Christian privilege

Christian privilege is any of several advantages bestowed upon Christians in some societies. This arises out of the presumption that Christian belief is a social norm, that leads to the marginalization of the nonreligious and members of other religions through institutional religious discrimination and/or religious persecution. Christian privilege can also lead to the neglect of outsiders' cultural heritage and religious practices.[1]


Christian privilege is a type of dominant group privilege where the unconscious or conscious attitudes and beliefs of Christians advantage Christians over non-Christians.[2] Examples include opinions that non-Christian beliefs are inferior or dangerous, or that those that adhere to non-Christian beliefs are amoral, immoral, sinful, or misguided. Such prejudices pervade established social institutions, are reinforced by the broader American society, and have evolved as part of its history.[3]

Lewis Z. Schlosser[4] observes that the exposure of Christian privilege breaks a "sacred taboo", and that "both subtle and obvious pressures exist to ensure that these privileges continue to be in the sole domain of Christians. This process is quite similar to the way in which whites and males continue to (consciously and unconsciously) ensure the privilege of their racial and gender groups".[4]:p.47

There is a hierarchy of Christian privilege in the United States. White mainstream Protestant denominations have greater degrees of privilege than minority Christian denominations. Such groups include African American churches, Christian Hispanics and Latinos, Amish people, Mennonite, Quakers, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Christian scientists, Mormons, and in some instances, Catholics.[1]

When the dominant Christian groups impose their cultural norms, values, and perspectives on people with different beliefs, those people are oppressed.[2] These values are imposed "on institutions by individuals and on individuals by institutions".[2]:p.19 These social and cultural values define ideas of good and evil, health and sickness, normality and deviancy, and how one should live one's life. The dominant group's social values serve to justify and rationalize social oppression, while the dominant group members may not be aware of the ways in which they are privileged because of their own social identity;[3] "unpacking" McIntosh's allegorical knapsack of privilege (of any kind) is to become aware of and to develop critical consciousness of its existence and how it impacts the daily lives of both those with and those without this privilege.[3]


Alexis de Tocqueville the French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831–1832, conducting research for his book Democracy in America. He noted a paradox of religion in the U.S. On the one hand, the United States promoted itself around the world as a country that valued both the "separation of church and state", and religious freedom and tolerance. On the other hand, "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America".[5]:pp.303–304 He explained this paradox by proposing that with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, Christian denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government did not support Christian churches as such, Tocqueville argued that religion should be considered the first political institution because of the enormous influence that churches had on the political process.[5]

Although de Tocqueville favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its limiting of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the "tyranny of the majority".[5] Without specific guarantees of minority rights—in this case minority religious rights—there is a danger of religious domination over religious minorities and non-believers.[3] The religious majority in the U.S. has historically been adherents of mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often assume that their values and standard apply equally to others.

Another traveler to the United States, social theorist Gunnar Myrdal[6] examined U.S. society following World War II, and he noted a contradiction, which he termed "an American dilemma". He found an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging of white people, and the subordination of peoples of color. This contradiction has been reframed for contemporary consideration by the religious scholar, Diana Eck:

"The new American dilemma is real religious pluralism, and it poses challenges to America's Christian churches that are as difficult and divisive as those of race. Today, the invocation of a Christian America takes on a new set of tensions as our population of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist neighbors grows. The ideal of a Christian America stands in contradiction to the spirit, if not the letter, of America's foundational principle of religious freedom"[7]

Christian hegemony

The concept of hegemony[8] describes the ways in which a dominant group, in this case mainly U.S. Protestant Christians, disseminate their dominant social constructions as common sense, normative, or even universal, even though most of the world's inhabitants are not Christian.[9] Christian hegemony also accepts Christianity as part of the natural order, even at times by those who are marginalized, disempowered, or rendered invisible by it.[10] Thus, Christian hegemony helps to maintain the marginality of other religions and beliefs. According to Beaman,[11] "the binary opposition of sameness/difference is reflected in Protestant/minority religion in which mainstream Protestantism is representative of the 'normal'".[11]:p.321

The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, described how a dominant-group's hegemony is advanced through "discourses".[12] Discourses include the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. According to Foucault, dominant-group discourses pervade networks of social and political control, which he called "regimes of truth",[12]:p.133 and which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth.


Christian privilege at the individual level occurs in proselytizing to convert or reconvert non-Christians to Christianity.[3] While many Christians view proselytizing as offering the gift of Jesus to the non-Christians, non-believers and people of other faiths may view this as an imposition, manipulation, or oppression.[4]

Social institutions—including but not limited to educational, governmental, and religious bodies—often maintain and perpetuate policies that explicitly or implicitly privilege and promote some groups while limiting access, excluding, or rendering invisible other groups based on social identity and social status.[2]

Overt forms of oppression, when a dominant group tyrannizes a subordinate group, for example, apartheid, slavery and ethnic cleansing, are obvious. However, dominant group privilege is not as obvious, especially to members of dominant groups.[3] Oppression in its fullest sense refers to structural or systemic constraints imposed on groups, even within constitutional democracies, and its "causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules".[13]

