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How Systemic Religious Oppression Benefits White Christians—and Christians of Color, Too

Every American is impacted by White Christian Privilege—including White Christians but also including Christian communities of color, who are impacted by white supremacy while still benefiting from Christian privilege.

Pastor David Platt prays for President Donald Trump
Pastor David Platt prays for President Donald Trump. (Photo: videograb)

As a candidate and as President, Donald J. Trump stirred the pot of religious and racial discord in the United States. His actions and rhetoric were not a departure from American history; rather, they revealed truths too long ignored. Trump’s caricature of a presidency has shined a spotlight on racial and religious injustice in America, and shown us the United States’ DNA: a double helix of racial and religious oppression that reproduces itself generation after generation.

Trump’s retort to Black Lives Matter protests occurring nationwide in the summer of 2020—holding a Bible aloft to signal his patriotic rejection of American Blacks’ grievances—offered an especially vivid image of how Christianity is wielded in service to political movements. Vivid, but by no means unique. From the antisemitism on display at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville—embodied by the chant “Jews will not replace us”—to almost daily attacks on racial and religious minorities, recent events have renewed a focus on Christianity’s role in abetting white supremacy.

President Donald Trump stands outside St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC
President Trump visits St. John’s Episcopal Church on June 1, 2020. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But if we confine ourselves to a focus on some Christians’ racism, we will miss the far more important and far deeper understandings that could make the current discussion transformative for America. We need to seize this moment not just to combat racism in the church, but to recognize the deep historical entwinement of whiteness and Christianity that shapes America’s national identity. At a time of increasing religious and racial diversity, understanding Christianity’s role not just in the construction of racism but in the construction of whiteness itself is the more inclusive conversation we need to have: a conversation with broader implications for the nation, for its churches, and for the 35-40 percent of Americans who are not White or not Christian, or (like me) are neither White nor Christian.

The United States’ unprecedented religious diversity, more than ever before, reaches from our urban centers to our smallest rural communities. But the mere presence of religious diversity does not enable us to realize the full promise of that diversity—not until we take a hard look at how U.S. society has been constructed in a way to advance and advantage Christians, particularly White Christians, above all others. We can only harness the promise of today by unpacking the entwinement of religion and race throughout U.S. history, acknowledging difficult historical truths, and speaking candidly about our own role in perpetuating social hierarchies.

Exploring Christian privilege in the U.S. requires understanding the symbiosis between race and religion. Christian privilege and Christian normativity are part of the larger construct of white Christian supremacy. From Europe’s encounters with its own Jewish and Muslim minorities to colonial projects in Africa and Asia, religion was central to the construction of race; ideas of religious superiority and “blood purity” were co-created. These ideas were brought to the Western hemisphere, providing rationales for White Christian violence against “heathens”: the displacement of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the ideology of white racial superiority evident in our immigration and citizenship laws. For 400 years, they have shaped the development of U.S. law and social norms. Only after we acknowledge the deep and enduring entwinement of whiteness and Christianity in the marginalization and subjugation of racial and religious others can we really begin the hard work of exploring and repairing Christianity’s role in contemporary social, economic, and environmental injustices.

Seeing Structures of Advantage

When we talk about bias incidents, the focus is usually on the racial or religious minorities who are targets of discrimination: the Black people and institutions targeted with racial violence, the synagogue that has been vandalized, the Sikh men slain in post-9/11 “backlash” attacks, or the Muslim woman who doesn’t get a job because she wears a headscarf. These conversations focus on how racial or religious minorities are at a disadvantage in society. But for every disadvantage to some person or group, there’s an advantage to some other person or group. More succinctly: if there is a “down,” there must be an “up.”

Christian privilege is not just the direct personal experience of religious discrimination, but also a societal web of advantage and disadvantage built up over centuries of U.S. history and still supported by legal and social standards. Click to Tweet

It took decades for the scholarship and popular dialogue on racism to go beyond looking at how Blacks and other people of color are targeted for racial discrimination, and to focus on whiteness and white privilege—the “built-in” advantages Whites enjoy whether they want them or not. In matters of sexism, we have long focused on the challenges women face rather than the structural advantages men enjoy as a result of history and culture. In the same way, understanding religious bias in America requires us to see that the “down” (religious minorities who face discrimination) have a corresponding “up”—Christians, for whom and by whom society has been constructed.

