On Christian Privilege & Being an Atheist Ally

A strange issue emerged around the Democratic party platform this week:  Use of the word God.

Peter Montgomery sums up the issue here, calling it a “manufactured outrage” sparked by Republican politicians, and complicated when the Democrats changed their adopted platform, re-inserting the term “God-given potential” as well as changing its language on Jerusalem.  Some objected to the process, others objected to the issues. 

Need God be named in the platform?  No.  What many have since reminded us is that the Constitution itself does not include the word God.

Here’s what I think:  Politicians and political parties use the word ‘God’ far too much.  The word ‘God’ does not need to be in a political party platform.  I wish politicians wouldn’t feel they have to conclude every public address with “God Bless America.”

In part, this is for one simple reason:  Atheists are Americans too.

My beliefs in and about God do not need to be imposed on everyone else.  That’s not what a pluralistic democracy looks like.  This issue is also what has been at the core of so much of this year’s discussions about religious freedom and choice.  I don’t need to impose my beliefs and practices on the Catholic bishops and I surely don’t want them to do that to me.

But the thing is, politicians and political parties get away with it.  Why?  Christian privilege.  The ability to presume that everyone thinks and believes like you when you are part of a majority faith.

Thinking about how systemic privilege and oppression are reflected in human societies and personal interactions is something that feminism lives and breathes.  Peggy McIntosh’s widely read, quoted, and used 1988 essay on “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” built on her feminist awareness of how male privilege plays out, to address white privilege, and has since been adapted to address other systemic privileges like heterosexuality.

What about Christian privilege?  Especially in the United States.  Here is a crucial source of unearned tools and cultural capital that persons can count on cashing in and about which they are never meant to be aware.  Some examples I came up with, inspired of course by McIntosh’s style.  These are things that are true, even if they shouldn’t be:

  1. I can assume that wherever I live in this country, I will be able to find a familiar place to pray and worship.
  2. I have a job that recognizes my sabbath.
  3. My holy days are national holidays.
  4. The year, 2012, centers around my religion’s sacred timeframe.
  5. I can find greeting cards for my religion’s major rituals and events.
  6. When I dress to pray or worship, no one looks at me strangely.
  7. I have a legitimate shot at petitioning my local school board to have my religion’s cosmological story taught in a science class if I want to.
  8. Devotion to my faith is valued, and never mistaken for fanaticism or terrorism.
  9. My nephews will have their religion mentioned even in public school text books.
  10. If I want to engage in interfaith dialogue, I will be viewed by many as open minded, progressive, and charitable.
  11. I can choose to not engage in dialogue and service with people of religions other than my own.

I’d love to hear other ways in which you think about and identify Christian privilege.

Back in 2008, a post on the Friendly Atheist blog here at Patheos talked about how to be an atheist ally.  Many of us who’ve reckoned with heterosexism and straight privilege embrace the language of ‘ally’ to talk about working with our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers for justice and equality.

Why not be an ally to our atheist neighbors?  Here are a few suggestions from that post on what that would mean:

“Familiarize yourself with the common myths and misconceptions about atheists — and don’t perpetuate them.”

“Find common ground.”

“Speak out against anti-atheist bigotry and other forms of religious intolerance.”

“Be inclusive of atheists.”

“Be aware of how religious belief gives you a place of mainstream and privilege.”

Can naming and debunking Christian privilege change the way that God-talk is tossed around so casually in politics, as if everyone believes in God?

Let’s find out.

 

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About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.


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