The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: "Do One Wrong Thing and You're Tainted"

A few months ago I wrote a post describing "the purity psychology" at work within progressive Christianity.

As I describe in Unclean, it's pretty much impossible for anyone to avoid purity psychology as purity seems to be an innate way we all, conservatives and progressives alike, reason about morality.

To be clear, the "purity culture" at work among progressive, liberal or radical Christians is very, very different from the "purity culture" at work with conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. The moral grammars at work among progressives and conservatives are very different. For example, where conservative Christians focus on things like sexual purity for progressive Christians purity is focused upon complicity in injustice and oppression.

Again, as a progressive Christian fighting against injustice and oppression is how I think about right or wrong. Justice is how I define moral "purity." Being "pure" or "righteous" in the eyes of God--in light of God's preferential option for the poor--means not being complicit in injustice.

In short, while a purity psychology is always at work whenever anyone thinks about being a good person--however they define it--I'm not saying that every expression of purity is morally equivalent. As a progressive Christian I don't think that at all. In fact, I think the exact opposite. As a progressive Christian I think conservative Christians should shift their purity categories away from sex to focus on oppression. I think the world would be a better place if we got our purity categories lined up with the right sorts of things.

So my observations about progressive Christian "purity" isn't to draw a moral equivalence between conservative and progressive purity. My observations are psychological in nature, descriptions of how purity psychology, of whatever sort, operates in a similar sort of way. Ways we should pay attention to.

For example, as I describe in Unclean, purity psychology is governed by a variety of contamination attributions. And one of those attributions is dose insensitivity.

Dose insensitivity is the contamination appraisal that even a small amount of the contaminating substance will have a catastrophic effect. For example, if I tell you that there is a very, very small amount of fecal matter in your pasta that knowledge ruins the dish for you. It doesn't take a full sized turd to ruin the dish. A very, very small amount will do the trick. Contamination is dose insensitive, a small dose will contaminate just as effectively as a large.

So let me illustrate how attributions of dose insensitivity work among progressive Christians. Here's a question that gets at the issue: How much complicity in injustice and oppression is acceptable?

Well, the answer, obviously, is none at all. Complicity is dose insensitive. Any bit of it is bad and needs to be eradicated.

This impulse to expunge every last trace of complicity sits at the heart of the radicalizing impulse within progressive Christianity, and progressive politics generally. This impulse is the psychological and moral imperative that moves you from liberal to progressive to radical. And let me again be clear, I'm not judging that trajectory at all. It's the trajectory of my life in both politics and religion.

But that trajectory, because of purity attributions such as dose insensitivity, is always going to be tempted in various ways. And one of those temptations is the temptation to point out or call out the complicity of others. Because any complicity at all is bad and worthy of being pointed out or called out it has to be expunged, even the smallest bits of it, even among well-intended friends and allies. And if you appear to be letting any complicity pass--for example, asking people to tone down the call outs--you're reconciling yourself to complicity. You're not centering the right things, not being a good ally. You're giving aid to oppressors.

Again, I'm not criticizing call outs. Call outs can be prophetic speech. What I'm saying is that call out culture is tempted in various ways by the purity psychology at work among progressives and that it's important from time to time to resist those temptations. For the sake of justice. For the sake of getting shit done.

For example, it's important to both admit and attend to the purity temptations at work among progressives because purity psychology often causes progressives to cannibalize and damage themselves in various ways. The effort to call out and expunge every bit of complicity among friends and allies sits behind the Twitter firestorms that leave so many disillusioned and disheartened.

Let me give two recent illustrations of what I'm describing.

On the progressive left you can't get two more different voices regarding Twitter activism than Freddie deBoer and Suey Park. And yet, in two recent articles both deBoer and Park make similar diagnoses about the purity dynamic at work among progressives, a dynamic that leads to a cannibalization which hurts the larger cause. Causes both of them--and many of us--are fighting for.

