Challenging Christian Hegemony in the United States
Living in the Shadow of the Cross
by Paul Kivel
New Society Publishers, 2013
Reading Paul Kivel’s groundbreaking book Living in the Shadow of the Cross is by turns invigorating and overwhelming for exactly the same reason—he is shining a spotlight on the often unnoticed but pervasive system of Christian domination in the United States. As a Jew living in a Christian-dominated culture, I found it simultaneously validating and devastating to read Kivel’s compilation of the extensive manifestations of Christian hegemony from the routine (our shared calendar and public holidays) to the less obvious (Christian influence on U.S. domestic and foreign policy).
Kivel sets up a 101-style study of Christian hegemony, which he defines as “the everyday, systematic set of Christian values, individuals, and institutions that dominate all aspects of US society.” Differentiating between individual people who identify as Christian (and may even be inspired to work for justice by an aspect of Christianity, such as liberation theology) and the structure of Christian dominance, Kivel deconstructs a system of power that benefits Christians and those who pass as Christian. Indeed, this system has become so invisible that it appears to be secular, and many folks who grew up Christian fail to notice where their cultural reference points originate.
Addressing the role of Christian allies in challenging Christian dominance, Kivel asks Christians to acknowledge the ways that they benefit from the dominant culture and then use their privilege to challenge institutional policies and to support the struggles of those who are not Christian. Similar to his anti-racist approach of asking white folks to grapple with white privilege, Kivel calls on Christians to accept, acknowledge, and strategically use their Christian privilege. However, unlike in his work on whiteness and male violence, as a Jew, Kivel is not coming from the dominant perspective. It will be interesting to see if his work inspires more critiques of Christian dominance from within Christianity.
While Kivel doesn’t single out leftist culture in this book, I am particularly excited for activists to begin deconstructing the role of Christian hegemony in our work because it feels like a missing piece in our analysis. In many leftist circles, rejecting religion is seen as a badge for one’s radical credentials. Many self-identified atheists who have rejected the Christianity that they grew up with heap scorn on “religion” without considering how non-Christian religions are positioned differently in U.S. culture. This rejection of religion is still framed by Christianity, whether or not individual Christians celebrate the solstice instead of Christmas.
By insisting on the importance of understanding Christian hegemony in all of our work, Kivel adds a layer of complexity to our thinking about movement work, particularly the Palestine solidarity movement. Kivel insists that we remember that the roots of the Israeli Occupation grew out of Christian Zionism, the belief among Christians that Jews need to be located in Israel in order for the second coming of Jesus Christ to occur. In the mid-nineteenth century, British Christian Zionists supported the Jewish Zionist movement because they wanted to set the stage for the second coming, to get the Jews out of England, and to create a British outpost in the Middle East. In recent times, the United States has come to replace Britain as the main source of economic support, but the impetus of Christian support for Zionism remains.
It is important for all of us involved in Palestine solidarity work to understand the role of Christian Zionism, but particularly important for Christian anti-Occupation activists. Far too often, the Occupation of Palestine gets framed as a conflict between Jews and Palestinians, which is not only inaccurate, but also erases the role of historical and current anti-Semitism and Christian dominance. If more Christians understood and worked against anti-Semitism, including Christian Zionism, it would exponentially strengthen our movements.
While Kivel does a good job creating an overarching explanation of Christian hegemony, I sometimes longed for more exploration of the complicated intersections between privilege and oppression in various forms of Christianity. In particular, I wonder about how Christian hegemony might play out for people whose religion was violently taken away from them and who then adapted Christianity order to meet their needs. For example, I would have loved to see Kivel address the role of the Black church in racial justice movements in the United States. But this desire for more analysis arises from what’s compelling about Kivel’s book: he creates a structure to analyze Christian hegemony, which we can interrogate and complicate as we integrate this analysis into our social justice work.