I’ve been thinking a lot of late about religious privilege in this country. And this is a tricky subject to write about, because it’s a very nuanced and complex issue. My goal here is not to raise anyone’s hackles or to make anyone feel picked on, and it’s worth a reminder that recognizing privilege is not an attack or a condemnation. If you are in a position of privilege, it is not your fault, and people do not blame you for it. (For example, I have white privilege. That is not my fault. But I can recognize it and ask myself what I can do about it, and I can respect people who lack white privilege when they ask me to check my privilege.) Privilege is the result of social structure, which means that discussions about privilege are discussions about society, not about individuals who have privilege.
Because, being Christian in this country? That is religious privilege. Indeed, having any religion at all privileges you over atheists and agnostics. This is not to say that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc do not face discrimination, prejudice, and other problems. Muslims in particular are demonized in the United States. But it is to say that the very structure of our society privileges Christianity and Christians, even if it does not always feel this way to Christians.
Christians are privileged because of what this country is. We were founded by religious dissidents, but Christian values have always been very centered in American society. Despite supposedly having a separate church and state and a secular society, Christian beliefs and doctrine are enshrined in the law. They are printed on our money, even! Our money assumes that there is a God, and that we trust Him.
The default assumption in this country is that someone unknown to you is probably a Christian. Maybe not necessarily a faithful going to church every week kind of Christian, but the sort of Christian who identifies as Christian, who may attend services occasionally, who will marry (because we assume that everyone plans to marry, don’t we?) in a church. This is a mechanism of privilege; much as people often assume that everyone on the Internet is a white American, Christian Americans tend to assume that everyone is Christian.
Again, this is a function of the social structure of privilege. Assuming that unknown people are probably like you is not necessarily a negative trait, and in fact it’s kind of hardwired in the human brain. Once you start recognizing privilege, though, you can start to think about the ways in which it operates in your own life and you can start to challenge social structures like this.
And this brings me to the issue of personal and political identity and actions. I am, at best, an agnostic, and usually an atheist. I do not believe in a higher power, I do not believe that we are here for a reason, I do not believe that there is a higher purpose to all of this. These are my personal beliefs. I do not intend to press them on others, and I respect people with differing beliefs, because I see no reason to police personal expressions of faith (or nonfaith). I also do not make assumptions about the faith of people I do not know, or the faith of people I do know if they haven’t expressed any indications about their faith to me.
I have a fair number of friends who are among the faithful, and I respect their beliefs. I try to avoid blaspheming their religion around them, I try to remain respectful of the values they have which are rooted in faith. When they say that they will pray for me or ask God/Goddess/deities/spirits/ancestors to intercede on my behalf or to watch over me, I accept with grace. Because I respect their intent, and I believe that they believe that their actions are doing something good for me (and, in a way, they are, under my belief system, because I think that looking out for others and thinking of others is a good action, ethically speaking). I don’t see any need or reason to shit all over that. I just don’t. I think that we, as humans, owe each other some basic respect and decency, and that means that when someone says “God bless you,” I say “thank you.” When someone says “we will think of you at the Coven tonight,” I say “thank you.”
When someone tries to force their faith on me, that’s another story. But I’m not going to get into that, for the moment, because the primary idea that I am driving at here is that I think it behooves us to respect faith and faith-based values, even when we disagree with them. As long as no one is forcing values on me, I see no reason to get uppity. You can genuinely believe in your heart that people like me are going to hell, and that’s fine and dandy. You can genuinely believe that waving some incense over me will heal me, and I respect that too.
Because this is personal. It’s about interpersonal reactions. People invoke their faith for me because they believe that this is a right action, indeed, an action which may be required of them as part of their faith, to watch out for others and to pray for others. I don’t need to believe what they believe to recognize what they are doing and to respect it.
But this becomes more complicated on the political stage. It makes me deeply uncomfortable that Congress has a prayer session before it starts. It upsets me that the President concludes speeches with “God bless America,” that “a just and righteous God” is invoked in political speeches. It infuriates me that God is on my money, in my schools, in my courtrooms. Because this is not a personal expression of faith, it is a political and social one, and it is oppressive.
I know, I know, Christian readers. You’re seething right now. “Oppressive?!” you say.
But let’s put this in perspective: If we had an atheist President who refused to invoke God in speechmaking, you would be upset. If Congress held an animal sacrifice at the start of every session, you would be upset. If people were required to swear on the Qu’ran when stepping up to the witness stand, you would be upset. You would argue that these were situations in which the values, practices, and beliefs of one faith were being privileged over others, and you would be upset by it, and you would have a right to be. Because this is oppressive.
To be secular, to be truly secular, religion needs to not come up at all in politics, in government, in our legal system. The government needs to get out of the marriage business. People need something other than a Bible to swear upon[2. I am aware that people of other faiths are allowed to use their own religious texts, but this skirts the larger issue; what do atheists swear on? What do agnostics swear on? What do people who do not have religious texts swear on?]. Faith needs to be restored to what it is, which is a private and personal act. If the President visited me on my deathbed and said “God bless you,” or expressed an indication that he thought I was going to heaven, I would not be upset at all. Because that would be, again, a personal expression of faith, an interaction between two people in which one person thinks well of the other and wants to do the right thing according to his beliefs.
I have tremendous respect for faith, or the lack of it, and all the forms that it takes. And I think that nothing should ever be done to infringe upon the personal expression of faith (unless your faith requires you to do harm to others, in which case I have a problem with it). But the political expression of faith? It needs to stop. We need to live up to our claim of being a secular society and actually be a secular society, for the good of all.