‘The Left needs to listen better, and learn a little bit of political strategy from the Right’

Texas-born scholar Angelia Wilson talks to Matthew Reisz about the changing face of political studies, Trump and the Christian Right, and a Bible Belt road trip

June 22, 2017
Rainbow flag at a rodeo
Source: Reuters

Angelia Wilson describes herself as a lesbian preacher’s daughter from Texas – and each strand of this conflicted identity has fed into her research.

Now professor of politics at the University of Manchester, Wilson researches the intersections of social conservatism, Christianity, feminist political theory and policies regulating sexuality. She co-edits the journal Politics and Religion, and recently became chair of the UK’s Political Studies Association, one of the most prominent subject associations in the land. She is also a prominent commentator and made headlines around the world in January with her prediction to The Independent that Donald Trump was “highly likely” to face impeachment within 12 to 18 months of taking office as US president – a prophecy that subsequent events have only made look all the more astute.

That she has got so far is no doubt testament to the openness of political studies to a wide range of what might be called non-mainstream perspectives. But it wasn’t always like this, she tells Times Higher Education. When she first started to work on gay issues, one of the referees she had suggested contacted her to say: “When university X calls me for a reference for you, I can’t say you’re a political theorist: you’re just a queer.” And, at conferences, “senior figures took me aside and said ‘You probably want to choose something else if you want to get ahead in this profession’… And they were not wrong. They were being realistic about what the political studies profession was like then.”

Whether their advice was well meaning or bigoted, however, Wilson is pleased that she ignored it, and also followed an interest in the intersection between politics and religion that began early in life. The Methodist church in the US, of which she was a member, required a young person on each of its local, regional and national committees, so the teenage Wilson became prominent in the movement, organising its first youth conference and leading services for several thousand people. Such roles, she says, taught her some crucial early lessons about politics: notably, how the real business of committees takes place outside the formal meetings themselves.

She also witnessed bigotry first-hand. Although her preacher father was very much at the liberal, social justice end of the Methodist spectrum, Wilson well remembers her “first real experience of being preached hate”. A Methodist bishop had just died of Aids and a furious local preacher refused even to contemplate that such a godly man could have been homosexual. While the bishop was obviously in heaven, he said, gays were going straight to hell.

Similarly distressing and revealing was the experience of watching evangelists on television, noting “the power of their rhetoric to build a community, a constituency...I was stunned by people’s lack of independent, critical thought, and fascinated by the levers systematically used to manipulate the crowd”.

After finishing her degree at McMurry University, a small Methodist liberal arts college in Abilene, Texas, Wilson won a scholarship for a master’s at the University of York, where she rapidly switched to a PhD. Her research examined the core liberal concepts of justice, equality and freedom, and her supervisor suggested that she look at how these played out in the lives of a particular group. She rejected the idea of studying Muslim women – “the last thing they need is for a white girl from the American South to tell them what ‘autonomy’ and ‘community’ mean” – and decided to look instead at the lesbian and gay community. She would go on to argue that much writing about justice, for example, implicitly incorporates a heterosexual model of the family, which marginalises those who don’t conform to that model.

Even before she left York, Wilson had co-organised the UK’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conference. This led to a 1994 book she co-edited with Joseph Bristow, Activating Theory: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Politics. Their introduction makes it clear that they saw “no easy division between pedagogy and perversion” and that the volume was “part of a political project that extends far beyond the walls of the ivory tower”.

Jesus billboard sign
Source: 
Jan Banning/Panos

More recently, in 2013, Wilson published a book called Why Europe Is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and Why America Will Never Be). This analyses the balance of welfare provision between church and state in different Western countries and argues that this is a central factor in how “lesbian and gay friendly” they are. The thesis is that when, as in the US, welfare provision is primarily offered by churches, there is often discrimination in terms of who benefits, while state provision is much more neutral. This leads to the sobering conclusion that “America, despite its self-image as a ‘beacon on a hill’, may never quite bring itself to be lesbian and gay friendly” – although Wilson adds that she “hope[s], with all my heart, that I am wrong”.

Her previous solo-authored book, published in 2000, is far more entertaining and less academic – although it is still full of information and deeply informed reflection. It came about after she read Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America and decided that she wanted to do something similar. She secured some money from Manchester, where she has been based since 1994, to help fund what she describes in Below the Belt: Sexuality, Religion and the American South as “a journey down the back roads of the Bible Belt…where there are more churches than traffic lights”. She “stopped in 40 or so small towns – at Dairy Queens, Walmarts, grocery stores, bars, churches, and the odd adult bookstore. I struck up conversations over pecan pies, beers, lawnmowers, altar rails, and sex toys.”

As this approach might suggest, the book is strikingly confessional. Wilson tells us about her passion for baseball and rodeo, but also about her abortion and her need for her father’s approval. She even describes the time at school when a group of cheerleaders offered her their friendship on condition that she “get laid” – although the young man appointed for the task got so excited that he “had finished ‘it’ before I unzipped my jeans”.