Christian privilege is not just the direct personal experience of religious discrimination, but also a societal web of advantage and disadvantage built up over centuries of U.S. history and still supported by legal and social standards. The Protestant origins of many American laws, public entities, and everyday rituals may be invisible to Christians, whose advantages they incorporate and perpetuate. Major social movements, including the Common Schools movement that was the precursor of U.S. public schools, had religious agendas; the schools’ purpose was not just to teach basic education but also to present the “Protestant ethos” to Catholic and Jewish immigrant children. Today, U.S. schools schedule vacations based on Christian holidays, particularly Christmas and Easter. “Spring break” could be set for any time in March or April, yet is most often made to coincide with Easter on the Western Christian calendar. Likewise, it is rare indeed to find a “winter break” that does not encompass Christmas Day, which is one of 53 federal holidays of Christian origin. The rest are the 52 Sundays that occur in a typical year.

Diwali celebration
(Photo: 🇮🇳Amol Nandiwadekar/Pexels)

Policies like these permit Christian children to accompany their parents to worship and participate in religious observances without missing school or having to make up work. By contrast, countless Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Muslim students, and others, may be forced into the choice between observing a holiday and attending school. Even if the holiday is treated as an “excused absence,” the experience can harm children’s academic achievement and also affect children’s relationship to their family and faith. My cousin was only in middle school when she first asked her parents if she could go to school instead of to the temple, because she didn’t want to miss an assignment. That forced choice was one a Christian student would never have to make. Yet the structural advantages are so ingrained, that Christian teachers and parents often complain about new policies designed to accommodate religious minorities; they forget that the calendar, and other ubiquitous policies like public school cafeterias’ “fish stick Fridays” or “pizza Fridays” during Lent, are themselves long-standing religious accommodations designed solely to advantage the Christian majority.

The Religious Roots of U.S. Racism

To understand how we got here, we must look even further back than 1776 or 1619, to the European conflation of religion and race. Throughout 15th-century Europe, Jews were demonized, vilified, segregated in ghettos, even expelled from some countries. While outcast because they did not accept Christ and were blamed for the crucifixion, Jews could be absorbed into Christian culture if they converted to Christianity. These “conversos”—and, like them, Muslim converts to Christianity known as “Moriscos” (“Little Moors”)—needed to adopt Christian cultural conventions as proof of their genuine worthiness of the privileges only Christians enjoyed. But soon, conversion was not enough and Spain began to require Christians show birth certificates to prove their “blood purity.” Spanish society became preoccupied with determining who was a “crypto-Muslim” or “crypto-Jew” even after conversion, thus beginning a conceptual connection between religion and blood. We see this in the term “Moor,” which was originally a religious identifier; its meaning shifted over time to include racial connotations of brown skin color. Tests of religious purity conflated ideas of blood lineage and biology with religious faith and cultural notions of kinship.

European Christians’ demonization of Jews and Muslims were the precursors of colonial racism in the Americas. For example, we can hear echoes of Spain’s “blood purity” tests in later U.S. racial notions like the “one drop rule,” which imagined anyone with even one drop of African racial heritage to be inferior. By beginning with religious difference, then re-conceptualizing the Christian/non-Christian rivalry in biological or “natural” terms, European Enlightenment thought replaced religion with race as the defining distinction between superior and inferior peoples. Gradually, race was foregrounded as the basis for distinguishing peoples who were also religiously different. New laws made slavery permanent and heritable for Black people, and for the first time the word “White,” rather than “Christian” or “Englishman,” began appearing in colonial statutes. As it had been for Spanish Conversos and Moriscos, even conversion to Christianity solved nothing for enslaved Blacks. They were still considered heathens because they had heathen ancestry that justified their continuing enslavement. Biblical narratives like the “Curse of Ham” were wielded to rationalize and enforce the idea of permanent and heritable servitude.

