What I mean when I call Christianity a “privileged class”…

By | February 2, 2013

got privilege 2Here’s a fact about me that I’m sure you don’t know: I don’t watch a lot of movies. This means that I’m woefully behind the times when it comes to movie-related pop culture.

When I occasionally experience a hankering for a good movie, I either consult my trusty library of oldie-but-goody DVDs or I hit up a website like Crackle, where fairly recent titles are available to watch online for free. Tonight, I visited Crackle and found that they’re running The Da Vinci Code– a movie that like Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T., and Pulp Fiction, I’d never seen because (you guessed it) I don’t watch movies.

When I saw the Da Vinci Code listed on Crackle, I remembered that both the book and movie made a stink in the world of conservative Christianity back when they were first released. They were controversial because they bluntly detail a variety of things that most Christians don’t know, like the Vatican’s role in the Crusades, the divine feminine, and that fateful day in 325 C.E. when Jesus became divine.

I watched the movie and thought the story was really great– a mixture of theology, history, and just enough conspiracy theory to make it interesting. I wanted to learn more about the author/screen writer so I YouTubed him and unearthed a really amazing two-part interview which ended with this poignant quote:

The [masonic] ritual of [drinking wine/blood from a skull] is called the fifth libation. It is described in a book by President John Adams…

One of the things I try to do in my book is to show that the symbols of freemasonry are not dark and evil. They have meaning. And [The Da Vinci Code’s main character] Robert Langdon tries to make this point to his students… When his students hear about a masonic ritual and say, “Well, that sounds freaky and strange,” Langdon says:

“There’s this other group, that every week, on the day of the sun, kneels beneath an instrument of torture and consumes ritualistic blood and flesh,” and the students are horrified.

And he points out, “That is Christian communion… Every Sunday, they kneel beneath a crucifix and eat blood–or rather, wine and bread.”

My real hope is [to help people see] that misunderstanding people’s symbols is the root of prejudice.

What?! But Of Course We’re Not Prejudiced! We’re the Majority.
In my last blog post, I wrote that Christianity is a privileged class in our country. There was some disagreement in the comments section concerning whether that’s true, with two commenters remarking that they didn’t understand what I meant by “Christianity is a privileged class…” I wasn’t quite sure how I would clearly communicate what I meant by “privileged” until tonight, when I considered the outrage surrounding The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown’s interview.

Before I give my definition of religious privilege, please consider author Tim Wise’s definition of racial privilege:

White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material (such as greater opportunity in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had the ability to accumulate wealth to a greater extent than persons of color), social (such as presumptions of competence, creditworthiness, law-abidingness, intelligence, etc.) or psychological (such as not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.).

Operationally, white privilege is simply the flipside of discrimination against people of color.

The interesting thing about privilege is that those who enjoy it don’t typically realize they have it. Furthermore, those with privilege have been known to fight like hell to keep it when they’ve believed their status as a privileged class was waning. Those fights don’t usually occur under a banner that says “Let’s protect our privilege!” Instead, they’re sloganized with phrases about “traditional values” and “mainstream morality”.

For Christians in America, religious privilege means boarding an airplane while holding their Bibles in plain view without incurring suspicion. The same isn’t true for people who “look like” Muslims in our country. Christian privilege is also manifested in the power of the Religious Right, which currently has the ear of our nation’s legislature, while Muslim lobbyists are met with in secret by legislators for fear of giving the impression that they might support “Shariah law”.

God in therapyThis brand of privilege goes to the core of what is considered spiritually “normal” in our country, and allows one religion to decide what kinds of prayers will be said at national events, what kinds of stories will be covered in the national media and what kinds of practices will be deemed “pagan”. Privilege is the reason why many Christians will tell you not to enter a Hindu temple because it’s filled with “weird” idols, or not to practice Voo Doo because they incorporate the walking dead into their belief systems– without considering that (as Dan Brown said) when it comes to religion, Christianity’s communion practices, procreating deity and zombified savior are as weird as they come.

Privilege has consequences that extend beyond a country’s major systems. It manifests in our daily lives, and is the reason why a Christian can wear a golden crucifix bearing Jesus’ battered body on a chain to work every day, while an atheist would be advised against bringing anything critical of Christian beliefs to the workplace.

Inherent in religious privilege is a certain attitude– and this attitude is that the religion of those enjoying privilege should be protected from examination, while the religions of others receive less protection. Thus, books and movies like The Da Vinci Code– which (in a round-about way) teach us a few of the historical facts that our churches are afraid to tell us– are picketed rather than celebrated. People who claim that Jesus may not have been divine or that hell isn’t real are labeled quacks. This happens because privilege provides the right to protect one’s own cultural mythology without significant push-back or ridicule from seemingly reasonable peers– no matter how inaccurate, hurtful, or absurd that mythology may be.

So, when I say that Christianity is a “privileged class,” I mean that as a religion, it enjoys some benefits that its counterparts do not enjoy. And as noted in my recent post about same-sex relationships, privilege provides its beneficiaries with the right to oppress those deemed “outsiders.” It makes oppression difficult to squelch because those who are privileged rarely recognize their own errors.

I hope this explains what I meant.

