Southern Baptist public theologian Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of 9Marks, says that a major problem with identity politics is that “everything is subject to the competitions of power,” dividing humanity between oppressor and oppressed groups.
Leeman’s recent talk at Together for the Gospel (T4G) explored “the ways in which identity politics is a useful ally for Christians, insofar as the experiences and challenges of people who have suffered one form of oppression or another offer Christians an opportunity to read their Bibles better.”
At the same time, Leeman’s talk also noted that “identity politics is a misleading ally—an anti-theology even—whose gods are the group and the individual. Even as it helpfully addresses some injustices, it creates new ones.”
T4G is the annual gathering of the Gospel Coalition, a highly influential network of Calvinists across denominations, whose annual convocation met online last month. Leeman is himself an increasingly prominent thinker of political theology, especially in Reformed circles.
In his T4G talk, Leeman argues that “identity politics views most or even all of human life and truth as socially constructed. Things don’t have intrinsic meaning or significance or value. They only have the meaning and value groups of humans give to it.”
In a post-God, post-Truth society, secular liturgies must be participated in, in order to make sense of life. Leeman points out that in this scenario, our groups become our primary frames of reference. These groups “give us meaning, purpose, value, a code.” It’s not party specific, since folks “on the political Right and Left do this.” He compares it to a Mad Max movie, with a brutish state of nature existing between each polis of identity.
For Leeman, identity politics claims that “the primary political activity of oppressed groups must be consciousness-raising and collective action.” For example, a privileged group must make concrete steps, often in the form of advocating for the narrative of oppressed groups and dismantling existing social hierarchies that are problematic for the oppressed group. Any form of neutrality is seen as acquiescing to the old socially conceived reality, which is being complicit with oppression.
Identity politics can function as an ally in four ways, Leeman says. First, it is analogous to the role of the Mosaic law, revealing our lack of love for our neighbor, and exposing those sins of partiality that the Epistle of James warns against. Second, it reminds Christians of the importance of repentance. As Leeman says, “to be united at the cross means being united in repentance.” Repentance remains a visible marker for the community of faith. Paying greater attention to sin is no empty exercise for the believer.
Third, identity politics can orient Christians both left, right, and center back towards the biblical narrative of justice. As Leeman says, “the word justice occurs 132 times in the ESV. The words oppress, oppression, or oppressor occur 118 times. This is a big deal.”
Leeman does not shy away from pointing out that “Scripture also commands us to give greater protection to certain groups of people—widows, orphans, the poor, even prisoners.” He notes these “groups needing protection might change from context to context. In short, structural injustice should be no surprise for Christians. Sinful people will pass sinful laws, erect sinful institutions, and devise sinful social practices.”
Identity politics can be an ally, Leeman says, but what he means is something akin to a partnership of convenience against a common enemy. It does not mean that he is advocating for or endorsing identity politics. The problems of identity politics are numerous for Leeman. Whether it is the prioritizing of the group as a god, asserting that “your sense of self is its own Genesis,” or creating its own historical narrative of sin and the fall, identity politics remains a dangerous, temporary partner.
Still, Leeman recognizes that while identity politics “is a cause of some of our division… it’s also the symptom of older sins, sins which are also responsible for our present division.” It’s “both/and.” Leeman’s theological prescriptions in treating the proposed sickness will resonate with some Christians, and less so with others.
Watch the entirety of Leeman’s talk at T4G here:
Derek Uejo is a Fall 2019 John Jay Fellow and graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. He is currently interning with the American Enterprise Institute, and will be pursuing his MTS in New Testament at Duke Divinity School this fall.