The Roman Catholic Church also provided express authorization for the dehumanization, conquest, and genocide of indigenous nations by articulating the “Doctrine of Discovery” in a series of 15th-century Papal edicts. The doctrine authorized any Christian monarch who “discovers” territories not already occupied by Christians to lay claim to those territories. These papers supplied legal justification for white Christian supremacy and fueled settler colonialism endeavors, offering religious sanction for military, economic, and cultural domination. This enabled colonists to imagine divine purposes behind their appropriation of Native American lands, villages, and farmlands by conflating religion (Christian versus heathen) with civilization (civilized versus savage), and conflating both with race. The Doctrine of Discovery told arriving Europeans that North America—a continent full of people, nature, and cultures—was in fact empty: it was a wilderness awaiting Christians to possess it.

In the 19th- and 20th-century United States, expressly religious arguments were offered to exclude non-Protestants from immigration and naturalization. Reacting to an influx of European Catholics and Jews to the East Coast and Asian laborers to the West Coast, organizations like the Know-Nothing Party and the Asiatic Exclusion League successfully pressed for restrictions, and later outright bans, on immigration. Chinese and South Asian laborers were called “coolies,” a pejorative term used to connote both servitude and religious difference. Punjabi Sikhs, referred to as “Hindoos,” were exploited as farm laborers, and the Chinese were called “heathens” and “devil-worshippers.” By the late 19th century, the mainstream public dialogue was referring to the “Yellow Peril” and “heathen coolies”—narratives that fed discrimination and sometimes violence, including lynchings, against Chinese in the western U.S. Confronted with the “immorality of the Chinamen and Indians,” American nativists lamented that “these are the races … most difficult to convert to Christianity.” In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law that banned any nationality of people outright from immigrating. And whereas citizenship was extended to emancipated Blacks by the Civil War Amendments of the 1860s, and to some Mexicans by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, most Asians could not become U.S. citizens until 1953.

Chinese Exclusion Act
Editorial cartoon about Chinese exclusion from 1882. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The continued popularity of nativist movements in the early decades of the 20th century led to the adoption in 1917, 1921, and 1924 of immigration rules so restrictive that they functionally closed the United States’ doors to most immigrants other than European Protestants for two generations. These laws aimed to drastically reduce the entry of Southern and Eastern Europeans, and accomplished this goal by indexing foreign countries’ immigration quotas to the number of Americans of that national origin as reported in the 1890 U.S. Census. Instead of relying on more recent Census counts, Congress set out to socially engineer the nation’s demographic profile by indexing post-1924 immigration quotas to the 1890 Census, to preserve and replicate an American demographic profile with far more Protestants, and far fewer Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities.

The First Amendment Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

In my book White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, I set out to make the invisible visible—starting with America’s founding myth of “freedom of religion.” The myth tells us that everyone in the U.S. is free to practice whatever religion they want, whenever and wherever they want. Its underlying story, which we all learned in elementary school, goes something like this: The Puritans, fleeing sectarian religious persecution in England, arrived on American shores to establish a haven of religious freedom. Rejecting the treatment they had received in England, they sought to create a place of religious freedom “for all.” If only this were true. In fact, the Puritans established in the Massachusetts colony a place to practice their religion without fear or persecution, but where non-Puritan practice was forbidden and heresy rooted out.

White privilege and Christian privilege are products of systemic racial and religious oppression; these advantages have been built up over the generations, and members of the majority have these advantages even if they had no role in the historical injustices that created them.

The other American founding myth about religion is articulated in the phrase “separation of church and state.” The phrase expresses a desired Constitutional principle: that in a pluralistic democracy, religious (“church”) and governmental (“state”) authorities do not intersect or interact. In reality, the separation of religion from civic life at local, state, and federal levels in the U.S. has been an optical illusion. Most Americans believe that government is not involved with religion and vice versa; this idea of separation helps maintain the myth that all religions are welcomed and can be practiced freely. In fact, Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” has sometimes been ignored entirely, such as when the federal government funded Christian missionaries as part of its campaign to corral and control Native American populations in the 19th century. The First Amendment’s religion clauses have been interpreted over centuries of Supreme Court decisions, the collective effect of which has been to support free religious practice claims brought by Christian groups, but to restrict free religious practice of religious minorities and atheists. To this day, Christianity shapes what the Court regards as “norms” and “facially neutral” standards, and what society treats as its “moral” questions.

