Decent Christians And The Politics Of The Right

Elvert Barnes

How do people who think of themselves as decent Christians support politicians like Donald Trump and Roy Moore? How do they champion policies that discriminate and disadvantage and sometimes even do violence?

Part of the answer may lie in their decency itself.

Latin American theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid identified decency as a concept utilized within colonialism and patriarchy to ensure maintenance of the social order that benefited wealthy, white, male colonizers.* What was outside the approved behaviors of wealthy white men became “indecent.”

Althaus-Reid notes in Latin American culture referring to a man as decent means he is economically honest and proper in his social exchanges. A decent woman is one who doesn’t engage in sexual behavior outside monogamous heterosexual marriage. She says these decency codes control men and women’s behaviors, politically and personally, and keep dominant social, political, economic, and religious structures intact. Christianity has often participated in and reinforced these norms of decency and the oppressive institutions they sustain.

Decency assumes narrowly circumscribed standards as defined by the dominant social order. People who uphold and abide by these standards are then decent people.

If we follow Althaus-Reid’s logic about the gendering of decency, we also recognize that women and men, LGBQ and straight, cis-gender and trans/gender non-conforming people, whites and people of color are held to different standards of decency. Men are decent when they obey the law and when they conform to the carefully crafted patriarchal scripts of white, heterosexual male gender and sexual behavior. Women are decent when they avoid sexual behavior outside normative heterosexual marriage (although the sexual double bind means they still must present themselves as sexually alluring to men while maintaining their purity).

Indecent men are the ones who infringe on the property rights of other men—their financial assets or their women—but only if the crime or accusation can be proven. Men get the benefit of the doubt, hence, the chorus of “if it’s true” in response to allegations about Roy Moore’s behavior toward teenage girls. Indecent men are the ones who ignore the scripts of hetero-masculinity—gay men, transmen, bisexual men, gender non-conforming people, men of color who don’t know their place in white supremacy.

Indecent women are the ones who need contraception or access to abortion. They are the ones who shouldn’t have been wearing short skirts or have been in that bar or have gone on that date. They are the ones who don’t date men or date women and men or marry other women or who are transwomen or gender non-conforming, or women of color who don’t know their place in white supremacy.

In contrast to these indecent people, many Christians on the political and religious Right can think of themselves as decent because their behaviors fit within and support the dominant social order, unlike women who have sex outside monogamous heterosexual marriage or queer people or transpeople. Because decency means supporting and obeying the dominant social order, decency doesn’t have to encompass action on behalf of the poor or refugees fleeing violence or Puerto Rican victims of hurricanes. Because decent Christians fit within the rigid social and religious boundaries of white, capitalist, heteropatriarchy, they can see themselves as good, law-abiding, God-fearing people, even as they endorse laws and policies that harm and oppress others who, as people outside the boundaries of decency, are legitimate targets of discrimination, dehumanization, and even violence.

Furthermore, as long as people can see themselves as decent, they can assume their actions are also decent, even when those actions involve supporting men who are not decent themselves, like Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Decent Christians can support men like them because they believe, despite these men’s own personal indecency, as politicians they will uphold standards of decency in law and policy—they will work against abortion, marriage equality, transgender rights, and immigration—rights that challenge the dominant social, economic, political, and religious order. In fact, denying rights to all of these indecent people is decent because it upholds the systems that benefit white, heterosexual, US-born, wealthy, Christian Americans, who are the standard for decency.

In response to Christian decency that allows and even encourages discrimination and marginalization, Althaus-Reid offers the image of the “Un-Just” Messiah.

She argues that to think of the Messiah as the “Just” one is to imagine a Messiah who fits within the restrictive norms of decency. Jesus, however, did not fit within that space but exceeded it and became the “Un-Just” Messiah, who was larger than the role dictated by society, who acted outside the accepted norms of his time, who refused the tight social and theological spaces afforded him.

Authentic Christian faith, then, is a call to reject decency, those rigid moral spaces that shore up the power of the dominant social order. Decency that allows Christians to support bigotry, harm and injustice is not Christian at all. It is a veiled justification for supporting the current social order that benefits those who already hold the most power. As Althaus-Reid notes, decent Christians make decent citizens.

Indecent Christians, however, resist dominating powers. They challenge existing systems of gender, race, sexuality, and nation. They demand transformation of the intersecting systems of patriarchy, white nationalism, and colonialism toward radical love, inclusion, and justice. If decency is a regulating system that ensures preservation of the status quo, indecency is the response Christian faith requires.