learn from him and depend on him. This experience is a life, a way of life, that is not in any way confined to a worship ritual or a worship building.

One of the reasons often given for being spiritual but not religious is that religions are too rigid, too organized and too full of hypocrites. Practitioners of identity spirituality visit a worship service and then say, “I didn’t get anything out of it,” consigning what Christians consider to be a time of focus on God to a time of focus on self. They complain about Christians whose religious principles forbid them to engage in contraception, sterilization and abortion, and they complain even more about Christians whose religious principles against participation extend to the funding of such activities for others. They complain that religions in church buildings are old-fashioned and irrelevant to modern life. Then they complain that Christians are trying to impose their faith on others by expressing it publicly outside the worship space. They say that they believe that people are born good, and they don’t want to hear that people are born sinful.

Is this deep disconnect between Christians and the practitioners of identity spirituality really different from the disconnect between Christians and secular thinkers? What do you think Christians have to say to people who are spiritual but not religious? Do you think Christians need to change the way they worship in order to attract more members? Do you think Christians are giving a rich testimony to Christ that wicked people simply reject? Do Christians themselves need to change in some way? Should we take a survey and find out what would entice people to want to be Christians? Why are more and more people saying that they have no use for Christ or Christians or Christianity? Why do statistics show that Christians are the most persecuted people on earth? What might that have to do with our inability to communicate to practitioners of identity spirituality?

Looking for a good Christian book? Read my review of Martin Roth’s The Coptic Martyr of Cairo