White privilege and Christian privilege are products of systemic racial and religious oppression; these advantages have been built up over the generations, and members of the majority have these advantages even if they had no role in the historical injustices that created them.

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whitewashed

Simply put, the “American way” is actually the Christian way. As a result, religious minorities who want to celebrate a holiday have to put in double the energy: they have to prepare for and celebrate the holiday while also making sure that school assignments, work projects, etc., don’t suffer, because the U.S. calendar goes on while they’re taking “time out” to celebrate. For Christians, the calendar stops for them: Nobody worries about losing their job for not working Christmas Day. Likewise, no one blinks when an elected official takes their oath on a Bible, but it was big news when then-Congressman Keith Ellison took his on the Quran. Gov. Nikki Haley—the daughter of Sikh immigrants—faced such intense questions about whether she could properly represent the people of South Carolina, she revised her campaign web site to emphasize her Christian beliefs. And when my ninth grade English teacher asked the class to give examples of similes and metaphors in the parable of the Good Samaritan, she assumed everyone in the class knew the story. I didn’t.

Every American is impacted by White Christian Privilege—including White Christians but also including Christian communities of color, who are impacted by white supremacy while still benefiting from Christian privilege. Click to Tweet

Intersectional Identities and Christian Privilege

You can see how whiteness and Christianity have come to be not so much conflated as co-existent, like two sides of a wide ribbon: as the ribbon twists through American history, we sometimes see the “religion side” (Christian superiority) while at other times we see the “race side” (white superiority). Yet, whichever side we see, the other side is still there, too—providing deep ideas about the inferiority of some and the superiority of others. Every American is impacted by White Christian Privilege—including White Christians but also including Christian communities of color, who are impacted by white supremacy while still benefiting from Christian privilege. This can be hard to see at times, precisely because it is so difficult to isolate Christian privilege from other structures of social, economic, and legal privilege. The advantages Christians receive are not experienced in isolation; every Christian, and every religious minority, also holds other social identities. Their various origins and histories in the U.S. have given these groups different experiences.

While Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern Christians share many of the advantages of being Christian in America, those advantages may be harder to recognize or acknowledge, especially because of the racial discrimination and violence some groups have also faced. In this respect, their Christianity is often “othered,” just as racial minorities as such are “othered.” We speak of the “Black church,” for example, as shorthand not just for the unique history of African-American Protestant denominations but also for their cultural and rhetorical attributes that differ from the White church. In some cases, it can be difficult for individuals to distinguish religious identity from cultural identity. The identities of Filipino Catholics, Black Protestants, and others, for example, interweave religion and culture in ways that make them virtually impossible to separate. This intimate connection between an advantaged identity (Christian) and a disadvantaged identity (racial minority) can make it difficult for Christians of color to recognize and acknowledge the advantages they do possess. Examining issues of justice intersectionally calls on people to see their advantaged identities along with their disadvantaged identities. People who may be, for example, Black or Korean-American Christians, need to acknowledge their advantage as Christians in America.

Sometimes Christians of color, such as Asian-American and African-American Christians, cannot see their Christian privilege because of the racism they experience. University administrator Mamta Accapadi gives the example of how it is difficult for students of color who are Christian to see the hegemonic place of Christianity in cultural centers on college campuses at Christmas time. Describing conversations between Christian and non-Christian group members about decorating these multicultural spaces for Christmas, Accapadi observed

how our students were able to toggle their dominant and subordinated identities around this conversation of Christian privilege. Essentially, when a student spoke in favor of Christmas, they used their “person of color” identity lens to articulate how Christmas decorations, etc. allowed them to be themselves as a person of color, rather than owning their dominant identity as a Christian person. This way, they did not have to hold themselves accountable for the oppression associated with Christian dominance.

Black man church

To be sure, the Black church has been a wellspring of inspiration, spirituality, community formation, and social justice. But despite that intent and reasoning, bringing religious celebrations into multicultural spaces asserts a privilege and normativity that has an impact on religious minorities. These populations live their faith in these ways, being both privileged in terms of their Christianity and targets of racism as a racial minorities.

