50.50: Opinion

‘Tolerance’ and ‘religious freedom’ are subtle codes for Christian supremacism

OPINION: Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is most effective when we don’t talk about it

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
8 March 2023, 12.57pm

Exterior wall of a bookstore in Coral Gables, Florida, listing censorship banned books


Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In last week’s column, I drew attention to the role of Christian privilege in shaping debate about the appropriateness of someone like SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes – a member of the hardline Free Church of Scotland – replacing Nicola Sturgeon at the head of the party and the Scottish government.

Forbes’ defenders insist that ‘tolerance’ demands that her sincerely held religious beliefs (she admits, for example, that she would have voted against same-sex marriage had she been an MSP in 2014) should not be considered in assessing her bid for the top spot at Holyrood, no matter how bigoted those beliefs are.

As I noted last week, such a twisted view of ‘tolerance’ bears a striking resemblance to the ‘religious freedom’ rhetoric that the American Christian right has been using and abusing for decades to enshrine a privileged status for conservative Christians in US law. With this, they can roll back rights and carve out ever greater conscience exceptions that allow them to discriminate against those they other, especially members of the LGBTIQ+ community, at the expense of equal accommodation in the public square.

Such arguments replace robust, pro-equality notions of ‘tolerance’ and ‘religious freedom’ with Christian supremacist understandings, depriving religious minorities, the non-religious, and the ‘wrong’ kinds of Christians of a seat at the table. That such rhetorical sleight of hand can gain such traction, not just in the rapidly secularising but still majority-Christian United States but also in a majority non-religious country like Scotland, is illustrative of how pervasive a force Christian privilege remains in both countries (to say nothing of the numerous other parts of the world shaped by Christian cultural hegemony, either via long historical presence or colonisation).

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Christian privilege, which shapes political speech in the US in many ways, isn’t a concept we’re used to discussing very much. That’s why I’m devoting this week’s column to unpacking the concept further. Christian privilege functions in much the same way as white, male, cisgender and straight privilege function: subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) conveying advantages to those who belong to society’s de facto normative category and corollary disadvantages to those who fall outside that category.

How we measure time itself is an example of Christian privilege. The international community largely runs on the Western Christian calendar. Many countries still have variations on ‘blue laws’, meaning businesses might be required to close on Sundays or particular Christian holy days like Good Friday and Easter Monday. Major Christian holidays are usually largely taken for granted in these societies, while members of minority religions often struggle to get their holidays accommodated by their employers.

Whether tastemakers, gatekeepers and creative professionals are conscious of it or not, privilege also shapes representation in media, from books and television to film to newspapers and magazines. Privilege similarly shapes decisions about university admissions and companies’ hiring and promotion decisions.

Efforts to rectify the inequities in these areas through diversity, equity and inclusion schemes often incite the rage of the most privileged. This is the case in Florida, where governor Ron DeSantis, a straight white Catholic man, is actively working to end all consideration of diversity in the state’s universities and workplaces and to ban books from school libraries that might inspire children to challenge our de facto social hierarchy in any way.

Christian privilege also shows up in the way the media represents politicians. For example, Christianity’s reputation is protected by ignoring the pious Catholicism of fascist bully DeSantis while taking every opportunity to play up the similarly pious, yet politically very different Catholicism of US president Joe Biden. This leaves readers with the impression that ‘authentically religious’ Catholic leaders are liberals, or at least not bigots.

When churches or Christian leaders are exposed in yet another abuse scandal or instance of shady political manoeuvering, our widely internalised sense that Christianity, or at least ‘Jesus’s teachings’, must be always and inherently benign leads to knee-jerk defensive responses. These fall into one of several categories: the ‘a few bad apples’ defence, attempts to separate the ‘earthly’ church from the faith, or attempts to separate the scandal from Jesus, the supposed saviour who apparently needs his human fans to regularly ‘save’ him from co-option by those they disagree with.

All of these are expressions of Christian privilege, as is the whataboutism one frequently encounters when criticising any sort of Christian individual, institution, or denomination: ‘What about Islam?’ and ‘Now do Muslims’.

This, of course, has come up in the brouhaha over Kate Forbes, where supporters or sympathisers often raise the issue of rival Humza Yousaf’s Muslim faith, even though Yousaf has a solid record of supporting and defending LGBTIQ rights while Forbes plainly does not.

The point here is not that Islam is perfect or that many Muslim countries are not riddled with severe human rights violations – they are. Both Christianity and Islam are massive cultural systems that incorporate a great deal of diversity, but in Western countries, where Muslims constitute an often mistreated religious minority, Christianity is clearly privileged in a way that simply ‘being religious’ is not.

Christian privilege – along with white, male, and straight privilege – is often deeply internalised, even among people who consider themselves progressive. Atheists are certainly not immune, and I say this as an atheist. In my experience, the whataboutist pointing at Islam pops up frequently among vocal and combative atheists, who tend to take umbrage at the suggestion that they might still in any way be shaped by the Christian culture they were socialised in.

But the strain of secular discourse associated with New Atheism in particular is clearly animated by a colonising impulse derived from European Christianity. The more that secular activists and advocates recognise that ‘Christian atheism’ is a very real phenomenon, the more productively we can work toward a more inclusive kind of secular advocacy – one that doesn’t involve shaming women who have reasons to feel uncomfortable in male-dominated atheist spaces, cheerleading for America’s imperialist wars, or relentlessly attacking a young Muslim boy who was arrested for bringing a clock he built to his Texas school to show his teacher.

Speaking of Christian atheism, as the old joke about Northern Ireland during the Troubles goes, one day, a man who was wandering through Belfast without paying much attention to where he was going suddenly found his path blocked by some rough-looking types. “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” ask the thugs. Trying to get out of the dangerous situation, the man answers, “Actually, I’m an atheist.” “Of course,” comes the reply. “But are you a Protestant atheist, or a Catholic atheist?”

The context of this joke illustrates not only the continuing influence of Christianity on atheists socialised in Christian contexts, but also the fact that Christian privilege is not evenly distributed among all Christians. In the case of Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the more privileged Protestant population dominated the police force and had the backing of the British government. In the US, Protestantism has likewise historically conveyed greater privilege than Catholicism. In the American context, I would also be remiss not to mention that African-American churches – just like mosques and synagogues – are sometimes targeted for right-wing desecration and violence.

Like other privileged identities, Christian privilege is best understood in the context of intersectionality, a term coined by Columbia University law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to highlight how individuals’ experience of the world is shaped by the overlapping and intersections of different aspects of identity, including race, class, gender, sexuality and so on. If we throw religion into the mix, it becomes clear that, in Western societies, Christianity confers benefits not shared by religious minorities and the non-religious. But some Christians benefit more than others, and we need to be cognisant of that when we discuss Christian privilege.

Unjust social systems operate most smoothly when they are assumed and we remain largely unconscious of them, or of possible alternatives. But once they are named and brought into the open, we can begin to see the world in a different way – and to see ways that we might work towards greater equity by dismantling social hierarchies based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and, yes, religion (or lack thereof). Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is most effective when we don’t mention it. And that’s why I intend to keep talking about it whenever the topic is relevant.

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