Fetishization of impartiality and the gospel
February 10, 2022
These days it is sometimes difficult for churches to take a side. In the same prayers of the community, we can hear prayers for the machine of war and its victims and for the state apparatus and those who suffer at its hands. Concerns for the mighty and the oppressed sit uncomfortably side by side. I believe this is often due to the fear of being called out as “biased,” “political,” or “ideological.” As an antidote, some churches adopt the stance of impartiality, sitting on the fence on important moral issues such as reproductive rights, or challenging imperialism, racism, and xenophobia.
This fetishization of impartiality was also recently clear in the legislative context, when the Indiana state senator, a self-professed Christian, Scott Baldwin stated, “Marxism, Nazism, fascism. . . I have no problem with the education system providing instruction on the existence of those ‘isms.’ I believe that we’ve gone too far when we take a position. . . . We need to be impartial.” He made this comment in response to a group of Indiana teachers concerned that SB169, a bill cowritten by Baldwin and aimed at banning “divisive concepts” would prevent them from ethical assessment of genocidal ideologies such as Nazism. SB169 resembles legislation already passed in eighteen other states (many of which also passed similarly absurd anti-Sharia laws) that prohibit the teaching of critical race theory (CRT).
As a feminist scholar of religion, I have studied critiques of positivist paradigms of science. They boiled down to this: claims of neutrality or impartiality simply bolster pretense of value-free science. More importantly, this pretense has a historically grounded rationale: achieving and preserving power. Some people (usually white men) are still cast as capable and deserving of exercising reason, which is the basis for exercising rights and freedoms. Others (women, minorities) are still portrayed as incapable and therefore undeserving of rights and freedoms. Thus, the idea of impartiality is often in the service of the powerful.
Concerns for the mighty and the oppressed sit uncomfortably side by side. I believe this is often due to the fear of being called out as “biased,” “political,” or “ideological.” As an antidote, some churches adopt the stance of impartiality, sitting on the fence on important moral issues such as reproductive rights, or challenging imperialism, racism, and xenophobia.
Given this power-charged relationship between claims of neutrality, what is at stake in this exchange on the Indiana state senate floor? The pretense of value-free science projected by SB169 would likely extend to the discussions of “multiple perspectives” on Nazism in the classroom (as it did in in a school in Texas, for example) but would prevent the discussions of structural racism as an apparently “divisive” concept. As Senator Baldwin’s (now retracted) comment shows very clearly, it is more beneficial to prevent critical analyses of uncomfortable truths, and even better, to prohibit and penalize mentioning them altogether, if the aim is to preserve the status quo.
At their 2021 annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution to use biblical teachings as a framework for racial reconciliation (with an implied, but nor explicit rejection of CRT). The gospel was portrayed by attendees as bringing unspecified “hope” to racial conflict, but underlying these comments was fear that with the acceptance of CRT, white people would have to accept that they are inevitably permanently racist. The hope in this take is likely to be for white people. It is hope for the absolution from complicity in racism, rather than hope for BIPOC for racial equity. But defending the privileged is not how many Christians understand the role of the gospel. The SBC, citing the Holy Book as an easy way out of the discomfort caused by BIPOC scholar voices, suggests that there is a need for progressive Christian churches to take action, for example, by creating church-based collections of CRT writings and discussing them in church book groups. After all, they are well suited to model context-informed and involved engagement with texts that take the side of the oppressed. On this, the gospel invites no “alternative perspective.”
Dr. Anna Piela is a Polish immigrant, scholar of religion, and candidate for ordination with American Baptist Churches USA. She holds a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the University of York, UK. Her second book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, was published in 2021.