The Safety of Being a Christian in America, Part Two: Christian Privilege

Recently I addressed the growing myth that American Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.

I’d like to take this a step further by demonstrating that not only are Christians not persecuted, but they are among the most privileged groups in the country.

If the term “privilege” is a problematic one for you, or perhaps a new idea, here is some pre-reading for this blog post. For the sake of our discussion, privilege can be defined as a set of advantages that you never really earned–you just have them by default of some characteristic about you.

Like white people who benefit from their whiteness, or men who benefit from their maleness, Christians benefit from their Christian-ness.

First, I should address a potential objection. Don’t Christians choose to be Christians? Have they therefore done something to earn the advantages that are provided to them? It’s an interesting argument and worth thinking about. However, in America, being a Christian is sort of the default. If we’re not limiting Christian to the definitions that are debated between various denominations and sects of the faith, then surely we can at least agree that culturally, “Christian” has a significantly broader definition than the ones declared by specific dogmas.

Many Christians don’t choose to be Christian at all–they grow up in a Christian environment and accept the messages they have been told by parents and teachers and spiritual advisors.

American flag with a cross superimposed; Text reads "The Safety of Being Christian in America, Part Two: Christian Privilege"

Privilege can be very hard to see for the person who holds it. Often it has to be recognized and challenged. I asked my Facebook fans/friends to help me list ways in which Christians experience privilege. Those who chimed in were from a variety of religious and irreligious persuasions, and the list is somewhat daunting. Here are some of the most blatant examples of Christian privilege. Most of the phrasing comes directly from their comments.

  • Countless respected historical figures in America ascribed to Christian doctrine, which makes it is incredibly easy for a Christian to find figures in historical textbooks that have beliefs that mirror their own.
  • If a Christian visits a chapel in a hospital, it is going to look familiar to them, like something that they know from the traditions of their faith.
  • The Christian deity, Jesus Christ, is almost uniformly respected and loved by believers and non-believers alike.
  • No matter where they go in America they can easily find a place of worship and a community of like-minded individuals; not all cities have synagogues, mosques, or congregations of other faiths.
  • Federal holiday for Christmas. Many businesses also take a holiday for Good Friday and/or Easter as well.
  • School vacations that coincide with their religious holidays.
  • It’s interesting that some forms still refer to a person’s first name as their “Christian” name.
  • I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was a kid we always had meatless school lunches on Fridays, in deference to the Catholics.
  • Having to use personal time for non-Christian holidays, but losing pay (for hourly employees) on Christian holidays.
  • Christmas stamps! Yes, there are Hannukah stamps, Eid stamps and Kwanzaa stamps, but there are always TWO kinds of Christmas stamps and there are new designs every year, whereas there are not always new designs for other holidays.
  • If you follow a religion with dietary restrictions, the foods you need can be hard to find (example of lack of privilege). Christians are much less likely to be hassled about converting or accused of having false beliefs (though Catholics may get some grief on that count in some places).
  • Blue laws that favor Christian holidays.
  • Constant validation of your beliefs by the media, pop culture, politicians…
  • McDonald’s and other restaurants prominently feature fish items during Lent and often on sale.
  • Having to explain basic tenets of your religion, while it’s assumed everyone knows everything about Christianity.
  • If there is a prayer or blessing at a school graduation or public event, even if it is non-denominational, it’s most likely to be led by a Christian.
  • People are sworn in on a Bible in court.
  • Seven U.S. states ban people who don’t believe in god from serving in public office.
  • It’s assumed that everyone else is Christian, which leads to a lot of ugly baby gifts that don’t reflect your family beliefs.
  • Courthouses and schools (used to) post the Ten Commandments.
  • “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency and everywhere else.
  • Lots of crossword puzzle answers depend on knowledge of the Bible; I don’t come across many from the scriptures of other traditions.
  • “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It doesn’t specify which god but it leaves out people who don’t believe in gods.
  • Sunday is not a work day, no mail, many businesses closed.
  • Many schools (at least in towns and small cities throughout the Midwest) honor Wednesday evenings as “church night” by limiting after-school activities and programs.
  • Grocery stores put ham and other “traditional” foods on sale at Christmas and Easter.
  • Stores even close on Easter around here, and Sunday store hours are typically shorter. Strangers and acquaintances alike will wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, etc., because the assumption is that you’re Christian.
  • Christian religious symbols are everywhere–on buildings, churches, memorial plaques, the backs of semi trucks, billboards, menus, etc.
  • You can say things like “Thank the Lord” or “God Willing” without anyone batting an eyelid, while if you say “inshallah” people act like you are summoning a demon.
  • If you as a woman adhere to what is commonly prescribed as a biblically “modest” way of dressing you will at the very worst be described as conservative, while your Muslim or Jewish counterparts would be considered tragically oppressed by their menfolk devoid of agency for covering their hair/body.
  • When people learn of your religion, they don’t automatically assume that you are evil or a terrorist.

