I don’t remember the first time I said it, but I do remember that my friend, also a working-class scholar and former Evangelical Christian, latched onto the term with a fervor that was wholly unexpected.
“Coin that term!” she yelled while gesturing excitedly.
“Um, I’m pretty sure it’s not a new term. . .” I trailed off.
And, because Adrianna and I are hardcore nerds I got an email from her 24 hours later with the following:
I searched it everywhere I could think of. “Purity Politics” isn’t a thing. Yet. Coin that term.
I tell you this not because I want to retroactively claim the term. I imagine it’s been something a lot of us have been talking about lately. Rather, I tell you this because I think it’s important that I first realized the resonance of this term when talking with a working-class, former Evangelical, female-identified scholar.
The above conversation happened months ago. Yesterday, this excellent piece appeared in my FB feed: Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice. It is well worth a read and concisely puts into words so many of the themes my working-class scholar friends and I have been sorting out for the past couple of years.
Professionally, I research contemporary rhetorics of virginity which means I have to know a lot about purity because there are no clear lines illustrating where virginity ends and purity begins. Personally, I went to a fundamentalist Christian school for nine years. (These things may be related.)
First things first, I want to address the difference between evangelical and fundamentalist. I went to a fundamentalist K-12 school and an evangelical college. If you haven’t experienced both communities it is easy to assume that they are the same thing especially because U.S. media very, very rarely uses the term “fundamentalist” when discussing Christianity but instead prefers to use the term “evangelical” even, or especially, when its not accurate.
The best explanation of the difference between the two which I’ve ever heard comes from my friend Miranda who has an M.Div from Princeton Seminary and teaches theology and church history at Indiana Wesleyan University, “I’m evangelical but all that really means is that I like Jesus and think other people should too.”
I’m evangelical about Aldi. Yeah, the grocery store. I have hosted brunches that have been compared to Aldi commercials. I am forever and always telling people how great Aldi is, even in ways that are nonsensical, like when I call my mom who lives in a state without an Aldi and excitedly say, “Aldi has a new product that makes me think of you!” As someone with a wheat allergy, I can be counted on to tell anyone recently diagnosed with Celiac or a gluten-sensitivity about the wonders of Aldi’s Live G Free line. I love Aldi and I want other people to love it too. Being so excited about something that you can’t wait to share it with others is what it means to be evangelical.
We should be evangelical about social justice. We should talk about how patriarchy oppresses cis-het men and be evangelical about feminism as a cause those same cis-het men should join to liberate themselves and everyone else. We should fight for a living wage because, in the long run, an economy without a living wage hurts everyone. We should share the joy and hope of social justice with everyone around us. We should be evangelical.
We should not be fundamentalist about social justice. Fundamentalism is a very different thing from evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is the church that says “come as you are.” Fundamentalism is the church that says “wear a skirt if you were assigned female at birth.” Evangelicalism is the brunch that says “bring your favorite dish.” Fundamentalism is the brunch that says, “if that dish wasn’t made with Aldi’s Specialty Select line then GTFO of my house.” Evangelicalism is the rally that includes amateur speakers from the community. Fundamentalism is the rally that only lets pre-approved speakers at the bullhorn so that nothing embarrassing, problematic, or off-message gets said.
Purity, even its positive iterations, is about exclusion. When someone tries to market you a product based on its purity what they are really selling you is something that doesn’t have undesirable elements in it. That works alright when the thing on offer is honey or water or some such, but it breaks down when it comes to people. People are not commodities to be used for convenience. Rather, they are complex, evolving, and often contradictory.
Fundamentalism demands that people be pure in some way. What that really means is that fundamentalism demands that people be free from undesirable elements.
Purity is the mechanism by which fundamentalism sorts people into the categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” but the whole point of social justice is that all humans are worthy: Worthy of a living wage. Worthy of healthcare. Worthy of being held accountable. Worthy of learning. Worthy of community.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the conversations I’ve had surrounding purity politics in social justice circles have primarily been with my working-class and first-gen friends. We have noticed that people that share our background, working-class people, have been punished for not using the right terms at community events. People have used their lack of correct terminology as a way to dismiss everything else they say, as a critique of the organizers of the event, or as a reason to not include that group in the next action. On the flip side, I know several working-class folks who are reluctant to engage with social justice causes that they support out of fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
That is not evangelicalism. That is fundamentalism. That is purity politics.
It is both unsustainable and counterproductive.
Purity is just another distraction designed to keep us focused on the flaws in each other rather than the flaws in the system that oppresses us all. Purity is another hurdle designed to make meaningful activism seem impossible by convincing us that we have to be perfect before we can act. Purity is just another chain keeping us down and I heard we could lose them if we managed to come together in our imperfect now.