Calling something “performative” is a nicer way of identifying what’s phony–of calling out the posturing of politicians pretending to care about governing, and especially “Christians” pretending they are acting out of genuine faith.
I recently encountered two unrelated examples of that calling out. The first was an editorial from Religion News Service, referencing the just-argued Supreme Court case of the football coach who insisted on praying on the 50-yard line.
That coach, Joe Kennedy (absolutely NO relation!), sued a school district in Washington state after it prohibited him from leading public prayers immediately following games. The editorial didn’t focus on the constitutional argument; instead, the author pointed out that genuine believers are ill-served by public expressions in secular settings.
This — more than any legal reasoning — is the judgment believers are called on to make. In the exercise of liberty, we can recall the words of St. Paul: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”
Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.
The essayist pointed to scriptural evidence that “Christ himself not only does not require showy, potentially coercive public prayers — he teaches against them.” Kennedy’s prayers, he notes, “may have provided psychological uplift to him, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.” And he worries that “emboldened conservative justices” will “open the door to more nominal, cultural Christianity. It seems that in the era of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all so-called conservative Christians really want.”
Research by political scientists and religion scholars alike has documented the use of precisely that “cultural Christianity” by White Christian Nationalists intent upon retaining their status as the “real Americans.” Their panic about “replacement” and loss of cultural hegemony is producing ugly accusations of “grooming” by LGBTQ citizens, and other despicable charges defended as protected expressions of religious piety.
Which brings me to the really excellent example of how genuinely religious people can and should respond.
Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow describes herself as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” She had been accused by a GOP colleague of being a “groomer,” the latest right-wing slander against anyone who supports the rights of LGBTQ children. Rather than ignoring the accusation, or walking back her support, she grounded her position in her own faith.
“I want every child to feel seen, heard, and supported,” she said, “not marginalized and targeted if they are not straight, white, and Christian.”
As the author of the linked article pointed out,
To understand the power of McMorrow’s words, you have to understand that “straight, White and Christian” is the default cultural and political setting in this country. Throw in “male” and you’d have the top of this pyramid. Just ask Tucker Carlson.
When you’re none, or not all, of those identities, you’re made to feel it. Your intellect, dignity and value are called into question. Demagogues gin up fear of you for electoral gain. Your very life becomes a political piñata whacked around by people who don’t have to live with the consequences of what they have wrought. Look at the anti-trans legislation littering the land or the “don’t say gay” law in Florida.
Activists who aren’t “straight, white and Christian” have pushed back against bigotry for many generations, and they have secured hard-won advances. But especially in this new front in the United States’ oldest culture war, those voices could use some backup. Enter McMorrow. …
The author makes an important point: McMorrow’s response should be a “blueprint for Democrats who are accustomed to cowering in fear of Republican culture war attacks.”
Too many national Democrats are letting the incipient “groomer” charges go unchallenged or are assuming they’re too ridiculous to gain traction. They’re ridiculous, yes — but that doesn’t mean they can’t gain traction. (Have you seen today’s Republican Party?)
I am not religious, and I have frequently expressed contempt for self-identified “religious” figures who are intent upon imposing their purported beliefs on others. Like Coach Kennedy, their public expressions of piety are purely performative. That said, I have great respect for people who genuinely look to their religious traditions for lessons on what constitutes moral and ethical behavior, and for guidance on how they should treat their fellow humans.
There was a saying “back in the day” to the effect that the religious right is neither. We need more people like Mallory McMorrow, who are positioned to illustrate what the real thing looks like.