Invisible Christian Privilege

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I’ve been writing about Christians a lot lately. It seems largely unavoidable, as the influence of Christianity often haunts even the most Pagan of stories. We may be slowly moving into a post-Christian era, and some may question if the United States is really Christian at all nowadays, but the facts on the ground show that the vast majority of Americans (and Britons, Canadians, and Australians) identify as some flavor of Christian. Contrary to the fear-mongering of some about the evils of secularism, Christians still have massive influence on our culture, our economics, and our politics. The terms of debate on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are framed by Christians. When people talk about a “Religious Right” or a “Religious Left” they are usually talking about the political positions of Christians, and it’s only prominent Christians who are defined as presidential “king-makers” in the United States. Yet, despite this wealth of influence and privilege, many Christians define themselves as part of a minority, a persecuted minority at that. One that is in constant danger of being eliminated by its numerous enemies. Conservative columnist George Will noted this persecution complex, finding it “unbecoming because it is unrealistic.”

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has become one of the 10 highest-grossing movies in history […] Christian book sales are booming […]  Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: “Thank you and good night.” It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like “God bless America.”

To many Christians their immense privilege seems invisible. They don’t understand how much of our society panders to their unspoken power. The churches on every corner, the holidays and celebrations structured around Christian dates, the pandering of politicians, the ceremonial deism that acts as a placeholder for state-sponsored religion. Even our vernacular is colored by Christianity: “God bless you,” “we’ll pray for you,” “I’m in heaven,” or even “go to hell.”  Yet despite this, many Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have a major investment in seeing themselves as part of a persecuted minority. This was reinforced for me in the comments section of a recent post at the journalism commentary site Get Religion. There, I was informed that Michele Bachmann was part of a religious minority, and that due to mainstream media criticism “one has to speculate that perhaps Christians are a small minority in the United States.”

Where does this inaccurate perspective come from? How can a group see itself as a minority when it holds so much power? Through constant propaganda that tells them that this is so. Looking back to my Michele Bachmann piece a couple days ago, you can see the modern roots of this propaganda in Francis Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” documentary series.

In that video you see the valorizing of the very early Christian period, heavy on references to persecution for their faith (and the glossing over of the era when the empire was Christianized). In countless Christian sermons and documentaries that period is returned to time and time again. Instead of being used as a reminder to not abuse power, and to not let any minority be persecuted, this narrative has instead mutated for some Christians into a paranoia about a returning “pagan” persecution that they must constantly battle and guard against. For Schaeffer it was the peril of secular humanism, but today it takes many forms. It is the “green dragon” of environmentalism, it is those who want to “take Christ out of Christmas” by saying “happy holidays,” or those who want to stop sectarianism at government meetings, and for a small but increasingly influential network of prayer warriors it is the “demonic” gods of non-Christians, returned again to bedevil and thwart Christ’s return. Whatever the foe, so long as the persecution narrative is sustained.

The persecution narrative, married with invisible (to them) privilege, creates monsters. It melds an “at any cost” mentality of survival and solidarity with vast economic and political power. It leads to bizarre juxtapositions, like a 30,000-plus prayer rally to help launch a politician’s ambitions featuring a fire-and-brimstone sermon talking about a “crisis of truth,” labeling all the world’s religions (except theirs) as false, and urging the crowd to “go public […] regardless of what it costs us” as if though the Christian voice was silenced. As if they were still a small minority hiding in the catacombs of ancient Rome.

If I could ask for only one concession from Christianity as a whole, it would be the acknowledgement that they are not a persecuted minority in the West. That they are, in fact, economically, politically, and culturally powerful. That claims to “minority” status by Christians in North America are constructed on flimsy technicalities or outright distortions of the privilege they currently enjoy. Christianity still dominates religion here, and the Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and indigenous religions enjoy the freedoms we do only because a separation between church and state has been erected. Because in the United States our constitution forbids us becoming an official “Christian” nation.