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The trouble with identity politics

Identity politics reflected two great longings, a desire for uniqueness, and a need to belong. As Britain’s political tribes meet, Graham Tomlin argues it’s time to ditch it.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A head and shoulders portrait consisting of large disc-like pixels that obscure the real person..
Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash.

I’ve been watching the remarkable documentary series Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, and there is one story in it I can’t get out of my mind. Richard Moore was a ten-year old boy in Londonderry in the early seventies. Charles Inness was a 30-year old British soldier in the Royal Artillery stationed in the city at the time. During a local disturbance in 1972, Inness fired a rubber bullet to disperse a crowd of youths throwing stones at a RUC base at exactly the moment the ten-year old Richard crossed his line of fire. The bullet hit the young boy in the eye, blinding him for life.  

Many years later, Moore expressed a desire to meet the man who fired the gun. And so, in 2006 they met. The British soldier, cautious, a little stiff and very proper, was initially defensive, refusing to apologise as he still felt he had acted rightly at the time and in the circumstances. Moore persisted, not out of a desire for vengeance or recrimination, but simply wanting to understand. Gradually the two became friends and Inness eventually found a way to say he was genuinely sorry. 

The history of the troubles in Northern Ireland is full of stories of people being murdered simply because of one part of their identity - that they were Protestant or Catholic, UDA or IRA, British soldier or Irish Republican. What struck me listening to this story was Moore’s tenacity, to get beyond the simplistic identity of Inness as ‘the soldier who took away my sight’. 

Summing up what he had learnt, Moore said: ‘Finding out who he was changes everything. To me, he’s no longer a soldier, he’s a human being. A father, a grandfather – it makes a person very real. And that’s a good thing.’ There seemed to me a gem of wisdom here that can get us past much of the polarisation of modern life. 

“There are two striking human passions, the passion for uniqueness and the passion for union.”

Tom Morris.

‘Identity politics’ was a term borrowed from social psychology in the 1970s and quickly gained traction. It was an attempt to enable marginalised people to find solace and support with one another, by focussing on the common characteristics of one aspect of a person’s identity. It tried to help bring particularly disadvantaged groups together by describing the common experiences they had faced.  

Since then it has gained a great deal of traction and generated much controversy. So why did it hit such a nerve? 

The philosopher Tom Morris once wrote:  

“There are two striking human passions, the passion for uniqueness and the passion for union. Each of us wants to be recognised as a unique member of the human race. We want to stand apart from the crowd in some way. We want our own dignity and value. But at the same time, we have a passion for union, for belonging, even for merging our identities into a greater unity in which we can have a place, a role, a value.” 

Identity politics was a reflection of these two great human longings - our desire for uniqueness, and our need to belong. On the one hand we all want to be special, unique, different from everyone else. On the other hand, we want a tribe to belong to, whether defined by gender, race, sexuality, nationality or the like. And so, we choose an identity that defines us, marks us off to the world, and gives us a group to belong to. 

Identity politics began with good intentions. Yet the way it is often used means that it encourages me to think that once I have labelled someone with a particular characteristic, that is all I need to know about them. If I know they are black or white, privileged or deprived, young or old, gay or straight, conservative or progressive, and so on, then I know all I need to know. I can then embrace them as one of my tribe, or dismiss them as different, without any further discernment.  

One of the writers of the Psalms, reflecting on his own self-awareness, wrote “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The reality is that we are all immensely complex beings with multiple facets, different qualities and a number of overlapping identities. My neighbour may be Asian. And knowing that, I might think ‘I know what Asian people are like – and he must be like all the others.’ Yet he might also be a father, a husband, an Arsenal fan, of Bangladeshi heritage, a doctor, middle-aged, a Labour voter, suffering from occasional depression, a 2 handicap golfer. And so on. These are all part of who he is and if I want to get to know him fully, I need to understand something about all of these elements of his identity. If I fix on any one of these as the final truth about him, and ignore all the rest, I do him a disservice. To reduce the complexity and wonder of a fellow human being to one single characteristic is surely a mistake. It is to fail to do them justice, and display an unwillingness to take the time to understand them. It is, in the final analysis, a failure to love.  

The final truth about each one of us can only be what is true of all of us - that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. In that same Psalm, the writer relates his sense that the God he worships, in a way that is both comforting yet unnerving, knows everything about him:  

“you know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar, you discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”  

We are each one known, loved, understood in our very complexity by the God who made us, and invited to become capable of that same kind love – the love that looks beyond the surface to understand the complexities of others – in other words, to grow into the likeness of God. 

Richard Moore may have been blinded by that rubber bullet in 1972. Yet in a strange way he learnt to see better than most of us. He learnt to see past the simple identity of Charles Inness as ‘the British soldier who ruined my life.’ He had the tenacity to learn that that this man was, like all of us, both complex and simple - a man with unique relationships, a history, in his own way shaped by his experience, and yet at the same time, worth getting to know in that complexity - that ultimately he was, like all of us, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ 

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.