I have a friend who is of Polish and Italian descent but his father is Italian-American so my friend has an Italian surname. But his mother, the Polish-American, was the cook in the home and she bought into Italian cuisine and made it her own. I suspect some people in South Philadelphia (the city’s Big Italy) might find Italian dishes made by a Polish-American suspect and even deficient. But in the world of mixing and combining and choosing identities that the United States is, who can fault anyone for choosing one ethnic side of their family identity of the other?
Or what about the Australian poet, Les A. Murray, who recently died. He grew up Presbyterian, converted to Roman Catholicism, but according to Kevin Hart, always had trouble praying. When reading Murray’s poetry, which side of his multiple identities will readers emphasize? Did he abandon all of his Presbyterian background or did some of that stay with him in his ideas about the world and his use of language? Or was he Roman Catholic through and through? Or was Murray primarily an Australian author with the unique sensibilities that come with that commonwealth’s history, geography, peoples, and customs?
Or take Pete Buttigieg. He is an Episcopalian, gay, married, and very critical (recently) of the evangelical, Mike Pence. Is he chiefly gay? Democrat? Protestant? According to the press, Mayor Pete stands for something Christian:
CNN offered a headline, “Buttigieg is a symbol for a rising Christian left.” Pete Wehner at The Atlantic wrote an article with the headline, “Pete Buttigieg’s very public faith is challenging assumptions.”
Most importantly, Kristen Powers for USA Today offered this headline: “Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s countercultural approach to Christianity is what America needs now.”
Last and least, how about me? Here are several of my memberships in no particular order:
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Board of Directors, Hillsdale Community Library
American Historical Association
American Society of Church History
Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute
Resident of Michigan
Citizen of the United States
Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College
This list is of memberships only and such affiliations are important because belonging to an organization or institution makes more demands than simply being a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. Phillies Nation may be real to some fans but it is entirely without institutional rules and regulations. The same goes for evangelicalism. I am not an evangelical but to what institution should you belong if you were to prove you were a genuine-article evangelical?
Readers may likely have noticed that one of my memberships, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, attracted news coverage because the man believed to be the shooter at the Poway synagogue last weekend is a member of an OPC congregation in Escondido, California. Some journalists and social media users have tried to read into that membership something significant, as if belonging to the OPC nurtures white supremacy, anti-Semitism, or simple hate and intolerance.
Even fellow Orthodox Presbyterian, Carl Trueman, wondered if church membership might have a connection to this shooter’s actions:
In the case of the OPC—a denomination of around 30,000 people—a single killer is one too many, but hardly a sign of widespread, anti-Semitic radicalization among our youth. The path to becoming a racist murderer and an attempted mass shooter is likely very complicated and, until more details emerge, it is inappropriate to apportion specific blame to anyone or anything but the killer himself.
However, we cannot respond with complacency. The OPC, like most churches, attracts a cross-section of society, including its fair share of misfits and socially marginal figures. Embracing sinners, as Christ himself did, also brings risks. I remember a professor of pastoral theology telling me that in any 150-person congregation, there’s likely someone engaging in spousal abuse; that proved true in my experience. Our congregations must be ready for the possibility of deeply disturbed individuals in our midst.
This is true.
But I still wonder about the habit of picking parts of identities to explain anything. You can look at Mayor Pete’s liberal Episcopalianism as the wave of the future for Christianity in the United States if you like it. But why not attribute it to Buttigieg’s service in the military? If you don’t choose his veteran status, is that because you don’t like America’s military posture around the world?
Or if someone looked at my resume of memberships, would they possibly conclude that Orthodox Presbyterians are libertarian, follow skeptic agnostics like H. L. Mencken, and have interests in history and librarianship? I know for a fact that some Orthodox Presbyterians do not think I represent the OPC in any number of ways. So if I ever did something news worthy, would a journalist pick Orthodox Presbyterianism to explain my actions? Why?
Although multiple identities and the way we pick them is very much an American phenomenon where the nation has a long history of self-made personhood — thank you, Ben Franklin, the compounding difficulty in assessing religious influence on behavior is the evangelical and Reformed Protestant notion that my entire identity is wrapped up in Christ. Whether owing to the legacy of evangelical ideas about conversion, or to the Dutch-Calvinist influence of worldview (ouch!!), lots of Christians believe that their whole lives flow from their faith in Christ. Of course, faith for these Christians is basic to human existence and it has to do with the most important part of it, such as where a person will be for eternity. But Christians have lots of other identities and responsibilities as human beings that are separate and sometimes seemingly unrelated to being a Christian. Preferring John Updike to Flannery O’Connor is not an outworking of religious conviction. Voting for Nixon over McGovern is also not a matter that correlates to genuine or orthodox Christianity. So too is choosing a job. Serving as a public librarian is no more at the heart of being a Christian than is fixing leaky faucets. And yet, often Christians have a comprehensive idea of faith that makes isolating our various interests, loyalties, and responsibilities from Christianity a form of theological liberalism.
Knowing why people act, whether Christian or not, is a difficult endeavor. Reducing actions to one piece of a person’s identity seems downright foolish.
But if you want to fit a news story into a narrative, go ahead, double-down on church membership.