As a part of his conversation with Jay Caspian Kang--A Debate on Online Political Discourse--deBoer made the following observation about the damage social media firestorms cause when progressives rage with hashtags in calling out each other and potential allies:
It’s not unreasonable for people witnessing such things to conclude that the left will never stop harming itself sufficiently to do the work of changing the world. Here, too, I speak from experience. None of this is new or unique to the online space; left-wing movements are always in the process of blowing themselves up. I am discouraged by seeing so many of the typical ugly interpersonal dynamics of the left play out on Twitter over and over again. Many decent people who want to help are afraid to weigh in publicly on issues of controversy for fear of being ground up in a Twitter storm. Maybe that’s ridiculous; maybe they should just get over it; maybe they should get tougher. Maybe so. But they probably won’t, and I think we should all be able to take a long, hard look at how to better integrate potential friends into our movement, without being accused of not being an ally. Because the left needs friends.
Why does this cannibalization happen among progressives? One of the problems, as I'm diagnosing it, is that allies, being allies, are often complicit in various ways. Which makes allies, per the logic of dose insensitivity, problematic in all sorts of ways. Yes they are allies, but are they good allies? Can't they be better allies?

Progressives perennially struggle with allies, how to work with sympathetic but complicit people. Consider just how much commentary is devoted to "the ally problem" in online progressive spaces. Notice the number of Tweets and words progressives devote to the issues they have with allies. Just this morning I read a 2,500+ word post at a radical website that was 100% about allies and their numerous faults. A post not about injustice or concrete policy proposals--you know, a post about actually getting something done in the world--but a post about the shortcomings of allies.

No doubt allies are flawed, but if allies are your central, defining problem, well, you can see why progressive causes have difficultly reaching the critical social mass needed to get stuff done in the world.

The left does need friends but the left, because of its purity psychology, is also very hard on its friends, fracturing a potential coalition from ever reaching the tipping point needed to change things. Friends and allies will be complicit in various ways, but if progressive Christianity is going to have any significant impact upon the world it's going to have to figure out how to work with complicit friends. And yet, as deBoer describes, that work is frequently being undermined by a purity impulse that keeps tempting us to "call out" and cannibalize ourselves.

And while I've been focusing upon allies, what is important to attend to is how this isn't just a problem with allies. Even people who aren't complicit in various ways, and there are very few of these, still have to demonstrate a purity in their moral performance on social media. Any flaw, inconsistency or failure in this moral performance, even a small one per the purity logic of dose insensitivity, can result in the same social media backlash that poorly performing allies regularly face.

For example, Suey Park is both an activist and a woman of color. She's not a blundering ally. And yet, Suey faced a huge social media backlash because her moral performance with #CancelColbert was judged to be a mistake by many progressives. And what is interesting is how in Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's recent profile of Suey Park in the New Republic--Why Won't Twitter Forgive Suey Park?--Suey describes how her mistake was processed as a purity failure by progressives.

In the article Suey succinctly describes the dose insensitivity purity dynamic at work among progressives:
Park’s understanding of her Twitter presence carries a distinctly Christian note. “It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”

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29 thoughts on “The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: "Do One Wrong Thing and You're Tainted"”

  1. Richard, making yourself clear that you are not criticizing call outs is fitting. Though I am a progressive who came out of very conservative world and know how that world thinks, I have had my times of taking issue with secular progressives in how they smirk at belief in God, even with progressive Christians who make fun of faith in a personal God, and how they let one's belief in God color their judgment.

    Whether it is the right wing that claims a "Nineteen Fifties sexual, as well as social purity", while working hard to hide their own little secrets, or the left that boasts of an intellectual purity and insults faith by linking it with belief in unicorns while making their "atheism" as ugly and poisonous as any fundamentalism, they are usually the first to cry and pout when someone answers them well.

  2. It doesn't take a full sized turd to ruin the dish [of pasta]. Terrific image -- worthy to be an apocryphal saying of our Lord!

  3. I don't think you can get a better picture of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating if you tried. No one is immune to it, conservative, liberal, progressive, radical... we want what others have, live in the daily tension that desire creates, and expel (cannibalize) a marginalized person/group to relieve the tension. God help us all!

  4. Another factor that shouldn't be overlooked is that, when the left is out of power (as it usually is), probably the only thing you can actually "achieve" is to police the purity of your friends and allies.

    So a vicious circle begins: the left's marginalisation means it is unable to "get stuff done" and make the world a better place. What can we do, then? Why, "call out" and publicly shame our friends and allies for being complicit in the world's wrongs (e.g. by using the "wrong" terminology). Which then drives away both current and potential friends and allies. Which marginalises the left still further, so that the only thing we can actually "do" is... you guessed it.

  5. Dialectical comments/questions:

    Clearly purity psychology effects a social equivalent of the body's immune system.

