Another wrinkle to the Rachel Dolezal story that has not been much discussed is its aspect as a Christian, religious phenomenon. I caught this little bit in the New York Times, which you can read here. As I see it, the importance of this otherwise marginal angle is the way it situates the story in a central aspect of American Protestant culture –the idea and practice of self-transformation and intentional community, and the kinds of epic, public flame-outs to which these are given.
Talking about Rachel Dolezal’s parents, her uncle is quoted in the Times. “There was a tepee, her uncle, Daniel said, but that was years before Rachel was born, in the early 1970s, when her parents were first married. “Larry and Ruthanne were kind of the quintessential Jesus people, hippies, back to nature, and they set up a tepee and lived in it for a year,” Daniel Dolezal said.”
[I]n a memoir that her brother Joshua, an English professor at Central College in Iowa, wrote. The book, “Down From the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging,” describes a childhood blending religious fervor with a frontier lifestyle. “My father reads from the book of Jeremiah,” he wrote. “The cover of his Bible is made of tanned elk hide that my mother sewed into the binding after cutting away the commercial hardback.”
Pushing the story further is Dolezal’s encounter in the south with “John M. Perkins, a Mississippi minister who preached racial reconciliation and social justice and, along with his son, Spencer, built what he called “intentional Christian communities,” including one called Antioch, in Jackson, Miss. Based largely on that connection, she chose to attend Belhaven College, a small Christian school in Jackson, and frequently visited Antioch, a home with about 25 other people near the Belhaven campus.”
What this angle allows us to understand something about the intersection between race and Protestant religion in American society culture. Adam Brett, a graduate student with whom I work in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, has given me to understand the following about American Protestant culture. I owe to Adam the insight that alongside the promise of redemption and transformation, the failure marked out by intense public shaming and media spectacle is an integral part of that intersection.