Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian Privilege

Okay. It looks like I'm going to be writing an entry on privilege. Thought I was gonna be able to avoid it, but it doesn't look like that'll be happening.

I am going to preface this with something. I don't like the word "privilege" to refer to things like "male privilege" or "white privilege" or "Christian privilege." It implies that white people and men and Christians (or whatever) all have things they shouldn't have, that no one should have. Personally I feel that being able to walk home past sunset without worrying you're going to get kidnapped and killed is not a case of anybody's privilege. Everyone should have it, and it's a damn shame that they don't.

Right now it feels every time the term "privilege" gets used we're talking about things like "seeing people your own race or sex in public office" or "being able to get a job based on your qualifications and not your face" or "being able to control people's sexual access to you." I feel that treating these as privileges treats people who've got them like they have more than they should instead of treating the people who don't as though they've got less than they should. It's why I prefer to talk about people who're disadvantaged over talking about people who're privileged (unless I'm using it to mean precisely what I just mentioned: people who've got more than they should).

It doesn't seem like it makes much of a difference, but feminist scholarship and analysis as I've seen it is often about just this kind of thing: linguistic subtleties. What message are people getting by the words we use? It seems when "male privilege" comes up that we're not talking about women dealing with shit they shouldn't have to, but men enjoying autonomy and security they shouldn't get. Even if that isn't what's meant, I'll be happier the day we find another term.

That said, we don't have other terms. So please understand what I mean when I use the word "privilege," and that I feel icky because I have no other options.

This entry is not about male privilege. This entry is not about white privilege. This entry is about Christian privilege. Keep in mind what I said earlier about privilege. I'm not saying that Christians enjoy lots and lots of things they don't deserve. I'm saying that Christians enjoy lots and lots of things that not all religions have, but all religions do deserve.

1. I can be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of my religion.
2. I can be sure that my holy day (Sunday) is taken into account when states pass laws (e.g., the sale of liquor) and when retail stores decide their hours (e.g., on Saturdays, they are open about 12 hours; on Sundays, they are closed or open for only a few hours).
3. I can assume that I will not have to work or go to school on my significant religious holidays.
4. I can be financially successful and not have people attribute that to the greed of my religious group.
5. I can be sure that when told about the history of civilization, I am shown people of my religion who made it what it is.
6. I do not need to educate my children to be aware of religious persecution for their own daily physical and emotional protection.
7. I can write an article about Christian privilege without putting my own religion on trial.
8. My religious group gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other religions.
9. I do not need to worry about the ramifications of disclosing my religious identity to others.
10. I can easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of my religion.
11. I can worry about religious privilege without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
12. I can be sure that when my children make holiday crafts, they will bring home artistic symbols of the Christian religion (e.g., Easter bunny, Christmas tree).
13. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my religious group.
14. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my religion most of the time.
15. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a “credit to my religion” or being singled out as being different from other members of my religious group.
16. I can, if I wish to identify myself, safely identify as Christian without fear of repercussions or prejudice because of my religious identity.
17. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and importance of the Christian religion.
18. I can protect my children from people who are religiously different from them.
19. I can have a “Jesus is Lord” bumper sticker or Icthus (Christian fish) on my car and not worry about someone vandalizing my car because of it.
20. I can buy foods (e.g., in grocery store, at restaurants) that fall within the scope of the rules of my religious group.
21. I can travel and be sure to find a comparable place of worship when away from my home community.
22. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my religion will not work against me.
23. I can be sure when I hear someone in the media talking about g-d that they are talking about my (the Christian) g-d.
24. I can be fairly sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my religion.
25. I can be sure that people are knowledgeable about the holidays in my religion and will greet me with the appropriate holiday greeting (e.g., Merry Christmas).
26.I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge.
27. I can display a Christmas tree and/or hang holly leaves in my home without worrying about my home being vandalized because of my religious identification.
28. I can be fairly sure that some hate group does not exist whose goal is to eradicate my religious group from the planet.

-Lewis Z. Schlosser (cited further later on)

Much of this is unavoidable, because Christians are a majority in America. That's why Christians have national holidays and Hindus (to my knowledge) do not. That's why Christians can fill every town and city in America with their places of worship. That's why Christians can support their own television channels, and their own private schools (at least to a greater degree than Wiccans or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists). I say this because I want you to understand that I understand that this is not a concerted effort on the part of most Christians to make other religions feel marginalized in a nation that is only tolerating them. Sometimes it is largely because Christians have numbers on their side in this country.

For a more thorough explanation of what "Christian privilege" is for the purposes of this discussion, I'll refer you to Understanding Christian Privilege: Managing the Tensions of Spiritual Plurality, by Tricia Seifert. Tricia Seifert is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Iowa. She studies the impact of educational programs and policies on student learning. This article mainly discusses Christian privilege on college campuses, but the general ideas apply well enough that I'll probably refer back to this a good bit.

Adapting Peggy McIntosh’s white privilege and male privilege framework, Christine Clark, Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Lewis Schlosser, and Craig Alimo developed several examples of Christian privilege. In an article in Multicultural Education, Clark and her colleagues define privilege as the manifestation of unearned and unacknowledged advantages that those in the dominant social or cultural group (in this case, Christians) experience in their everyday lives.