    So to what higher social framework does one appeal when critiquing a particular purity psychology?

    It seems that James' ideal Socius/Self comes into play.

    But doesn't the process of critique continue?

    Then it seems that Tillich's paradoxical faith contains the needed framework.

    So does Agape produce the perspective that allows this dialectic to work, as Tillich thought?

    (I know that I beat the same drum on these themes often--perhaps too often. But I think it would be good if the Church learned to dance to this particular beat. The last question is in earnest, BTW.)

  6. what you define as purity or complicity others see very simply and practically as "stop hurting us." easing active harm and the systems which facilitate and baptize is is very much the real work--and people of color, queer people, poor people, women, disabled people, etc are those best positioned to define the terms of their/our own struggles.

    yes, we all inevitably make mistakes and hurt each other, but hopefully we do things better tomorrow than we did yesterday. a certain degree of complicity is inevitable in that we are imperfect and human, but that shouldn't cause us to throw up our hands or settle, particularly if we seek to do justly across lines of power or privilege. not because of purity but because of people, of loving our neighbors well. are we learning, growing, struggling, repenting, resisting, subverting, peacemaking, heeding wisdom from the margins? ally interests and best practices are ancillary.

  7. That Is what I call a conspiracy of ignorance.
    Because it works.
    You know something you argue all the time with anything that I say.
    No I don't.
    nothing will break down the wall of perceived ignorance that we have in this country's political arena, faster than voting every incomebent out of office.whether that be local state or federal.that's the kind of community That turns on a light in a dark room.
    it gets all the bean counters fired.
    enforces the powers that be to take another look at desensitizing the populace, other than just by the simple right and left

    Blessings. Rich

  8. This purity culture meme is not a particularly "progressive" phenomenon. For instance, there is far more of this on the hard right in the Churches of Christ than what is practically none on what would be labeled at "center" or "left". In our "larger" fellowship, the desire to promote doctrinal purity leads to line-drawing against erstwhile allies since the rest of the fellowship ignores the line-drawing directed at them. One example that comes to mind is how increasingly strident "non-institutionals" treated fellow non-institutional Homer Hailey as time passed after the separation with the core fellowship.

  9. remember if that turd is in the toilet and there's a whole bunch of ants on it,you might want to see if they can swim.

  10. What Suzannah said. I'll be writing a longer response on my own blog, but I do want to add that I'm really tired of this false dichotomy between "critiquing the movement" and "actually getting stuff done." If a law gets enacted that protects gay people but not trans, you bet your bottom dollar I'm gonna say that's not actually progress. This linear vision of progress, where different oppressed people have to "wait their turn" while the ruling class gets their stuff in order and sit down and be quiet while the power parties shift their feet and mumble about the bare minimum of "progress" has to go.

  11. Hi Alastair, thanks for this.

    I've been thinking about this following a discussion in the comments on my own blog earlier today. The discussion there is on "religionless Christianity", and it occurs to me that, whatever that phrase means, at least part of the meaning may be linked to Luther's understanding of good works as being about what does good for our neighbour - purely horizontal - rather than about our standing before God or our measuring up to a moral code.

    As the friend I quote put it (perhaps overstating slightly, but I think he has a point), the essence of good works is that they do good for our neighbour, and it is (generally) our neighbour who is best placed to assess whether that is what has happened. Contrast this with the "sacrificial works" (which Bonhoeffer would perhaps class as falling within "religion"), which "are about my personal goodness, and dutifully monitoring that of others" (and we all know how /that/ plays out on the Left).

    The political parallel is then the contrast between a "religionless" politics whose aim is to "get stuff done": improving the lives of people in concrete ways that they themselves can see and appreciate, vs a "religious" politics in which increasing my personal virtue or my standing before some external moral arbiter is the real aim of the game.

  12. I'm reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:16: Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise-- why destroy yourself?

    As a tax-paying citizen of the American Empire, it's difficult for me to get too righteous about anything--before the sinking awareness that we blood on our hands settles in. It doesn't mean that I don't have a prophetic impulse; it's just that it's tempered by the reality of just how complicit I am in this system. Talk about a plank!

