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Christian privilege is the overarching system of advantages bestowed on Christians. It is the institutionalization of a Christian norm or standard that establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be Christian. The privileging of Christians and Christianity excludes the needs, concerns, religious cultural practices, and life experiences of people who are not Christian. At times overt and at other times subtle, Christian privilege is oppression by purpose and design, as well as by neglect, omission, erasure, and distortion.
Dominant group privilege can involve the unconscious or conscious attitudes and beliefs (prejudices) of individuals, and the ways in which these attitudes and beliefs are acted out (discrimination) upon others within interpersonal relationships. Examples include views that non-Christian faiths are inferior or dangerous, or that adherents of those faiths and non-believers are immoral, sinful, or misguided. These stereotyped beliefs on the individual level can also play out in social institutions and are reinforced by broader systemic and unexamined societal/cultural norms that have evolved as part of a nation’s history.
Schlosser observes that the exposure of Christian privilege breaks a “sacred taboo,” and that “both subtle and obvious pressures exist to ensure that these privileges continue to be in the sole domain of Christians. This process is quite similar to the way in which Whites and males continue to (consciously and unconsciously) ensure the privilege of their racial and gender groups”.:p.47
There is a hierarchy of Christian privilege in the United States, with members of white Protestant denominations having greater degrees of privilege than members of other minority Christian denominations, such as African American churches, Christian Hispanics and Latinos, Amish, Mennonite, Quaker, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Christian Science, Mormons, and still in some quarters, Catholics.
Oppression occurs when the dominant group imposes its cultural norms, values, and perspectives on individuals. These values are imposed “on institutions by individuals and on individuals by institutions”.:p.19 These social and cultural values define ideas of good and evil, health and sickness, normality and deviancy, and how one should live one’s life. The dominant group unconsciously uses dominant social values to justify and rationalize social oppression, while often lacking awareness or understanding of the ways in which they are privileged on the basis of their social identities. “Unpacking” McIntosh’s allegorical knapsack of privilege (whether it be Christian, white, male, heterosexual, owning class, temporarily able bodied, English as first-language speakers, and others) is to become aware of and to develop critical consciousness of its existence and how it impacts the daily lives of both those with and those without this privilege.
Alexis de Tocqueville was a French political scientist and diplomat who traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831–1832, conducting research for his book Democracy in America. He noted a paradox of religion in the U.S. On the one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country that valued the “separation of church and state,” as well as valuing religious freedom and tolerance. On the other hand, he noted that, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America”.:pp.303-304 He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that, in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, Tocqueville argued that religion should be considered the first political institution due to the enormous influence that churches had on the political process.
Although de Tocqueville favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.” Without specific guarantees of minority rights—in this case minority religious rights—there is a danger of religious domination over religious minorities and non-believers. The religious majority in the U.S. have historically been adherents of mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often assume that their values and standard apply to those who believed otherwise.
Another traveler to the United States, social theorist Gunnar Myrdal examined U.S. society following World War II, and he noted a contradiction, which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging of white people, and the subordination of peoples of color. This contradiction has been reframed for contemporary consideration by the religious scholar, Diana Eck:
The concept of hegemony describes the ways in which the dominant group, in this case U.S. Christians in general and predominantly Protestants, successfully disseminate dominant social constructions as being common sense, as normative, or as universal, even though an estimated 70% of the world’s inhabitants are not Christian. Christian hegemony also supposes that Christianity is part of the natural order, even at times by those who are marginalized, disempowered, or rendered invisible by it. Thus, Christian hegemony maintains the marginality of already marginalized religions, faiths, and spiritual communities. According to Beaman, “the binary opposition of sameness/difference is reflected in Protestant/minority religion in which mainstream Protestantism is representative of the ‘normal’”.:p.321
Other ideas about Christian hegemony relate to the thinking of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who described how dominant-group oppression is advanced through “discourses”. Discourses include the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. According to Foucault, dominant-group discourses pervade networks of social and political control, which he called “regimes of truth”,:p.133 and which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth.
Christian privilege at the individual level occurs in proselytizing to convert or reconvert non-Christians to Christianity. While many Christians view proselytizing as offering the gift of Jesus to the non-Christians, many individuals of other faiths and many non-believers consider this as an imposition, manipulation, and oppression.
Social institutions—including but not limited to educational, governmental, business, industrial, financial, military, housing, judicial, and religious—often maintain and perpetuate policies that explicitly or implicitly privilege and promote some groups while limiting access, excluding, or rendering invisible other groups based on social identity and social status.
Many overt forms of oppression are obvious when a dominant group tyrannizes a subordinate group; e.g. apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, etc. However, many forms of oppression (and dominant group privilege) are not as apparent, especially to members of dominant groups. Oppression in its fullest sense also refers to structural/systemic constraints imposed on groups, even within constitutional democracies, and its “causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules”.
Christian dominance is maintained by its relative invisibility, and with this invisibility, privilege is not analyzed, scrutinized, or confronted. Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or “normal.” For example, the symbolism and rituals associated with religious holidays may appear to be free of religion. However, the effect of the secularization of religion only serves to fortify Christian privilege by perpetuating Christian hegemony in such a way as to avoid detection as religion or to circumvent violating the constitutional requirements for the separation of religion and government.
Christian privilege and religious oppression exist in a symbiotic relationship. Oppression toward non-Christians gives rise to Christian privilege, and Christian privilege maintains oppression toward non-Christian individuals and faith communities.
According to Schlosser, many Christians deny that they have any privilege by claiming that all religions are essentially the same. Thus, they have no more and no fewer benefits accorded to them than members of other faith communities. Blumenfeld notes the objections that some of his university students raise when discussing Christian privilege as connected with the celebration of Christian holidays. The students, he notes, state that many of the celebrations and decorations have nothing to do with religion per se and do not represent Christianity, but are rather part of American culture.
Similarly, some claim that the religious significance of cultural practices stems not from Christianity, but rather from a Judeo-Christian tradition. Beaman argues that "this obscures the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the modern world".:322