See? It's not always the fault of Christians, and I'm not asking Christians to feel guilty for being the dominant group. I don't know a single Christian who is powerful enough to be to blame for the marginalization of non-Christians in America. What I'm trying to get across is that because Christians are a privileged group in America, non-Christians commonly and easily feel marginalized and merely tolerated in a country that is supposed to belong just as much to them as to their Christian neighbors.

Lewis Schlosser and William Sedlacek, in a 2003 issue of About Campus, note that the timing of the term break at Christmas—which often goes unquestioned— privileges Christian students, who do not have to choose between their schoolwork and attending religious ceremonies, while it marginalizes non-Christian students, who must negotiate conflicts between their studies and their spiritual observances. For example, in some years, Ramadan—one of the key religious observances of Islam—may coincide with many campuses’ midterm exams.The perceived secularization of Christmas has helped to reinforce its position as central to the college and university calendar.The suggestion that Santa Claus and a Christmas tree are devoid of religious connotations and are “just part of the culture” (p. 124), as Douglas Hicks notes in Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality, and Leadership, cements Christian privilege.As Christian symbols are placed at the center of our institutions’ cultural fabric, non-Christians are pushed further to the margins.

Again, this is not something Christians necessarily need to feel guilty about. Christians who truly believe that their religion deserves special treatment above all other faiths and at the expense of all outsiders are few and far between. But they do exist, and they are the reason that I'm writing this.

Christians often claim that it is difficult to be Christian in America. They say that liberals are "waging war" against Christians on sites like this one, dedicated to exposing the introduction of Islam into our culture (and an alleged accompanying undermining of Christianity). Because students are encouraged to learn how Muslims pray (since American culture already teaches them how Christians pray), Christian groups view this as a threat to their supremacy, a threat to their privilege. If children learn as much from outside their homes about Islam as they learn about Christianity, the perceived "right" of Christianity to be vastly overrepresented is undermined.

So the reduction of Christian privilege gets painted by many Christian groups as persecution. When the symbol of their faith is held up above all others as a symbol for America and patriotism, they cheer. When they learn that they must share religious displays on government property with other faiths, or not post them at all, they claim persecution.

What Christians are losing in these cases (and in most I can think of) is not the right to practice their religion on an equal footing with Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, or whatever other faith you can mention that has migrated to America. What they are losing is supremacy. Their privilege is being eroded, and rather than claim they should not have had such an overwhelming advantage in the first place (or at the very least that other groups should not have been so proportionally disadvantaged), they cry foul and play the victim.

So here's a warning for my journal. You may post whatever comments you please. I haven't deleted a single comment to date, and I don't intend to start. But if you post on my journal with the pose that Christians in America are somehow in dire peril of being marginalized, persecuted, or even just maligned widely in the arena of public opinion, I ask you to remember this.

If you are Christian, you have power that no other religion in America has. I find it hard to believe that anything can happen to Christians in America to bring them down to the level of every other religion in this country anytime soon. Fret all you like that Christianity is under siege, but the rest of us are well aware you aren't going anywhere. You make it kind of hard to forget. Whether you mean to remind us who's boss or not, non-Christians in America face that reality every day.

For more information on how Christians can forget they have privilege, check out Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo by Lewis Z. Schlosser.

One possible explanation for the existence of Christian privilege is the notion of a “nonconscious ideology” (Bem & Bem, 970, p. 89). Bem and Bem first defined the concept of a nonconscious ideology to describe how implicit beliefs and attitudes are used to maintain the status quo in terms of gender inequality. They used the analogy of a fish and its environment to illustrate their concept of nonconscious ideology. A fish does not know its environment is wet, because that is all it knows and all it has ever experienced. The fish has no idea that anything else exists besides water because it has never had to think about any other possibilities.


In a similar fashion, Christians are not likely to know (or believe) that the environment is oppressive, because that environment has never been oppressive to them for being Christian. Thus, Christian privilege is likely to be a result of Christianity being the nonconscious ideology (in terms of religious group membership) of the United States. Even if this is a valid explanation for the existence of Christian privilege, because Christians are the dominant religious group in the United States, it is their responsibility to recognize their power and the accompanying privileges.

Maybe you can afford to forget who's in charge, but we cannot.

Christians reading this don't have to feel like I blame you for the myriad awkward conversations, occupational difficulties, educational barriers, and glaring injustices non-Christians in America can face. You are personally not to blame. That's not what acknowledgment of Christian privilege needs to mean.

What it does mean is that every time you get the urge to bemoan the sad state of Christianity in America today, remember where you are in relation to the rest of us. Remember what non-Christians in America go through because of Christian supremacy before you complain about the persecution of American Christians. Remember that when you claim Christians are a maligned and hated group in America, you may be talking to someone who really knows what that's like.


Anonymous said...

It is remarkable how some Christians can claim status as a persecuted minority on a Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon complain that a mosque should be kept out of their neighborhood because America is a Christian country.

Thanks for the post.

Samantha said...


Anonymous said...

Glad to see that others are discussing the issues pertinent to Christian Privilege in a thoughtful way.

Cobalt said...

Thanks, Dr. Schlosser! Your article was really helpful.