An Evangelical, a Cherokee and a ScholarNative Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances
Andy Smith’s ambitious new book reveals her wide-ranging interests beyond the work she is best known for, women of color anti-violence organizing. This University of Michigan professor (now in a contested tenure bid) examines how evangelical Christianity affects Native people, not just in the familiar ways of exploitation, but from the surprising perspective of one who is a member of both worlds. From this perch as an evangelical Cherokee she has learned that coalition work involves strange bedfellows and that this is a complicated, but not necessarily a bad, thing.
Calling her approach an “intellectual ethnography,” Smith chronicles a variety of coalition-building events that involve the Christian Right and Native Americans, including prison abolition, native sovereignty, and reproductive freedom. She conducts interviews, observes many Christian events, and absorbs an extraordinary range of source material chronicled in an impressive bibliography. This book explodes the myth of the monolithic Christian Right. Smith asks if the “Christianization” of Native people always results in assimilation and then provides numerous examples of evangelical Native Christians who address moral and political issues in ways that do not conform to a purist model of conservative evangelicalism.
In her account of a debate about abortion in a conservative Bible study group, she demonstrates that people can shift their thinking about abortion from typically polarized positions.
While most members are strongly anti-choice, the male Bible study leader describes how he shifted from this position. A friend of his had an abortion, even though she thought it was murder. After this incident, he asked his Christian friends, “If you had an unwanted pregnancy while single, would you have an abortion?” and they all answered yes. When he asked his male friends, they all said no. He concluded that a “prolife” position is in a sense founded on male privilege.
Smith’s journey takes her from postmodern analysis of identity politics to the realities of being an evangelical in the modern world, from Foucault to Falwell. Although her prose can be dense and her primary source material ranges across two decades, the book presents important new ideas for progressive audiences. What’s challenging about her ideas is not her critical race theory or her fierce feminist challenge to the male supremacy of the American Indian Movement but her insistence that we have much to learn about alliance creation from the willingness of some on the Christian Right to align themselves with those who disagree with them.
She believes it possible to “rearticulate” the Christian Right through these alliances so that it supports more progressive “political projects” than one would expect. Prison Ministries, a huge evangelical prison organizing effort, is a case in point. Chuck Colson, staunchly Rightist on many social issues, is a prison activist who shares multiple perspectives on the prison industry with Critical Resistance, the left radical voice of prison abolition. Colson’s personal prison conversion led Smith to joke that the most effective way to abolish prisons might be to incarcerate as many members of the Christian Right as possible!
For Smith, the examination of ideas is never an end in itself. All concepts have their context to her, and this book reveals how indigenous people, and Native women in particular, incorporate evangelical principles into their lives. The unheard voices of Native peoples echo throughout her text, teaching us new things. Her point is that progressive organizers can benefit from a more nuanced understanding of the Christian Right that might result in forging some unlikely, but effective, alliances. She calls for a mobilization of the “malcontents” within the Christian Right to act on their disagreements with George W. Bush, although it remains to be seen how that force can be channeled towards progressive campaigns.
Marines returning home from Vietnam on the warship Bexar in October 1969 display a handmade peace symbol and make peace signs. From the book, Peace: 50 Years of Protest by Barry Miles (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest, 2008).
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