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17 thoughts on “What I mean when I call Christianity a “privileged class”…

  1. Pingback: Let’s Not “Agree to Disagree” | Crystal St. Marie Lewis

  2. Steve Caldwell

    I’ve blogged about this privilege issue for the dominant US religion several years ago:

    “Christian and Non-Christian Unitarian Universalists — Anti-Oppression Implications”

    And in US society, the group that is probably the least-privileged group when discussing religion is the atheist/freethinker group. Even Unitarian Universalists feel free to be dismissive of atheist/freethinker concerns (as one can see in the comments from many UU bloggers):

    “Supporting Atheists As Anti-Oppression Work”

    1. Crystal St. Marie Lewis Post author

      Hi Steve. Thanks for commenting. I agree, the least privileged group in terms of religion are those who assert the nonexistence of God. It’s a shame, because there are some very important things being said in our nation’s greater religious discourse by atheists and agnostics. Thanks for sharing those links. 🙂

  3. barbvaughan

    Crystal, thank you for this. Privilege is difficult to see and sometimes those who have that privilege need our eyes opened in painful ways. But i think the cognitive dissonance is worth it if one is willing to work through it. I think you’ve done a great job capturing Christian privilege and what it looks like.

  4. joannevalentinesimson

    Crystal, this blog is so “right-on.” You’re absolutely correct; the privileged rarely recognize their privilege, and they tend to dislike and fear those they, themselves, have abused, perhaps out of some unconscious fear of retribution, I’m convinced that absolutism of any sort is a reflection of insecurity. Those who are secure in their beliefs rarely need to heap disdain on others who believe differently.

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  6. Anonymous

    ‘Christianity’ here seems largely to focus on Catholicism. Not all Christian denominations believe in transubstantiation, just as it was the Catholic Church that was involved in the Crusades.

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  8. Dave

    This seems like one of the biggest cultural differences between America and Australia (two otherwise quite similar countries) to me. Over here, if anyone is the most privileged, it’s atheists/secularists for sure. If you’re a Christian, Muslim, or anything else, you tend to keep it to yourself and try not to stand out too much. Probably only the Buddhists feel unthreatened, because Buddhism is seen as kind of cool, and tastefully non-committal.

    I think that largely comes down to the different way our countries have evolved. Your country was formed by religious fanatics in an atmosphere of giddy idealism, while ours was formed by convicts and cold-hearted industrialists in an atmosphere of opportunistic pragmatism.

    But in this one area, I think Australia offers a snapshot of the U.S’s future. It’s unlikely that the status quo will remain in the U.S. for long, and it’s only a matter of time before you become more like us. All those moaners on the Christian Right who warn about ‘Christian America’ being under attack are, in a sense, right to do so. Their privilege is slowly slipping away from them, and they can feel it. Whether this is all a big liberal, pinko, satanic conspiracy, or whether it’s just the result of people waking up to conservative Christianity’s uncompelling message and clownish messengers, is of course a matter of interpretation.

    I think that, like you say, part of the problem is that many American Christians can’t see their own privileged status. But I think that the problem is also partly that many of them can. And they don’t hold onto this privilege as someone who scored a lucky seat on a packed train and is reluctant to give it up. They hold onto it bitterly, the way someone holds onto a throne that they feel is about to be usurped.

    Many of the greatest atrocities are those that are committed when the powerful believe that their power comes from a higher place, whether that be Heaven, Pure Blood, Destiny, or some other lofty and nebulous ideal. The strong belief that privilege is *rightfully theirs* is what opens the door for Nazis to massacre non-Aryans, Whites to enslave Blacks, Jews to occupy Arab lands, the U.S. military to bully whomever they please, men to treat women like property, and humans to enslave and torture animals in science labs and factory farms.

    In each above case, both the severity of abuse, and the difficulty of ending it, stem from the fact that the perpetrators believe their superiority to be self-evident. (That’s the great things about things that are self-evident: you don’t have to prove them!)

    That’s certainly the case with many Christians. Whether they see non-Christians as heathens, Satan’s pawns, misguided fools, or simply ‘not-yet-Christians’, the superiority of their standpoint is clear, and to willfully cede that superiority would be to belittle, or even betray, the mission that Christ bestowed upon them.

    And who can blame them. The Bible doesn’t make a compelling case for pluralism and treating everyone’s values and beliefs with equal respect. Though it may frequently ask for humility and compassion towards others, it also frequently trips over its own advice and talks about the special chosen of God, the absolute correctness of Christ’s teachings, and about those who refuse to heed to God’s word as being unworthy enemies of God, unforgivable, and/or needing punishment.

    Eventually, the privelege of American Christians will wane, the same way it has in Australia and much of Europe. The tasteless hijinks and ugly and simplistic theology of conservative Christians will continue to alienate and embarass more and more people, until the priveleged Christian majority will erode into a small, diehard minority. I believe there’s no doubt that this will happen, but I guess the question is: will the process be a relatively uneventful one of gentle erosion and mildening of opinions, or will there be vicious kicking and scratching along the way?

    1. joannevalentinesimson

      Dave, fascinating reply! You may be onto something. We Americans have always viewed ourselves as the ultimate pragmatists, but you Aussies may have one up on us!

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