  13. Thanks, John!

    I am not sure that is what you are trying to do here, but I would be wary of replacing a vertical (God-directed) movement of sacrifice with a horizontal (human-directed) one. I would rather frame matters as an overcoming of a horizontal-vertical opposition in Christ. The logic of 'religion' and sacrifice is involved in service of our neighbour in many ways and isn't just left behind. For instance,

    1. Service of the poor is a quasi-sacrificial act (e.g. the Good Samaritan's act of tending to the wounded Jew is described in the language of sacrifice).
    2. Service of the poor brethren of Christ is service of Christ himself (Matthew 25).
    3. Service of the poor is the formation of the bodies that we present to God as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).
    4. Service of the poor is lending to God, putting God, as it were, in our debt.
    5. Service of the poor is the confirmation of the 'sacrificial' act of the sacraments, in which we present our limbs and organs as instruments of Christ and share the body and blood of Christ.

    Importantly, the works of mercy appear to have a sort of 'sacramental' significance in the NT, being sites of surprising encounter with Christ.

    I am also wary of merely baptizing the harm principle as the basic principle of ethics, with the person's will the primary arbiter of whether love has been done, not least because, as these things function in our individualistic society, the result tends to be an abandonment of a strong sense of the common good. I really don't believe that this is your intent, but I suspect that many would read your friend's two principles in this way, as they are underdetermined as they currently stand. Like a concern with individual purity, a concern to maximize their pleasure and protect individuals from perceived harm can attenuate our life together.

    All of this said, I think that there is a genuine biblical distinction that you are touching upon here, perhaps most powerfully articulated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The purity principle of the priest and the Levite served to define the holy people group and maintain its sacrificial ritual. The purity principle here quarantines people. Jesus challenges this by presenting an order in which outward-moving mercy is dynamically constitutive of a new society: the Good Samaritan is the 'neighbour' to the man, while the priest and Levite are outsiders by implication. The society of God's people isn't a self-regarding collection of 'pure' individuals, but a reality that arises out of the movement of mercy outward. This mercy is sacrificial in character, but in a manner quite different from that of the priest and Levite (I've unpacked all of this a little here).

  14. i had a (white cis-het able-bodied) man inform tell me not long ago that people were essentially useless to movements for justice unless they were marching in the streets, as if merely existing in certain bodies cannot itself be an act of daily resistance. stuff gets done in the streets, sure, and literally everywhere else for those with eyes to see.

  15. I'm confused as I don't think I posited or spent any time at all describing a "linear vision of progress." I believe I said getting shit done. And that shit can be linear or non-linear or whatever.

    Regardless, I stick to my larger point: the purity dynamics I'm describing get in the way of any and all sorts of progress, linear or not.

  16. Totally agreed. And I really don't think analyses likes these are odes to settling. Yes, we will hurt each other. The issue is why do we keep hurting the people on our side so much? I think it's worth wrestling with why that happens so much.

  17. I think we might need to back up and check to see if we're agreeing on some basic assumptions so we don't waste our time talking past each other. For example, in regards to your question--which side, people, and harm?--I'd say all across the left, even among groups that don't have a white person involved.

    This is the part I think I'm having trouble getting some basic agreement on, that the psychology I'm describing is pervasive across the left, even among oppressed groups.

    For example, I'd argue that a purity impulse is what separated the early Malcolm X from King. The same purity impulse that separated Stokely Carmichael from John Lewis when SNCC fell apart. Again, this isn't to say who was right or wrong in any of those instances--as a white person that isn't for me to judge--but simply the observation that a purity impulse divided allies--all black allies--in their shared pursuit of justice. The examples abound here. How the Asian community was divided by Suey. How feminists attack each other. And on and on. Not a white, cis-gendered heterosexual dude in any of those conflicts.

    All that to say, unless we can agree that this purity impulse is at work across the left, among allies of all sorts, then we're not even agreeing that the phenomenon in question exists.

    So I guess that's my question: do you think the phenomenon exists, even within oppressed groups?

  18. I'm skeptical of how much the purity mindset actually plays into these acts of ostracizing. I don't think people get diagnosed as unclean so much as untrustworthy - as unwilling to analyze their own privileges, or recognize persecution unlike that they suffer, or admit to error, or fight for change, etc., etc., etc. - and being untrustworthy is very different from being contaminated by heresies.