Christian privilege is also experienced differently depending on the specific Christian privilege at hand and the way the person of a minority religion is affected. The presence of Christian music and decorations in December, for example, may affect Jewish people differently than it does people of other faiths, because of specific factors—notably the theological disagreement between Christians and Jews on Jesus’ status as the divine messiah. That is not to say that other religious minorities do not have a reaction or an opinion, but the tension that exists between Judaism and Christianity on the question of Jesus’ messianic status does not exist for most other minority religions. As we consider the individual experiences of members of religious minorities, it is critical to consider the intersection of different social identities, including not just race, gender, or immigration status but also factors like generational, socioeconomic, and geographical differences within immigrant and second-generation communities.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In current times, the wounds of racial and religious bias feel especially raw. From the murder of George Floyd, to the racial disparities in how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting American communities, to a bitterly-fought presidential campaign, the year 2020 offered painful examples of the imperfections of our union. This moment is also an opportunity—because one of the first steps toward dismantling privilege is seeing it and developing the language to discuss it. The 45th President gave new voice to old prejudices and, in doing so, laid bare the privilege and violence that undergird so much of the United States’ legal and social structures.

Growing up in suburban Atlanta in the 1980s, I was surrounded by megachurches; I passed roadside marquee boards on the way to and from school every day, all of them reminding me that I needed to accept Jesus. As a little brown-skinned Hindu girl, I knew I felt different, and I got used to feeling inadequate and being bullied in middle and high school. I even knew that my religion was part of what made me different. But still, I didn’t recognize the Christian normativity and privilege that surrounded me. It took my collegiate study of religion, and then a year living abroad as part of a religiously diverse graduate cohort in Jerusalem, to fully understand my childhood experience. I had felt different since the day I stepped into my kindergarten classroom, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I developed the language to name or explain my experiences as a religious and racial minority.

Christians need to develop that critical consciousness too—to recognize all the ways in which the nation and its laws were designed for their advantage, and to see how that enduring advantage marginalizes the rest of us. Click to Tweet

Developing a critical consciousness is a difficult process, both intellectually and emotionally. Grappling with the realities of one’s religious status in a Christian normative nation can prompt a range of emotions, from shame and embarrassment to anger and outrage. Naming the privilege, finding the language that helps express one’s experience, and recognizing that others have shared it, feels liberating and even exhilarating. Many religious minorities have never developed awareness or understanding of how Christian privilege affects them. Like my adolescent self, they feel different, but lack the words and understanding to name their experiences or to see the edifice of Christian privilege that disadvantages and marginalizes them.

Christians need to develop that critical consciousness too—to recognize all the ways in which the nation and its laws were designed for their advantage, and to see how that enduring advantage marginalizes the rest of us. They need to understand that things they regard as important to their identity, and the ways in which those things are endorsed and reproduced in American culture, actually marginalizes and excludes their neighbors, classmates, and colleagues at work. Recognizing their own privilege and seeing the reality behind the optical illusion of American religious equality can be uncomfortable. It’s easy to be dismissive or defensive. Conservative Christians cry out that their religious freedom is being trampled upon because they can’t see the structures and ignore all the exiting accommodations that are already built into the system, and they don’t even recognize that when they say “religious freedom” they’re really talking about a sense of entitlement to enforce their beliefs on other Americans who do not share them. Others look at changes to accommodate religious minorities—like school cafeterias eliminating pork—as “special rights,” while ignoring the fact that long-held traditions like fish stick Fridays are themselves accommodations for Christians.

The fact that Christians had no role in creating the privilege doesn’t absolve them of a responsibility to see and change things in the present day. They need to embrace the discomfort rather than shy away, in order to develop their own vocabulary and identify the places and times when they can be allies and accomplices in creating a more equitable society. Like the experiences of White Christian Privilege, the solutions will not be “one size fits all.” It will differ from place to place, and moment to moment. But recognizing Christian privilege, seeing it in its full scope, and then developing solutions, is the task at hand for America today. How can you make change in your community, so that it’s a more equitable place for all?


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    Written by Khyati Y. Joshi

    Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi is a public intellectual whose social science research and community connections inform policy-makers, educators, and everyday people about race, religion, and immigration in 21st century America.