If you spend enough time in evangelical circles, you will inevitably encounter someone who proudly proclaims they are “politically incorrect.” The concept of political correctness has long been ridiculed by some segments of our society. This was even the theme of the most recent South Park season (which was admittedly quite funny).
Conservative political leaders can use this sentiment to galvanize their supporters — as when former Alaska governor Sarah Palin accused the “political class” of “wearing this political correctness kind of like a suicide vest.”
The more I hear groups mock political correctness, the more it becomes apparent to me that to them, the term has no stable definition. It is a catch-all used to label things they disagree with.
The actual definition of political correctness is the avoidance of rhetoric or actions that alienate, demean, discriminate, or disrespect underprivileged, oppressed, or marginalized groups. And sure, there have been even recent examples of this mentality that seem ridiculous to many. But invoking the phrase dismissively doesn’t make a complaint illegitimate. And fallacious dismissals of concerns about the civility of rhetoric and political actions are too commonly employed as a front to perpetuate a reliance on discriminatory logic.
In order to help make a case for a politically correct approach to engagement from a Christian perspective, it is necessary to dispel some myths about what political correctness is.
One common accusation is that people who urge political correctness are just whining about being offended. And yes, sometimes the truth is offensive. But that does not mean one’s rhetoric has to make it more so — political correctness is as attempt to make how we talk about something more inclusive, even as we still work to make underlying structures themselves inclusive. There is an incarnational aspect to this: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way…into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).
The nature of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message about civil rights, alongside other civil rights activists, was (and still is) offensive to many. Today, people decry the message of Black Lives Matter on similar grounds. Scripturally, Amos’ message against the social injustices committed by the upper class in Israel’s Northern Kingdom was offensive to many, including the High Priest Amaziah (Amos 7:10). Speaking truth to power will offend those who hold privilege in society.
Political correctness is about how an individual orients themselves to segments of the population who experience oppression. It is refusing to go along with societal norms and “values” which seek to erase identities, ignore those with no voice, or trample the powerless.
Another objection is that politically correct culture is akin to censorship. You might have heard a conservative say something like, “I don’t agree with [insert ignorant statement here] but I do believe he/she has a right to say it!”
Of course, in America, one is free to say and believe just about whatever they want. Christians, however, should be much more interested in discerning the content of what is said than defending the right to say it. When someone makes an overtly offensive comment, the first reaction for a Christian should be to question the speaker’s intent and condemn the offensive nature of their words, rather than defending the right to say it. Freedom of speech is not a trump card for Christians to excuse vitriolic and hateful opinions.
In the context of Christianity, another argument that gets brought up is that of unity. The argument is that Christians shouldn’t publicly call out those who claim to be members of the church because of what the “world” might think.
But there is quite a bit of dissonance in saying the church, an institution responsible for perpetuating the reality of the Incarnation, should stand by statements that marginalize people. 1 John 2:9-10 captures the problem with this mentality: “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.”
Of course, the church should not discard people who make ignorant or politically incorrect claims. That would be a violation of the call to be in the light. Rather, the speaker should be prayerfully confronted by the Christian community with the hope of reconciliation and restoration in the future.
If political correctness is understood as a conscious attempt to avoid discriminatory actions or statements against marginalized people, it is a natural outflow of the Christian life. Christians seek to follow Christ’s self-sacrificial nature in all they say and do. 1 Peter 2:21 tells us, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
God is on the side of the oppressed. This is clear throughout the Bible. Isaiah 1:17 is a model text in the Old Testament: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This cause is so near and dear to the heart of God that Jesus quotes Isaiah on this topic to in his homily at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:18-19).
Engaging in intentionally “politically incorrect” rhetoric doesn’t just mean one is being offensive. It means one is failing to perpetuate the mission of Christ.