This is my third post dealing with the myths concerning Christianophobia. In the first blog of this series I dealt with the myth that Christianophobia does not exist. In my last blog, I addressed the myth that Christianophobia is an indicator that Christians are being persecuted in the United States. For the third myth I will look at one of the ways some attempt to justify Christianophobia. They argue that Christians are not experiencing bias or discrimination, but instead Christians have been privileged in the United States and are now losing that privilege. Therefore, Christians feel mistreated when in fact they are only now being treated the same as the rest of our society. For simplicity sake let us call this the privilege argument which contends that Christianophobia is merely the loss of Christians’ privileged status. It implies that Christianophobia is a correction of previous mistreatment of non-Christians. The privilege argument that Christianophobia only reflects the loss of privilege for Christians is the third myth I will tackle.
Looking more deeply at the concept of privilege and the way Christianophobia is manifested in the United States helps us to understand the viability of the privilege argument. Such an analysis is needed because I have not seen a well-developed articulation of the privilege argument. Generally, it comes out in comments responding to Christians, like myself, who point out Christianophobia or anti-Christian treatment. I speculate that those putting forward the privilege argument have not thought too deeply about the implications of their assertions or even what privilege really means.
Peggy McIntosh is generally given credit for the origin of the notion of privilege with her famous article on white privilege. She was attempting to communicate the gender advantages of men, but in doing so realized that she, as a white woman, benefits from racial advantages. Her conceptualizing of white privilege was done in the hope that by recognizing her racial advantages that she would also have a tool to talk to men about their gender advantages. The recognition of her own racial advantages could provide legitimation when dealing with gender issues since it would be clear that she does not merely look out for just people in her own social category. Her basic definition of white privilege is that it is an invisible package of unearned assets that whites can count on cashing in each day. In her famous article she provides several examples of this privilege. Several items such as the color of crayons, media representations, being asked to represent their entire race and wondering if the police are pulling one over for racial reasons are aspects that McIntosh considers to be some of these assets. Here is one of the lists of such racial privileges, or advantages. Basically whites can take advantage of racialized elements of our society and those advantages are often so subtle that they do not have to recognize their advantage. This creates an illusion of fairness which is used to justify the higher status whites enjoy.
In the original concept of privilege two important aspects emerge. First, it is clear that privilege is not a focus on overt forms of discrimination. McIntosh is not addressing the ending of Jim Crow or permitting Indians to leave reservations. The individuals she is trying to reach are not the type who would endorse overt racism. She is trying to show whites that they have advantages not tied to overt mistreating of people of color. Sometimes when I hear people talk about privilege they seem to be referring to previous laws of overt bias. That is not what is at play when issues of privilege are brought up. What is at play is the unspoken and subtle ways some groups have advantages over others.
Her second point is tied to the fact that McIntosh is a white woman. As a woman she realizes that men have privileges, but as a white she realizes that she has them too. In other words, she is not making the argument that she enjoys nothing but privileges or that she is always the victim of the privileges of others. Rather she is saying that her life is a mixture of statuses. Some of these statuses provide her with privilege and others do not. It is not as simple as merely saying that some people are always privileged while others are always disadvantaged because of the privileges of others.
I want to expand on this second point in ways that McIntosh probably would not support, but that I believe are closer to social reality. It is not just that we are a mixture of statuses, some of which are privileged and some of which are not. It is also the case that the statuses themselves are a mixture of being privileged or not. As an African-American it is clear that I will not enjoy the fruits of white privilege. But I am self-aware enough to realize that there are times where my racial status works for me. This can be from the mundane, such as more respect in a pick-up basketball game, to the important, such as a small advantage when seeking certain academic positions. I would argue that overall my racial disadvantages outweigh my racial advantages, but there are racial advantages even for one in a minority racial group.
This propensity towards a mixture of advantages and disadvantages in a given status is important when looking at the question of Christianophobia and privilege. Those who make the privilege argument seems to imply that we lived in a world where Christians had all of the privileges and now are only asked to give up those privileges for the sake of equality. This is an oversimplistic interpretation. A more realistic interpretation can be that Christians are leaving a status where they had more advantages than disadvantages towards one where their advantages and disadvantages are roughly equal. Furthermore, non-Christians are leaving a status where they had more disadvantages than advantages towards one where their advantages and disadvantages are roughly equal. This scenario best supports the privilege argument if it can be shown that Christians have to lose their advantages for non-Christians to lose their disadvantages. If this can be shown then supporters of the privilege argument can claim that what has been called Christianophobia is merely the development of an egalitarian society.
