Anyone in the U.S. with a social media account has undoubtedly seen the outcry from many members of the Christian Right over Friday's Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. What many Americans celebrated as a triumph of love and social progress, many Christian conservatives decried as evidence of the country's moral decline and a precursor to the persecution of Christian pastors who preach against homosexuality or refuse to perform a same-sex wedding.
The force of this outcry is not simply about religious convictions. It's also about what I'm terming "Christian fragility."
In 2011 Robin DiAngelo published a pivotal article on "White Fragility" (International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70). According to DiAngelo, white fragility is an emotional/psychological state for white people in which racial stress is intolerable. This racial stress arises when white folks are confronted by their own racial privilege or find themselves in situations that are not racially familiar. This state leads to a number of defensive maneuvers--including outward displays of emotion, argumentation, silence, and withdrawal--in order to restore racial equilibrium.
I see many parallels between DiAngelo's description of white fragility and the responses of certain conservative Christians to the marriage equality decision, as well as other social, political, and educational issues of the so-called "Culture Wars."
White dominance allows most whites to live in social environments that insulate them from challenging encounters with ideas or people who differ from themselves. Within this dominant social environment, whites come to expect social comfort and a sense of belonging and superiority. When this comfort is disrupted, whites are often at a loss because they have not had to build skills for constructive engagement with difference. They may become defensive, positioning themselves as victims of antiracist work and co-opting the rhetoric of violence to describe their experiences of being challenged on racial privilege.
Similarly, many conservative Christians segregate much of their lives into enclaves with people who share their values. Within the sharp subcultural boundaries of conservative Christianity, they insulate themselves from ideas and people who may issue direct and sustained challenges to their beliefs. They also often learn from their leaders that they know the Truth with certainty, that opposing beliefs are dangerous, and that they must hold fast against the onslaught of false ideas.
Since the 1980s, many conservative Christians have enjoyed political prominence and wide social acceptance of some of their ideals. As late as the early 2000s, most Americans opposed marriage equality. That framework provided an opportunity for conservative Christians to come to see some of their beliefs as normative, natural, and inherent, reinforced by broader support across the nation. Within this sphere of social comfort, many conservative Christians were not ready for the speed with which national norms around marriage equality changed and disrupted the assumptions of Christian entitlement and heteronormativity.
Unprepared to engage in constructive dialogue about marriage equality, many conservative Christians retreated into the defensive maneuvers of fragility--anger, fear, argumentation, resistance--as a way to try to reestablish an equilibrium. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for conservative Christians to "resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat." Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin called for a constitutional amendment to allow states to define marriage. Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, warned that the Court's decision "will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision." Conservative Christian pastors railed against the decision in sermons that pitted God against the Supreme Court.
I'm guessing those who have never been insiders to conservative Christianity may wonder why the extreme and occasionally apocalyptic language about the marriage equality decision. As one who grew up a Southern Baptist fundamentalist, however, I do understand the fear and discomfort of Christian fragility. Rigid belief systems do not prepare people for encounters with difference. When one believes there is only one right way, one Truth, then the options for dialogue are limited. And the fear of turning away from The Truth is very real.
What is ignored in Christian fragility, however, is the social privilege accorded Christians of all stripes in this country--our holidays are embedded in the work calendar; we can easily find foods our religion allows us to eat; we can be elected President of the United States. By positioning conservative Christians as victims of religious oppression, many conservative Christians can then also ignore the privileges that come with the intersections of their Christian faith with heterosexuality and the very real consequences of heterosexism on the lives of LGBQ people--real violence, real economic disadvantage, real hate crimes--that are complicated and intensified as we include intersections with race, gender, gender identity, ability, age, and social class. The dominance of heterosexuality over other forms of sexual identity becomes obscured in arguments about the anticipated victimization of conservative Christians for their beliefs about homosexuality.
While the discomfort of disequilibrium seems intolerable for many conservative Christians, a new wave of conservative Christians has embraced the struggle to understand difference, and some have even come to support marriage equality. Many have offered alternative readings of the Bible that, while still holding the Bible in highest regard, also afford new understandings of LGBQ people and marriage equality. Christian fragility provides a framework for understanding the intense reactions of some conservative Christians to marriage equality, but Christian faith is only fragile when it is unwilling to engage difference with open hearts and open minds.