Religious Identity Hiding under the Cloak of White Fragility

Author
Zach Parris

March 30, 2017

As we continue to wrestle with whether or not President Trump’s now frozen executive order on immigration constitutes a “Muslim ban”—whether in its original or in its revised form—the American public is faced with another question: what exactly makes one a Muslim, or, for that matter, a Christian? Eighteen undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder unknowingly found themselves immersed in this question after a visit from Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core.

The students sat in a circle and took turns introducing themselves. “I’m Ahmed. I’m a senior in Mechanical Engineering, and I’m Muslim.” Next was Emma: “A freshman. Undeclared. Roman Catholic.” The pattern continued until we came to the mainline Protestants. Rather than describing themselves as Lutheran or Episcopalian or even Christian, these students—students I see in worship regularly—answered the question with roughly the same formula: “Well, I was raised [insert denomination here], but I’m not certain what I believe now.”

The responses were striking. Of course, undergraduates wrestle with their religious traditions as they transition into adulthood. Yet only those students who came from a Protestant Christian background seemed to tie their religious identity directly to what they did or did not believe.

Patel offers a helpful distinction between a given religious identity and one founded in personal belief. In his visit to the CU-Boulder campus he argued that religious identity must be understood as different from religious adherence. While religious adherence may be defined as the tradition one claims or actively participates in, Patel defines religious identity as the way in which a person orients around religion. Take a student who does not necessarily “adhere” to Christianity, but who has been formed by a family, community, and/or society shaped by Christianity. Such a student might be understood to have a Christian religious identity because of how they have been formed to orient themselves around various religious traditions, including their own, regardless of adherence or personal belief.

Some say Luther, though I’d say Schleiermacher, first opened the door for a northern European form of Christianity centered on the authority of the individual. In the United States, white Protestantism followed this egalitarian thread to the point where today’s assumed cultural religion (a whitewashed version of Protestant Christianity) locates and verifies its truth in the life of the individual. Ironically, the student who chooses to identify as a religious “None” is by that declaration living out a religious identity shaped significantly by the Protestant Christian tradition. So much so that perhaps an avowed atheist or agnostic might be more helpfully understood as having a Christian religious identity, an identity shaped significantly by the white Protestant conviction that the individual is the ultimate arbiter of truth and empowered to opt out of adhering to religion altogether.

The truth of religious identity is that a culture’s focus on the personal is only possible through its relationship with and support from historic organized and civic religions. These traditions might be much more helpful in understanding how one orients around religion than a false sense of pure objectivity as a “None.”

I know… To a predominantly white audience this all feels intensely colonial. But white fragility provides a key insight for understanding Protestant religious identity. In the same way that whites hide from group racial realities behind the wall of individuality, whites hide from the reality that the identity we live out in the world might be shaped in a significant way from without rather than from within. If we are moving toward the consensus that we do not “choose” our sexual, gender, or racial identities, why would religious identity be any different?

Trump’s “Muslim ban” confronts us with the reality that, unlike white Protestants, our society will not allow Muslims to choose their religious identity for themselves. Perhaps as long as it’s good for the gander that’s okay. Perhaps the first step toward a religiously diverse and healthy democracy is the revelation of a white Protestant identity that has been cloaked by white fragility. Not that pews might be filled, but that we might better understand who we are and why we do what we do.

Image: Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core | Credit: roanokecollege via Flickr (cc)


Author, Zach Parris, is the Lutheran chaplain at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he works with a student community called “Bread+Belonging” supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church. He received his MDiv from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2010.

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

See all articles by Zach Parris