Below the Belt is also shot through with ambivalence. It shows why the Bible Belt is “no less than a living hell for gay men and lesbians”; Wilson’s British partner, she writes, found it “completely bizarre to be accosted in the street [in Dallas] and told she was going to hell”. The racial attitudes revealed in the book are possibly even more appalling. One loudmouth in a bar suggests that there should be a holiday named in honour of Martin Luther King’s assassin.

But alongside all this, Wilson’s love for the South also keeps shining through. She sees “something inherently attractive about cowboys” and – when she “step[s] back from ‘gender theory’” and the easy impulse to dismiss all Southern men as “sexist, racist, gun-toting rednecks” – she recalls an old cowboy from her childhood who brought up five daughters on his own. She also admits that she has sometimes “wished that I had simply married a man...Then I remember the sex and come to my senses. But for heterosexual women, I assume that would be a bonus rather than a deterrent.” She even expresses “some sympathy” with people who find the black leather and chains on display at gay pride parades “repulsive”.

Writing a book in this style is not the most obvious way to build an academic career, and Wilson suspects that it may not have done her any favours, but her motives were both personal and political.

“My mother left school at 12, my father at 14,” she says. “I write about sexuality, gender and politics – so how do you explain that to them? It was to explain to my parents what I was doing – that’s the only purpose of the book. I hope people can read it who know nothing about theories of gender and sexuality, or even about the South.”

If Wilson’s earlier work on LGBT issues was somewhat marginal to mainstream political science, her new focus on the political strategies of the Christian Right in the US could hardly be more central to the state of the world today.

The Christian Right, she points out, is “probably the most powerful movement in US politics, and makes up 60 to 70 per cent of the Republican Party. From the 1950s until now, their political strategy has been nothing but successful, despite a few hiccups. They laid the groundwork for what we are now seeing with Trump, and they’ve done it in an impressive methodical way, using rhetoric and ‘branding’. They have also used homophobia and the struggle against abortion to get there.”

She notes that the Christian Right was an early endorser of Trump’s presidential bid. “Why? Because he did a deal with them. Like Ronald Reagan, he said to them: ‘I’m not one of you, but if you make me president, I’ll give you stuff.’ He has already given them the Supreme Court justice they wanted [Neil Gorsuch (pictured above, with Trump)].” That, she says, was their “key demand”, because they want to see the court overturn Roe v Wade: the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that prevents local and national politicians from banning abortion in the earlier stages of pregnancy. Trump, Wilson notes, is also threatening the funding of Planned Parenthood, the large, publicly funded organisation whose network of clinics provides reproductive healthcare, including abortion services, across the US.

Rodeo cowboy
Source: 
Reuters

Among other examples of how the Christian Right has proved highly effective, Wilson cites how it has dealt with schism: “When the Catholics and the Evangelicals were not speaking to each other, [theologian] Francis Schaeffer said they ought to be working together in what he calls ‘co-belligerence’. [Now] they are really happy to work in collaboration in order to achieve a goal.”

So how useful has academic analysis been in illuminating these developments?

Wilson notes that the ideal of making academic political writing scientific means that “we should observe and be objective and have a distance from the thing that we study” – but warns that such “distance” can easily shade into more or less overt contempt. She describes the “disgusting” disdain for the Christian Right espoused by the American Left, including by many university researchers, as a serious barrier to academic understanding of the movement.

“They look at the Christian Right and say they are the crazies,” Wilson says. “Actually, like it or not, the Christian Right is providing most of the welfare services in the South. The Left also feels contempt for the Right because they think that they have better politics. They may have laudable ideas, but they are not very good in terms of strategy...The Left needs to listen better, and learn a little bit of political strategy from the Right,” not least in overcoming its own fragmentation.

Back in the UK, Wilson is pleased that the Political Studies Association is today committed to “a broad methodological perspective” that embraces both quantitative and qualitative approaches, as well as theory, analysis of political rhetoric and “the study of the margins” in areas such as politics and sexuality.

Her chief goal at the association’s helm is to do an even better job of communicating the insights gained to the wider world. This will involve efforts to “take the expertise in our profession out to young people studying citizenship in school; to the people writing our policies; to the voters who are not voting; to the young who are disaffected with politics. We mustn’t be just a bunch of old men with pipes in a smoky room talking about our grand ideas. Politics is far too important for that.”

The key, she thinks, is for academics to “articulate and translate their ideas into language which is accessible, so that people can think about how it impacts on their lives...If you can make an undergraduate understand your work, you can do it with anybody. I used to teach [John] Rawls’ Theory of Justice to first years with stick figures!”

For all the hostility to “experts” expressed by campaigners for the UK to leave the European Union, Wilson thinks the uncertainty brought about by the success of that campaign means that there is now a particularly acute need for expert political analysis, “both in terms of actual policies, and of [the UK’s] place in the world: our ideals and identity”.

“I certainly hope the policymakers are listening!” she says. “We’ll be jumping up and down with expertise trying to help them.” 

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Reader's comments (1)

The academic humanities have been criticised for filling their staff ranks with activists. The criticism is that their research is framed and driven by their own personal activisms and their assertions of impartiality fails due to a clear conflict of interest.

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