Investigating Christian Privilege: Its Time Has Come

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As spring peers forth from the soil and tree limbs, the annual Easter Egg Roll, sponsored by the President of the United States and the First Lady, thrills elementary and pre-school age children each year. Also, in school classrooms throughout the country, students and their teachers dip hardboiled eggs into brightly colored dyes, and display Easter eggs of pink, yellow, blue, green, red, and lavender. Some students adhere bunny, baby chick, rainbow, or angel decals to their Easter eggs. Some paint flowers or clouds; some sprinkle glitter of silver or gold. An excitement wafts through the classroom as students imagine sharing their treasures with parents or caregivers, as teachers reward the good work of their charges with delicious gleaming chocolate bunnies. A palpable excitement fills the air in anticipation of Easter Sunday as children adorn classroom bulletin boards with images of the season.
As an educator of pre-service teachers in the university, I am gratified to find that an ever increasing number of Colleges of Education include instruction on issues of power and privilege related to our socially constructed identities. We know that teachers must thoroughly come to terms with their social positions (“positionalities”), the intersectional ways in which they are privileged as well as how they have been the targets of systemic inequities, and the impact this makes on their students.
Depending on our multiple identities, society grants us simultaneously a great array of privileges while marginalizing us based solely on these identities. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh‘s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders. A number of researchers have developed extensive lists (white, male, heterosexual, cisgender (“traditional” gender presentation), able-bodied, Christian, adult, age, socioeconomic class, physical size) charting the benefits and privileges accorded to individuals within differing dominant identity categories.
Many people (most likely the majority) consider the Easter events I outlined, played out in Washington, DC and in some schools in the United States, as normal, appropriate, and joyous seasonal activities. Upon critical reflection, however, others experience them as examples of institutional (governmental and educational) (re)enforcements of dominant Christian standards and what is referred to as “Christian privilege,” though presented in presumably secularized forms. They represent some of the ways in which the dominant group (in this instance, Christians) reiterates its values and practices while marginalizing and subordinating those who do not adhere to Christian faith traditions.
The concept of “hegemony” describes the ways in which dominant groups successfully disseminate dominant social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as common sense, as “normal,” as universal, and as representing part of the natural order, even at times by those who are marginalized, disempowered, or rendered invisible by it.
Christian hegemony I define as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on Christians. It is the institutionalization of a Christian norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be Christian, thereby privileging Christians and Christianity, and excluding the needs, concerns, religious cultural practices, and life experiences of people who are not Christian. At times subtle and often overt, Christian hegemony is oppression by neglect, omission, erasure, and distortion, and also by design and intent.
I caution us, though, not to conceptualize dominant group privilege monolithically, for we must factor into the equation issues of context and intersectionality of identities. As there is a spectrum of Christian denominations and traditions, for example, so too is there a hierarchy or continuum of Christian privilege based on 1) historical factors, 2) numbers of practitioners, and 3) degrees of social power. I contend, therefore, that we need to view forms of privilege along a continuum or spectrum rather than conceiving them as binary opposites.
As educators raise issues of dominant group privilege, and pose questions of power and domination in our classes and in the larger society, invariably we experience resistance. I understand this only too well, not only as an educator but also in my personal development.
I can remember when I was confronted in a workshop on issues around white and male privilege. I immediately reacted that as a gay man, the heterosexism I experience sufficiently trumped any male privilege I might have otherwise, and my European-heritage Jewish identity (with anti-Semitism as a form of racism) annulled any white privilege I might have otherwise. Though I was rather slow to come to consciousness how my defense mechanisms prevented me from accepting and taking responsibility for the unearned benefits granted me by my social identities, over the years, I have understood the process from denial to acceptance to committing to ensure equity among people of all social identities.
Raising issues of privilege remain difficult, but I believe necessary if our country is to progress and redress the mistakes of the past. In this vein, I wrote a commentary a few years again while teaching at a large public Midwestern University, which contained an eight-foot Christian cross in its Memorial Union “Chapel.” When I first witnessed it, I thought to myself, “What is this huge and overpowering Christian cross doing in a public tax supported, land grant university? Isn’t this supposed to be a non-denominational space for students and staff to enter for reflection and respite? Do these religious symbols not violate the First Amendment’s clause of the United States Constitution by promoting one religion over all others? How many Christians who enter this space actually perceived this as unusual or inappropriate on a university campus that purports to welcome students from all walks of life?”
In the editorial, I began by using the analogy of the fish being the last to see or feel the water since it is so pervasive to highlight how those with privilege (in this instance, Christians) often are the last to perceive and acknowledge the privileges they are accorded as Christians.
Local electronic media interviewed me about my intent for raising the issue. I stated that I was concerned that our university, by exhibiting the very large and smaller Christian crosses, which are highly visible upon entry into the Chapel, as well as a couple of very small Jewish symbols on the stain glass window, overtly promotes some religions over others. “Are we in the business,” I asked, “of endorsing religion at a state tax supported land grant institution?” Moreover, by promoting religion, in very real ways we are marginalizing members of the university community who do not adhere to these faith backgrounds. While these religious symbols may be comforting to some, for others they can trigger negative emotions and collective memory of the long history of religious conflict and persecution.
A few years later, I objected to my university’s decision to hold its university-wide honors banquet and ceremonies at the Cornerstone [Baptist] Church in our town as an alternative to the intended university site, which was undergoing renovations following summer floods. In my commentary, I wrote: “Is the Cornerstone Church or any religious site, in fact, ‘just a facility’? Can a religious institution be considered a neutral site? Take, for example, the recently explosive controversies surrounding the Islamic Centers in both New York City and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to prove just the opposite. Furthermore, can a building dominated by religious symbols not invoke emotions – the full spectrum from glowingly positive to horrifyingly negative – in those whom they surround? What messages are we sending by choosing this or any religious institution to conduct university business? Can it not appear that we are affirming one denomination or one religion over all others? What are the implications for [our university] supporting these institutions by choosing to hold university events paid with public tax dollars?”
While I received much positive support from students, faculty, and some community members, others called me a “religious bigot” and an “angry Jew.” How many of us have been accused of being “the angry…” (fill in the blank) when we challenge dominance?
I have realized much over the years. The first is that it is best to join with others in raising issues of power and privilege. It is often more effective, and helps to insulate the individual from the enormous resistance that can and often does develop. Unfortunately, I have not yet learned this lesson well, since I often put my own head on the chopping block before I join with others to raise these issues jointly. Also, no matter how difficult the backlash, we need to continue to teach about and to continually investigate our own positiionalities.
By challenging dominant group privilege and hegemony, we do not condemn or even contest Christianity, or whiteness, or maleness, or heterosexuality, or physical or mental abilities, and so on per se, but, instead, we are interrogating the unearned and automatic privileges that come with these social identities. For in the famous words of Bob Dylan,
“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be passed
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'”
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor ofInvestigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon), and co-editor ofReadings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge