Christian Privilege?

Christian Privilege? October 5, 2013

A couple of weeks ago a facebook friend showed me this link discussing Christian Privilege. I remember the first time I heard of this concept. I had just finished doing research systematically documenting the disadvantages conservative Protestants have in academia. So when I heard of this concept I literally Laughed Out Loud. I realize that my reaction was primed by my research findings and not the most appropriate one but it was hard to take seriously claims about Christians having privilege when I had just discovered that academics are willing to discriminate against them for their religious beliefs.

However, if my reaction was not appropriate, many comments that follow the article are at least as bad. It is fair to say that a great deal of Christian-bashing characterized these comments. Having done race/ethnicity scholarship, I am quite familiar with the discussions surrounding white privilege. Those discussions were usually not opportunities for white bashing but rather were forums to discuss unknown advantages whites have. The difference in reaction is a strong clue that attempts to link Christians to the same majority group status that we do for men and whites are not empirically sound. A more nuanced discussion of the social position of Christians is needed, one that is more sophisticated than my laughter or Christian bashing.

One clarification is necessary before diving more fully into this topic. When we discuss Christian privilege, we generally are discussing the possibility of privilege for conservative Christians. In the context of the culture war, we generally envision conservative Christians as the ones at war with progressive secular individuals. Christian privilege becomes a concern since this privilege may produce an advantage for conservative Christians in the culture war. Thus as I assess the possibility of privilege, I will be looking more at conservative Christians than other subsets in the Christian population.

Looking at Christian privilege helps us to develop some nuance for such a discussion. Some of the claims of Christian privilege simply are not true. For example, the first one is, “You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.” But as a professor, I am legally required to recognize the religious holiday needs of students no matter their religious tradition. I cannot allow a Christian student to miss a test for his/her religious ceremony but force the Muslim or the Jew to take a test on his/her religious holiday. No I will not let a student named Sam take the test off for worshiping the religion of Sam, but for any established religious holiday, a student can get the day off. Neither is it accurate that “It is easy to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books and other media.” I would like to know the last time a conservative Christian was portrayed in the media without the accompanying stereotypes of them being either ignorant, intolerant, or hypocritical. I have little doubt that individuals in other religions perceive themselves misrepresented by the media, but Christians have just as much right as others to have such sentiments. In my unofficial assessment claims from statements 6, 8, 15, 17, 20, 31, 32 and 33 also are not accurate or apply to other religions as well while statements 9, 11, 19, 23, 25, 26, 27, and 29 are only sporadically accurate depending often on where one lives in the United States.

But this is not to say all of the Christian privilege statements are myths. Statement 2 is “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.” Clearly it is easier to find Christmas shows than Hanukah shows on television. Statement 12 is “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” It is noteworthy that all of our Presidents have claimed to be Christians, including the present one. Claiming Christian belief certainly produces political advantages. These advantages are why in the past I have argued that Christians in the United States should avoid talking about being persecuted, although discussion of religious discrimination is clearly appropriate. An accurate assessment of the concept of Christian privilege is that it does operate in some instances but in other situations there is no privilege and there even can be disadvantages in being identified as a conservative Christian.

There are critical differences in white or male privilege when compared to the concept of Christian privilege. For example, it is fairly difficult, although not impossible, to consider ways in which whites or males have disadvantages. It is not that difficult to find institutional disadvantages for Christians. In addition to their potential disadvantages in academia, it is reasonable to assert that media images of Christians, particularly conservative Christians, are not very flattering. In addition to these institutional disadvantages, whites and males have higher levels of SES and educational attainment than people of color and women. The same is not true for Christians. One of the markers of having majority group status is the systematic ability to use that status for material gain. This is clearly not the case as it concerns Christians.

Here is another way to consider the relative status of conservative Christians. A few years ago I published an article indicating that the religious group rejected the most was atheists. The group suffering from the second highest number of rejections is Christian fundamentalists. But those who rejected Christian fundamentalists are more likely to be white, well-educated and male. One way to conceptualize this is that more people reject atheists than conservative Christians but those who reject conservative Christians have more per-capita social power than those rejecting atheists. This does not mean that conservative Christians are constantly at a disadvantage in society. The fact that those with anti-atheist sentiment outnumber those with anti-Christian sentiment indicates the sort of political advantage accounting for the lack of atheists, or other types of nonChristians, in political positions. But the tradeoff of numbers versus per-capita social status does account for the disadvantages Christians have in elite educational organizations. This sort of nuance has to be taken into account as we consider the social place of Christians in the United States.

Are Christians the majority group religion in the United States? Yes, but not in the same manner that whites and males are majority group members. In certain social dimensions, we still see that Christians have advantages of prestige and respect. To be a Christian can be a card one can use to create connection and trust. But it is a huge mistake to assume that Christians have the type of institutional advantages we associate with other majority group members. The creation of the notion of Christian privilege is an attempt to link conservative Christians to the same status as whites and males. Such linking is inappropriate. It also fails to account for sophisticated ways status as a Christian differs from racial and gender status. I do not laugh like I did when I first heard of the concept of Christian Privilege. But I still perceive it misguided in its attempt to link Christian status to racism or sexism. Similar to claims that Christians are being persecuted in the United States, assertions of Christian privilege stifle a sophisticated discussion on the status of Christians in society. In a society where Christians no longer have the type of dominant status they once had, it is important to have accurate assessments of Christian status not devolving into claims of Christian privilege or persecution.

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