Christian dominance is facilitated by its relative invisibility, and because of this invisibility, it is not analyzed, scrutinized, or confronted.[3] Dominance is perceived as unremarkable or "normal". For example, some symbolism and rituals associated with religious holidays may appear to be free of religion. However, this very secularization can fortify Christian privilege and perpetuate Christian hegemony by making it harder to recognize and thus circumvent the constitutional requirements for the separation of religion and government.[3]

Christian privilege and religious oppression exist in a symbiotic relationship. Oppression toward non-Christians gives rise to Christian privilege, and Christian privilege maintains oppression toward non-Christian individuals and faith communities.[3]


According to Schlosser,[4] many Christians reject the notion that they have any privilege by claiming that all religions are essentially the same. Thus, they have no more and no fewer benefits accorded to them than members of other faith communities. Blumenfeld[3] notes the objections that some of his university students raise when discussing Christian privilege as connected with the celebration of Christian holidays. The students, he notes, state that many of the celebrations and decorations have nothing to do with religion as such, and do not represent Christianity, but are rather part of American culture—however, this could be considered a further example of privilege.

Similarly, some claim that the religious significance of cultural practices stems not from Christianity, but rather from a Judeo-Christian tradition. Beaman argues that "this obscures the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism in the modern world".[11]:322

Some claim that the concept of Christian Privilege is a misnomer. James Madison, in his first significant public act, objected to the use of "toleration" in the article, believing that it implied that religious liberty was a grant from the state that could be revoked at will. The Virginia Convention agreed, and Article XVI was amended to make it clear that "the free exercise of religion" is a right, not a privilege granted by the state.[14] Mark David Hall, Ph.D., argues, "The Founders of the United States believed it permissible for the national and state governments to encourage Christianity, but this may no longer be prudential in our increasingly pluralistic country. Yet the Constitution does not mandate a secular polity, and we should be wary of jurists, politicians, and academics who would strip religion from the public square. We should certainly reject arguments that America's Founders intended the First Amendment to prohibit neutral programs that support faith-based social service agencies, religious schools, and the like."[15]

Scholars and jurists debate the exact scope of religious liberty protected by the First Amendment. For instance, it is unclear whether the amendment requires religious minorities to be exempted from neutral laws. (For example, does the Free Exercise Clause require Congress to exempt religious pacifists from conscription into the military?) But at a minimum, it prohibits Congress from, in the words of James Madison, compelling "men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience".[16]

See also


  1. 1 2 Blumenfeld, W. J. (2006). "Christian privilege and the promotion of "secular" and not-so "secular" mainline Christianity in public schooling and in the larger society". Equity and Excellence in Education. 39 (3): 195–210. doi:10.1080/10665680600788024.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Hardiman, R.; Jackson, B. (1997). "Conceptual foundations for social justice courses". In Adams, M.; Bell, L. A.; Griffin, P. Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge. pp. 16–29.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Blumenfeld, W. J.; Joshi, K. Y.; Fairchild, E. E., eds. (2009). Investigating Christian privilege and religious oppression in the United States. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). "Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo". Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 31 (1): 44–51. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2003.tb00530.x.
  5. 1 2 3 de Tocqueville, A. (1956) [1840]. Democracy in America. New York: The New American Library.
  6. Myrdal, Gunnar (1962). An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (Twentieth Anniversary ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  7. Eck, Diane (2001). A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" has become the world’s most religiously diverse nation. New York:: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 46.
  8. Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. Trans. Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith. New York: International.
  9. Smith, D. J.; Harter, P. M. (2002). If the world were a village: A book about the world’s people. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  10. Tong, R. (1989). Feminist thought: A comprehensive introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  11. 1 2 3 Beaman, L. G. (2003). "The myth of pluralism, diversity, and vigor: The constitutional privilege of Protestantism in the United States and Canada". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 42 (3): 311–325. doi:10.1111/1468-5906.00183.
  12. 1 2 Foucault, Michel (1980). The history of sexuality, Part 1. Trans. R. Hurley. New York: Vintage Books.
  13. Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  14. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, The Founders on God and Government (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) (containing essays about George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Witherspoon, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, George Mason, and Daniel and Charles Carroll); Dreisbach, Hall, and Morrison, The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) (containing essays about Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Paine, Edmund Randolph, Benjamin Rush, Roger Sherman, and Mercy Otis Warren); Dreisbach and Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic (containing eight thematic essays and profiles of John Dickinson, Isaac Backus, John Leland, Elias Boudinot, Gouverneur Morris, and John Hancock); Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights (a massive collection of primary source documents on religious liberty and church–state relations in the Founding era). See also John E. O'Connor, William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745–1806 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), and Marc M. Arkin, "Regionalism and the Religion Clauses: The Contribution on Fisher Ames," Buffalo Law Review, Vol.47 (Spring 1999), pp. 763–828., p. 241.
  15. Did America Have a Christian Founding?,
  16. Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, p. 427.

External links

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