Evangelicals say Christians are being persecuted. They are. But not in the United States. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t even make the top 50 according to Open Doors’ World Watch List. Worldwide, persecution of Christians is rising, but evangelicals’ claims of persecution in the U.S. are unfounded and rooted in intersecting legacies of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and colonialism.
Much of recent U.S. evangelical history has assumed conservative Christianity’s preeminent place in U.S. policy, law, and practice. That assumption also presumes whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and U.S. citizenship as characteristics of U.S. Christianity and the dominant U.S. culture. It has also presumed God as white, male, heterosexual, and probably American.
To a great extent, theology ― even a great deal of progressive theology ― has affirmed that view of God and thereby reinforced notions of Christian expansion and dominance. As the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, Gay Liberation, Black Lives Matter, immigration, Queer and Trans movements, and other forces have challenged the dominance of white Christian heteropatriarchy, many evangelicals have experienced the progress of these groups as persecution as evangelicals have been expected to follow state and federal laws that have granted rights to various minorities. Now, for some evangelicals, expecting a conservative Christian bakery owner to provide a wedding cake for a lesbian couple gets framed as persecution.
Rooted in a theology that claims to know the “one right answer,” these evangelical Christians then cannot allow room for diverse, complex, and sometimes competing understandings of God or even more radical possibilities for God’s ongoing revelation ― the possibility, as the United Church of Christ puts it, that “God is still speaking.”
In academic theology, “outsider” voices have emerged in theologies of liberation, theologies that begin, not with a sacred text or a set of doctrines, but with the lived experiences of oppressed peoples. These theologies present new possibilities for imagining God from perspectives of the poor, people of color, women, queer and trans people, people from “the two-thirds world,” or the global South.
Unfortunately, these theologies rarely make it into the Sunday school lessons or sermons in most conservative Christian churches. Sometimes, these theologies themselves also neglect to examine the intersections that shape people’s experiences. Early Latin American liberation theologies were written by men and often ignored gender. Early feminist theologies were mostly written by white women who often overlooked race. Rarely did questions of the role of colonialism arise. And very seldom did straight white male theologians take into account the perspectives of the people at the margins of social power and theology.
And so we’ve mostly continued to have theologies that focus on questions of sin, redemption, the church, and social issues without reference to the diverse experiences and perspectives of the entirety of the human race.
When a theology can ignore all perspectives but its own, making the short jump from believing oneself to hold The Truth to claiming persecution for being expected to bake a wedding cake begins to make sense. It’s easier and much more comforting than dealing with the possibility that other perspectives may be equally or perhaps more valid.
The idea of intersectional thinking comes to us from a long tradition of Black feminist thought. The term “intersectionality” was coined by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw. Intersectionality takes note of how race, gender, social class, sexual identity, and other forms of difference shape one another within a matrix of social institutions that confer power differentially. An intersectional theology, as we have proposed, centers intersectional thinking in our doing of theology.
A truly intersectional theology is messy. It encompasses all the contradictions, differences, and difficulties of human experience, and that means that sometimes we won’t find a direct line from point A to point B to ultimate Truth. Instead, we will find questions, people who are nothing like us, ideas that terrify and challenge us.
An intersectional theology will not allow us to ignore human suffering, nor will it allow us to cause suffering in the name of God because it will underline the equal value of all of us toward our collective, contradictory, scary, and exhilarating understandings of God. It will compel us to speak out against real persecution—against Christians around the world, against Jews and Muslims in the US, who actually do suffer the most religious persecution in our country.
This kind of intersectional thinking is for all of us, not just those of us who are members of an oppressed group. In fact, the embrace of intersectional thinking by dominant groups is absolutely essential to progress for us all because dominant groups hold the social, economic, political, and religious power to make significant change. This means white, heterosexual men, for example, need to recognize that their race, gender, and sexual identity are part of the way they do theology. They cannot be objective and neutral; rather they express theology from their particular social locations.
If we Christians begin to think this way, to center questions of the role of the intersections of difference in our theological thinking and faith practice, then we can revolutionize the church, making it a leader in changing the world for good, rather than being a follower 25 years behind the rest of society. With intersectional thinking, evangelical Christians likely won’t see themselves as persecuted in the US because they’ll understand the ways power and privilege operate across social differences, and progressive Christians will remind themselves that they need to pay attention to all the differences, not just the ones that happen to affect them. Together, then, we take another step toward the kin-dom of God.