In Reaction to the Passing of Proposition 8:
A Conversation of Privilege around Religion and Faith
Zack Ford – November 8, 2008
It is at this point that I wish to discuss two different kinds of privilege that I perceive. They are very much intertwined, and yet I believe it is very important to distinguish them as two separate systems working together. I am going to call these systems “religion” and “faith.” Both of those words mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the sake of this treatise, I am going to specify exactly what I mean and how I am using them, and will rely on those operational definitions consistently.
The first system of privilege is based around religion. By religion, I am referring to the cultures, traditions, holidays, customs, rules and dogmatic beliefs that are specified or enshrined by a unified community. In the United States, it is easy to conclude that Protestant Christianity (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical, etc.) represents the privileged religion. (Catholicism often benefits from this privilege by being under the umbrella of Christianity, but not to quite the same extent.) Using our operational definition of privilege, we see how our society is dominated by, indentified with, and centered on Christianity in this way. Our elected leaders are predominantly Christian. Our calendar identifies with Christian traditions. Christian symbols are very visible throughout our culture. Our society focuses attention on the work and accomplishments of Christian organizations. Many cable channels are dedicated to specifically Christian programming. As a result, all other religious groups are in some way oppressed or provided less power, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and all other major and minor religions, as well as Agnosticism (indifference or indecision towards a religion) and Atheism (without religion).
Last year, we saw a great example of Christian privilege play out here on the Iowa State University campus due to the presence of a cross in the Memorial Union’s chapel. The cross dominated the space and made it less welcoming to other religious groups who wished to use that space. Many resisted its removal or covering, and took offense that it could even represent a problem. Some were quoted as saying things like “Well, like 80% of the campus is Christian, so it should get to stay.” This majoritarian mindset is representative of the greater systemic privilege in our nation, captured by lines like, “We were founded as a Christian nation,” or even, “We are a Christian nation.” The former is quite provably untrue, while the latter unfortunately does accurately represent the privilege Christianity has in our society.
It is important to note that there is a lot of variety within Christianity. As many have pointed out, there are Christians who would not vote in favor of Proposition 8 or other such measures. This is a perfectly valid point. It is not my intent in this treatise to delve into complexities and variation within Christian privilege. I would offer, though, that the system of privilege around Christianity tolerates this variation because it actually amplifies the power of the consistencies that are found throughout Christianity. Consider, as examples, Christian-based holidays (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day), the ubiquitous expectations set forth by the 10 Commandments, or simply the wide distribution of Bibles (like the Gideon’s in every hotel room). Though there is variation within Christianity, its core consistencies still persist as the privileged religious culture in our society.