When I was four years old, my parents moved me from Los Angeles to northern Idaho, where I would live for thirteen years—plus a year-long stint in heavily Mormon Utah during first grade—until I moved away to New England for college. During this time, I was exposed to a poor and working-class, white-dominated culture in which evangelical Christianity was the reigning religion, and anything that deviated from it was seen as shocking, suspect, and potentially evil.
Living in Idaho meant I had a friend who wasn’t allowed to watch “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” When I went trick-or-treating on Halloween, I’d inevitably get some Jack Chick tracts mixed in with my candy that warned of how Satan was tempting me and that I needed to turn my life over to Jesus. I had well-meaning evangelical peers attempt to convert me to Christianity at (public) school, and after I took to wearing an evolve fish necklace in high school, my multimedia teacher asked me incredulously, “Do you really think we evolved from some sludge on the corner?”
As someone who stopped identifying as Christian when I was about twelve, and who embarked on a multi-year journey to read all I could about a variety of world religions while being drawn in by Wicca, the town I lived in didn’t give my little open-minded self a very hospitable reception. The years I spent feeling like an outsider because I wasn’t a conservative Christian made me very aware of the reality of Christian privilege, a form of privilege that is rarely addressed when talking about intersectional feminism. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned.
Christians do not face systemic discrimination in the U.S.
Let’s acquaint ourselves with a few facts. 83% of Americans identify as Christian, according to a July 2017 ABCNEWS/Beliefnet poll. According to Pew Research Center, almost 91% of the 115th Congress consider themselves Christians. Both these stats reinforce the fact that Christianity exerts an overwhelming influence on contemporary U.S. culture, government, and public policy. And living in this culture as a non-Christian can frankly be alienating and even dangerous, especially for Jewish people and Muslims. In fact, right-wing attacks on President Obama in the form of calling him a Muslim—and Trump’s outrageous lie that Obama is the “founder of ISIS”—have served as an important example of how Islam as a religion is seen as morally inferior and even inherently terroristic by many conservative self-professed Christians.
It’s clear: Christians enjoy a privileged status in the U.S. How many Christians have routinely had members of other faiths attempt to convert them to a different faith? How many Christians have had a hard time finding a place of worship in their town, or finding nationally-celebrated role models who share their faith? “In God We Trust” has been on U.S. paper currency since 1957 as a way to distinguish Christian capitalist America from the atheist communists of the Soviet Union. I could give so many more examples, all of which serve to reiterate the fact that Christianity is far from a persecuted religion in the U.S.
Religious diversity is not the same as Christianity being under attack.
There’s nothing that says “Christianity is under attack” like seeing Christmas decorations and hearing carols in every store for months on end, or, in most of America, seeing multiple churches wherever you drive! In reality, Christianity reigns supreme in the U.S. and is still the biggest religion in the world, but claims that Christianity is under attack are usually a dog whistle for hostility towards religious diversity. After all, when you’re used to having privilege and taking up all the space, others seeking equality can leave you feeling like you’re being oppressed.
This is why saying “happy holidays” is so important: rather than negating Christmas as an important holiday for many, it acknowledges that Christmas isn’t the only winter holiday in town and allows for the reality that many of us celebrate Hanukkah, Yule (the winter solstice), Kwanzaa, and that other winter holiday most people celebrate—the New Year!
Christian privilege is directly connected to white supremacy and settler colonialism.
Remember Manifest Destiny? That whole idea that drove white people’s racist and genocidal entitlement to take over North America for their own? It was the idea that the Christian God had destined white settlers to spread ever West, “civilizing” the Indigenous tribes with Christian doctrine and capitalism. This wasn’t the first time Christianity, and Christian privilege, have been tied to the projects of white supremacy and settler colonialism—Christian entitlement to land, resources, and annihilating the existing belief systems of Indigenous populations has been central to their expansion throughout history. But Christianity has been especially foundational in the context of colonialism.
If murdering people and forcing them to commit to your religion while you take over their lands and try your hardest to stamp out their culture isn’t the apex of privilege, I don’t know what else is.
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Christianity is too often seen as synonymous with moral goodness.
The Christian Right has been playing this game since the 1970s in the U.S.—pretending that conservative Christianity has a monopoly on morality and “family values,” while that deemed secular (or from other faith traditions) is often portrayed as amoral or even sinful. Of course, we know that “family values” has so often been code for policies that are anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black and Latinx, and anti-assistance for poor and working-class families, and the GOP’s recent failed endorsement of suspected pedophile and Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate—not to mention their stalwart support of avowed sexual predator Donald Trump—are devastating evidence of a willingness to embrace immorality for the sake of political expediency.
But there were so many times when I was growing up where it was taken for granted that being a Christian was what made someone good, and that those who weren’t Christian were morally bankrupt and didn’t belong. This was a sentiment expressed especially about atheists and agnostics. The idea was that if you don’t believe in Christianity, how could you possibly have a moral compass? Such an assumption is itself an example of Christian privilege.
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To wield Christian privilege is often to weaponize religion against non-Christians.
I encountered the weaponizing of Christianity throughout my life in Idaho. In 9th grade, all my friends got pulled into a Christian youth group that was somehow allowed to operate in our public school during lunch time—itself an example of Christian privilege! It was called First Priority, the idea being that Jesus should be everyone’s first priority in life. The one time I ever let my friends drag me there, the leaders of the group gave a speech about how everyone should try to convert their non-Christian friends so that everyone could go to heaven. (I immediately walked out and ended up not being friends with that group shortly thereafter.) The concept of interfaith fellowship was completely absent, and in its place was the assumption that Christianity is the One True Way.
Another time in middle school, I was wearing a pentacle necklace when my friend looked at it in shock, assumed it was a Star of David because her lexicon of world religious icons was so limited, and informed me, “You shouldn’t wear a Star of David around!” This antisemitic comment made disturbing sense in an area made infamous by the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group who occupied a compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho in the 1980s and ‘90s and held a parade through the center of town on Hitler’s birthday each year. In such an environment, the notion that someone could actually be Jewish was apparently unthinkable for many members of the community I lived in. And being pagan? This was associated with straight-up demonic forces (as I once debated at length with a Christian proselytizer at my local county fair).
Christian privilege is a real form of privilege. Not everyone is Christian and that should be completely acceptable in a society that claims to be founded on religious liberty. We need to rethink how our religious identities, or lack thereof, are implicated when considering our relationship to privilege and oppression. Only then will we have a society where children don’t have to be worried about what religious symbols, if any, they wear around their necks.
[Featured Image: A pair of hands clasped together. They are holding a brown rosary. The nails are painted blue and white. The arms are covered in white loose sleeves. Source: ideacreamanuela2]