So let me take this argument with an issue where it seems to be quite strong. One of the arguments in the recent rulings against Christian bakers and florists is that they must work for same-sex marriages because public accommodations should be available for everyone. Theoretically in a free market society anyone who turns away business loses money and so the market regulates fairness. But in the spirit of privilege it can be argued that in such an economic environment Christians can turn away the business of non-Christians more easily than vice versa due to their larger numbers and societal influence. (Not sure if this is true anymore given the willingness of non-Christian groups to engage in boycotts of businesses they find unacceptable.) Therefore, a strict adherence to rules of public accommodations can take away unnecessary privilege enjoyed by Christians by forcing them to serve everybody. This theoretically levels the playing field between Christians with other religious or social groups by taking away the privilege of Christians and providing advantages to those non-Christian groups.
But reality is quite different from theory. The reality is that instead of eliminating a defacto differential treatment of Christians and non-Christians, where Christians have advantages over non-Christians, we have produced a dejure differential treatment of Christians and non-Christians, where non-Christians have advantages over Christians. The recent court ruling in Colorado is noteworthy not just for the sanction faced by the Christian baker, but also because in Colorado the rights of gay bakers to refuse work they did not want to do was upheld. David French argues that it was clear that the judges were eager to take sides in the culture war and were eager to find a solution that punishes the Christian bakers without also punishing the gay bakers. If this is correct then we do not have a situation where to gain the rights of non-Christians the privileges of Christians had to be short-circuited. Instead, we have a situation where non-Christians are given rights or privileges being denied to Christians. This is not the reality described by those who bring up the privilege argument. Christianophobia is not merely the loss of privilege for Christians so that others can have rights, but it is taking of the rights of Christians that are not taken from non-Christians. The disparate impact nature of this effort in Colorado is totally in keeping with the plausible deniability desires within those with Christianophobia. However, the unwillingness of the courts to punish non-Christian bakers in the same manner as Christian bakers exposes hypocritical claims of religious neutrality.
This is a situation where a seemingly neutral right, such as businesses turning away certain customers for a given event, can produce a subtle privilege for the majority group. Yet expressions of Christianophobia have not resulted in equality. The privilege argument of merely creating a level playing field does not hold weight. It is even harder to make the privilege argument when we look at some of the other expressions of Christianophobia. For example, I outlined in a previous blog the empirical evidence that conservative Christians face bias in academia. My own study shows that if an applicant for a position allows it to be known that he or she is a conservative Protestant, then many academics are less willing to hire him or her simply because of that religious identity. In no other religious, or any other social, group was this bias nearly as strong as it was against conservative Protestants. How does discriminating against conservative Christians in academia provide a fairer society for non-Christians? Clearly it produces advantages for them since they can obtain a position if their competitor is a similarly, or perhaps even higher, qualified conservative Protestant. But is it a privilege to be judged for an academic job based on one’s credentials, instead of one’s religious beliefs? Are we to believe that to be fair to other religious groups we have to be unfair to conservative Christians? Such questions illustrate that Christianophobia is not about the mere loss of privilege of conservative Christians, but rather it is the natural consequence of the irrational anti-Christian hatred and fear of those with social and cultural power.
All of this is not to say that Christians still do not have advantages in some areas of our society. More than once I have been accused of arguing that Christians are the most oppressed group in the United States. Since I have never made such an argument, this is a classical strawman approach. I fully recognize that Christians still have certain societal advantages. For example, while those rewards are shrinking, there are still political advantages for having a Christian religious preference. It is easier to get elected as President as a Christian than as an atheist or Muslim. Advantages for Christians in our society can be found and at times rightly challenged. However, the diminishment of Christian advantages is not always tied to the creation of an egalitarian situation. Christianophobia has motivated some individuals to create an unwarranted disadvantage for Christians in certain social dimensions. Stating that claims of Christianophobia are only attempts to keep Christian privileges have little merit unless one can illustrate how all of the ways Christians are punished is connected to the loss of unwarranted privileges. Space does not permit me to document other examples of Christianophobia failing to meet this test, but having the same rights to refuse service as other groups and not being punished for religious beliefs in academia clearly do not meet the standard of showing this connection.