With a list like this, it’s hard to imagine any Christian claiming to be persecuted in America.

The question is: What do we do with this privilege?

If you are a Christian, and you recognize that you have privilege, what are you supposed to do next? After all, having privilege isn’t an innately bad thing. Because it’s something that a person just has, it’s unnecessary to pass judgment on someone simply for having privilege. The problems arise when people don’t know what privilege is, or are unwilling to acknowledge that it’s real once it’s pointed out to them.

The steps for Christians who want to recognize their privilege are the same as folks who are recognizing any other privilege. Useful steps are explored in the article I linked to at the beginning of the post. Summarized, they are:

  1. Learn what privilege means.
  2. Accept that you have it.
  3. Work toward understanding that privilege.
  4. Revise your language and vocabulary to be inclusive, respectful, and equal.
  5. Respect that you are not a minority, and that means there are certain spaces where you are excluded.
  6. Don’t treat those who are outside of your area of privilege as “the other.”

In order to recognize my own privilege as a Christian, here’s what I try to do:

  • I recognize that I benefit from the fact that I am both culturally and religiously a Christian.
  • I recognize that religious minorities do not have the same privileges that I have and their experiences likely do not match mine.
  • When I interact with people from religious minorities (and that includes atheists), I recognize that there is a good chance that they have been hurt, mistreated, or disenfranchised by people who hold beliefs similar to mine. This knowledge should determine the way I proceed in any conversation.
  • I refuse to view people who hold religious believes that are in “opposition” to mine as either enemies or idiots, even though that is a message I witness being sent out by Christians on a regular basis.
  • I challenge the myth of the persecuted American Christian where I see it.

Perhaps, if you are a Christian, you may be willing to join me in these goals. Join me in recognizing that as Christians, we are basically the safest group in America. We have the benefits of a society that celebrates our religion, a country that permits us religious freedom in every way imaginable, and a history that benefits us. There isn’t a way to collectively relinquish the safety of our privileged position in American culture, but I believe we can do so much more to ensure that others eventually have these same privileges.

This article first appeared on Liz Boltz Ranfeld.

4 replies on “The Safety of Being a Christian in America, Part Two: Christian Privilege”

“When I interact with people from religious minorities (and that includes atheists), I recognize that there is a good chance that they have been hurt, mistreated, or disenfranchised by people who hold beliefs similar to mine. This knowledge should determine the way I proceed in any conversation.”

I always tell myself this whenever I see an anti-religion Facebook posting or news blurb or blog posting. I have to remind myself what it was like for that person. It might be anger and frustration from being a religion (or non-religious) minority. I openly admit and call out people in my own faith when they are being oppressive or offensive and yet it hurts when a non-Christian does it. I admit that I have religious privilege and I just need to suck it up and continue speaking out against actual religious oppression when I see it.

Thank you so much for this series. I’m a Unitarian Universalist whose religious beliefs (when I bother to think about them) fall somewhere between humanism, atheism, and paganism. I grew up in a small town, and it actually took me till my teen years to stop Christian bashing, just because I spent so much time being told I was a heathen, that I was going to hell, that I was just flat-out wrong, etc. etc. Fortunately, I grew out of that, with the help of a lot of really wonderful Christians in my life. But it still drives me crazy that people assume I don’t have morals because I don’t believe in God, or give me a pitying look when I tell them I’m a UU. And the whole “Christians are persecuted” thing drives me BATTY. I just really appreciate someone who can simultaneously remind me that Christianity can be really wonderful and lead people to great good (not that I need much reminding these days, but still) but also look at it from a perspective of privilege and power, and understand the complicated religious dynamics in this country.

Anyways, I ramble, but what I really want to say is just thank you and great job.

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