It was not until I got to Union Theological Seminary in New York as a doctoral student in Christian ethics that I received my first serious dose of race/class/sex talk.
Sometimes it seemed like every course, even every class session, came back to discussion of the unholy troika of racism, classism and sexism. Perhaps inevitably I wearied of it, especially because as a “middle-class white male,” I was in some sense the designated oppressor in all three categories. And as a married heterosexual, I was a more or less perfect symbol of all that was wrong in the world, from a certain perspective.
It is indeed easy for comfortable white men to dismiss all talk of race, class and gender and their roles in American life. But then sometimes reality intrudes. Currently that reality can be seen in the presidential race.
The narrow victory of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in New Hampshire appears to mean that the Democratic contest will not soon be over but instead will be fought tooth and nail for some time. Even in one week's time, the sniping between Clinton and Obama and their followers over issues of race and sex intensified dramatically. An interesting place to follow this is in the pages of the New York Times, that bastion of progressive opinion, whose editorial pages are abuzz with arguments over race and sex as related to the Democratic candidates.
Should Democrats nominate Hillary in order to break the glass ceiling that has kept women from the highest office in the land? Is Hillary the victim of sexism in the impossible expectations heaped on her, the constant attention to her dress and demeanor, and the vicious misogyny of the lunatic blogosphere? Does it make the most sense historically that the gender barrier would fall before the race barrier does? Answering yes to these questions somewhat disproportionately are older women. And certainly the stalwarts of the feminist movement, like Gloria Steinem, are fighting hard for her candidacy.
Should Democrats instead nominate Obama in order to break decisively with our nation's terrible racist past? Would it be an expression of racism for a Democratic primary voter to vote for a candidate other than Obama on the fear that Americans will not elect a black president in November — or any time soon? Historically, black men did gain the franchise (at least in some places) prior to women's suffrage. Does that mean that a black man is more likely to be elected before a white woman?
And what should black women do? As victims of the double oppression of race and sex, historically perhaps the most disempowered human beings in our nation's history, which aspect of their oppressed personhood should black women choose to redress first?
Or maybe morally thoughtful people should vote on the basis of class above all? After all, aren't we supposed to care about the poor?
There are two candidates who in very different ways are seeking to appeal to voters on the basis of class: John Edwards and Mike Huckabee.
The anti-corporate message of Edwards has proven so far to have only modest appeal to Democratic primary voters, but Huckabee's surprising populism may have struck a chord on the Republican side. That may be because Huckabee right now is in fact a man of the middle class, a man who actually needs a job sometime soon. This is a regular Arkansas guy who, when given an opportunity to pick any restaurant in New York for an interview with the Times, chose Olive Garden in Times Square. I've eaten there, and it's nice, but it's probably not where, say, Mitt Romney would have picked. When Huckabee says that he is more like the guy you work with who just got laid off, than like the guy who laid him off, that rings true. And many millions can identify precisely with him there. You can't fake that.
As Christians, should any of this matter to us? If we are people who are called to see the commonalities rather than the differences among all God's children, should we seek to be race-, class- and gender-blind?
I say yes and no. Yes, it is true that the dispiriting human business of categorizing people based on some aspect of their appearance or some fact about their corporeal existence falls far short of biblical standards. Certainly in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and in creation all are made in God's image. Every human being is more than the most obvious characteristics one can identify about them, and much of the evil that has been done on this planet has been done in the name of just such characteristics. Mainly we should vote based on the moral and policy convictions, leadership ability, job experience, and other tried-and-true credentials involved in assessing any political leader.
But no, in one sense race, class and sex do matter, and that has to do with life experience — especially the experience of marginalization. To the extent that mistreatment or suffering experienced due to race or class or sex or some combination has marked the life of a presidential candidate, it is relevant to our evaluation of their character and readiness to serve in the office. If and when such experiences have been processed so as to deepen empathy and broaden compassion for all suffering people, they have the potential to enrich the moral vision of a political leader in profound ways.
Many of us have sensed the lack of precisely that empathetic moral vision in recent years.
It may be that the humanizing effect of having suffered racism, sexism, and need helps to account for the appeal of Obama, Clinton, and Huckabee to large numbers of people, and may well lead to the election of one of them as our next president.
David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Baptist-affiliated Mercer University. His commenentaries are distributed by Associated Baptist Press.