    Ironically, the place where the purity mindset seems most prevalent is in acts of forgiveness, not punishment. The purity mindset would have us think that someone's harmful acts are about the actor's sin, not the victim's hurt, and therefore forgiveness is a matter of the actor demonstrating the appropriate form of contrition. But a verdict of untrustworthiness is not overturned by an apology - it is overturned by words and acts that demonstrate a desire to avoid the same mistakes in the future. A bug is not fixed by showing an error message, but by fixing the underlying code.

  19. of course conflict and disagreement are inevitable within and between groups, but no, i'm not convinced that purity is a helpful way to describe it. you say you aren't making a judgment, but your post reads otherwise: the wrong progressives are the ones wasting time on allies and complicity instead of doing the real work. i think what separates us is less what you call a purity impulse than conflicting goals and ideas of what the real work actually is.

  20. As I read this, I see that as a progressive Christian, I'm just as susceptible to legalism as my conservative sisters and brothers, correct? It seems the issue at play on both ends of the spectrum is trying to "do enough". We've missed the process of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the idea that we're all on a journey of being formed into the image of Christ. I'm speaking here about the Christian aspect of your post, not the political notions.

  21. Dianna makes some excellent points in her extended response to this. Please read it if you haven't already.

  22. Richard, in "Unclean" you mentioned the MacBeth effect. Is there any research on the MacBeth effect with activities traditionally associated with progressive acts of purity? If I drink fair trade coffee (which is a good thing in and of itself) or boycott certain companies am I likely to absolve myself from further direct actions in support of a more just economy?

    As a Catholic I'm also obviously very interested in the MacBeth effect and the sacrament of reconciliation. Where has this been explored in psychological research?

  23. "You aren't actually required to attend every argument you're invited to."

    I love how you've put it. May I reuse this phrase?

  24. What a great post and comments thread.

    But I don't buy the notion that progress for some isn't yet still progress incrementally, and still worthy of recognition and appreciation. By this same metric, we'd be unable to consider the the abolition of laws preventing interracial marriage several years ago as germane to the debate decades later over gay marriage.

    Of course the former is progress and of course it informs and nourishes the struggle we're having today over marriage equality. To say that anyone who advocated for federally overturning the racist prevention of interracial marriage is today somehow complicit in asking the LGBT community to wait their turn is divisive, ominous, and wrong. It's possible to both celebrate incremental progress and to be unwavering in the fight for more perfect progressivism.

    If we deny our own accomplishments or delegitimize our own champions because they didn't plant the flag further up the mountain, that is a pernicious, lonely, and ultimately antagonistic way to couch victories for which we might all otherwise be celebrating and learning from.

    And so it occurs to me that the purity impulse isn't a single descriptor, but a continuum of reactions. On one side is the notion that anything short of everything is nothing. On the other side is the notion that even the tiniest nod of agreement is good enough. Neither are true, both can lead to catastrophic failure and all need mitigating toward a practical middleground from which real advances have always been made.

  25. I agree. Not all sensitivity comes from neurosis or egotism. People have different "dose tolerance" for certain kinds of hurt, in part because some have already suffered constant fatiguing assaults of betrayal and silencing -- e.g. domestic violence and rape survivors, gays from conservative religious backgrounds, people of color in a racist culture. What seems like a forgivable error to one person may be proof of unsafety to another person, who has learned the hard way to trust the first puff of smoke and not wait for the volcano to blow.

    Just for my own sanity, I tend to be an extreme purist in reading Christian writers on the topic of abuse and trauma, because I am vulnerable to gaslighting and self-doubt when an author confusingly commingles good doctrine with dangerous and ill-informed advice. It is NOT because I want to feel superior to the authors (it is actually a very lonely position to be in sometimes!).

    Also, can we not conflate sensitivity with "narcissism" around here? The latter is a specific psychological diagnosis, typical of predators and untrustworthy leaders. Sensitivity to hurt shows up just as often (if not more so) in the VICTIMS of narcissists. Our rather un-Christian, American cultural fear of weakness then uses "You're too sensitive!" to silence voices from the margins and aid the true narcissists.

  26. What seems like a forgivable error to one person may be proof of
    unsafety to another person, who has learned the hard way to trust the
    first puff of smoke and not wait for the volcano to blow.
    Agreed. I would say this more strongly, even: what seems indistinguishable from a forgivable error in one person's eyes may look radically different in another person's - it's easy to underestimate how much information is contained in as little as 140 characters, and someone who has dealt with many troublemakers will know the signs better than a more sheltered witness.

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