A Christian Response to Christian Privilege

In an interdisciplinary class I recently submitted a paper: “A Christian Response to Christian Privilege.” I’ve decided to post some of my key points in a blog post as a resource for Christian students and university parachurch leaders.

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Critical theory — which includes feminism, critical race theory, post-colonialism, and queer theory — is increasingly mainstream at most universities. “Microaggression,” “appropriation,” and “check your privilege” have become common parlance on campuses, social media, and click-generator websites like Huffington Post, Mic, Salon, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. It’s no longer optional for thoughtful Christians to engage with these ideas.  Overall, I believe critical theory has helpful things to say, needs to be taken seriously by Christians, and can even help articulate the brokenness of the world around us and point humanity toward our need for the Gospel. At the same time, it’s important for Christians to understand the limitations of critical theory and ways we can’t agree with some presuppositions or end goals. Those, however, are for another blog post or paper.

Thoughtful evangelical Christians have critically engaged with feminism, postcolonialism, critical race theory, and to a lesser extent queer theory. Deconstruction of Christian privilege and hegemony is a bit newer. However, it has already appeared in several significant academic journals, in a few books and essay collections and one widely shared click-bait blog post. Christian privilege is also a standard topic covered in textbooks on privilege used in introductory college classes in ethnic and gender studies and diversity in educational theory. Such courses are frequently required for graduation from many universities. I could not find any books, journal, or magazine articles from an evangelical Christian perspective addressing Christian privilege; the closest thing I could find was a fairly brief blog post by sociologist (and InterVarsity Press author) George Yancey where he interacts only with a click-bait post. Yancey makes some good observations but I believe he misses the point that more thoughtful critics of Christian privilege are trying to make with regard to culture. He mistakenly interprets these critiques as applying only to conservative Christianity.

I believe evangelical Christians need to interact with the broader idea of Christian privilege; as critical theory becomes increasingly influential, I have seen Christians experience paralysis or guilt in their faith because of its associations with privilege and oppression. After interacting with writing on Christian privilege by sociologist Lori Beaman and education scholar Warren Blumenfeld, I’ve concluded:

Christian privilege exists in Western society. However, it applies primarily to cultural Christianity and is highly intersectional with white, Western, male privilege. Additionally, Christian privilege confers significantly fewer advantages than, say, socio-economic status, race, nationality, and gender. Nominal Christians — people who identify as Christian but are not necessarily personally committed or regularly attending church — constitute the single largest religious group in North America. Cultural Christian privilege exists. Some examples:

  • Cultural Christians in the West — whether devout or nominal — can expect to celebrate their major holidays without conflicting with work and school and without being seen as strange or exotic.
  • Nearly every head-of-state in Western countries has identified as Christian to some extent.
  • In Western countries, no Christian would ever fear being deported or banned from a country on the basis of their religious affiliation alone. Cultural Christianity has been a factor in the oppression of indigenous peoples. Christian privilege makes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and followers of other religions less welcome and sometimes harmed or threatened in Western societies. Hate crimes are rarely if ever committed against Christians in the West based on their religious identity; unfortunately that is not true of other faiths, though race has often also been a factor.

Christian privilege, thus, this is deeply interconnected with white, Western privilege and scarcely functions as a means of oppression without them. Both Richard Dawkins and Donald Trump have arguably higher or similar levels of “Christian privilege” as me, an Asian American in full-time evangelical ministry. Dawkins is a prominent atheist who nonetheless concedes he is “culturally Christian,” and Trump is a thrice-married businessman who vaguely identifies as Presbyterian while publicly professing heresy. Committed, evangelical Christianity still provides some advantages such as social capital, access to institutions and organizations, and cultural influence.2 While cultural influence has been declining, it’s also arguable it was never that great or was somewhat disproportional and exaggerated in the first place. In any case, these are hardly on the level of systemic privilege that can be directly used for oppression or structural socio-economic advantage aside from the occasional Prosperity preacher. 3

Here is how I believe we as Christians should respond to the idea of Christian privilege:

  1. Christians in the West — whether nominal, devout, or anywhere in between — must acknowledge our Christian privilege in a non-defensive, non-dismissive manner. However, we must clarify that it primarily applies to cultural Christianity and its high level of intersection with other forms of privilege, especially white, Western privilege.
  2. Evangelical Christianity must continue embracing and celebrating its globalization and racial diversity. We must actively empower our non-Western and non-white voices that actually constitute our global majority.4
  3. Christians in Western societies must avoid crying “persecution!” even as some forms of influence appear to diminish. Evangelical, churchgoing Christians were never a majority in the United States and Canada even though to our detriment we have at times acted like one. Such cries also demean Christians outside of the West who face actual persecution, with whom we must stand in solidarity.
  4. Evangelical Christians in the West must acknowledge Christian privilege but cannot be ashamed or paralyzed by it. Rather, we must use our voice, influence, and institutions to advocate for the oppressed. We must actively show hospitality as allies to those of minority religious groups in the West and persecuted minority religious groups worldwide.
  5. With devout Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, and practitioners of Judaism and other faiths, evangelical Christians can together seek to protect each others’ space for religious expression in a pluralistic society. Finding beauty, goodness, and common cause with other religions does not necessarily mean compromising unique convictions or faith tenets. While we should never be shy to share about our faith with anyone, especially when asked, evangelical Christians in the West can especially focus evangelistic efforts toward the secular, nominal, and religiously unaffiliated.
  6. Evangelical Christians should also remember, celebrate, and continue Christianity’s leading role in movements like women’s suffrage, the Progressive Era, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the Civil Rights movementhealing from apartheid in South Africa and the very idea that all humans are of inherently equal worth and should be treated as such.
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4 thoughts on “A Christian Response to Christian Privilege

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  1. Thank you for sharing some of your paper. Your thesis statement is intriguing I’d like to hear more about your thoughts regarding Christian privilege having less advantage in the “western world” than other markers.

    1. Heya Leya. Thanks for your comment and question! I’m mostly going off Yancey’s post saying that structural privilege usually has to be usable for socio-economic gain. I’d further add that in order for Christian privilege to be used oppressively, it would need to be combined with other forms of structural privilege. e.g., it doesn’t make as much sense for a non-white Christian in America to tell a Muslim or Hindu “GET OUT OF MY COUNTRY!”

      1. It would be interesting to see if there has been any sociologic research done on the sentiment of perceived outsiders by working class communities of color that have some generational roots in the U.S.

    2. Oh yeah definitely. This doesn’t pertain directly to religion or class but there was a study maybe 4-8 years ago at Cornell with Asian Americans where they surveyed the political attitudes of a pretty large sample size with generational and possibly socio-economic diversity. The study wasn’t really interested in the political attitudes; they intentionally exposed one group to a few common perpetual-foreigner microaggressions (e.g., “your English is very fluent,” “where are you from? No, where are you really from?”) before asking about their political attitudes. The result was that the group exposed to these shifted substantially more liberal and pro-immigration than the control group. My takeaway (and I think one of the conclusions from the study) was that there is a high degree of tenuousness to how “American” an Asian American feels even if their family has been American for several generations. Also, if anything the strong possibility that their sample skewed toward the socio-economically privileged (very common with university psychology studies, especially at an Ivy League school) it even moreso indicates how tenuous this status us.

      A common anecdote I share that may be more reflective of disadvantaged SES backgrounds is that when we would hand out NSO cards at UW-Madison with check boxes for IV groups they were interested in, a really high number of Hmong American students would check “international students,” and upon asking a bit it became clear that many do not consider themselves “American.”

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