A few months ago, when I was teaching Sociology of Religion at Rice University, the topic of Ted Cruz and Christian privilege came up in our classroom. In response to questions about his commitment to conservatism, Cruz stated: “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican forth. I’ll tell ya, there are a whole lot of people in this country that feel exactly the same way”.
Cruz is probably right. A lot of Christians in the United States probably do define themselves as Christians first and Americans second. There’s nothing really wrong with that. Certainly, I’ve no problem with the order of these classifications, but I do take issue with the fact that nobody called out Cruz for being a potential extremist or threat to religious pluralism. Why didn’t any Americans take up these points? How would Americans react if Cruz followed another religion? What if he was a Muslim?
Cruz was able to skate away – unharmed – because he’s Christian. It’s that simple. That’s because in the United States, Christianity equals privilege. In the hierarchy of religions, it rests comfortably at the top, with no competition in sight. This is why it’s absurd – actually, totally and utterly absurd – for Christian Americans to say “there’s a war on Christianity in America”. These Americans need to check their privilege. This article can help them do that.
The lawmakers of the United States are overwhelming Christian. As the Huffington Post reports, nearly 92 percent of the House and Senate are Christian, compared to 73 percent of American adults, according to an analysis by Pew Forum. Of the Christian Congress members, 57 percent are Protestant, while 30 percent are Catholic. America is unofficially run by people of the Christian faith. That’s what these figures show. That’s relatively straight forward.
To be honest, I’ve never once thought to myself, “It’s hard being a Christian in America”. I know that I can worship at Mass freely, without fear of violence or threats from people. This kind of peace and safety isn’t reality for Muslims in the United States. Hate crimes against mosques have occurred in record numbers over the last year. Mosques in America, as Sheila Musaji points out, have become dangerous places in the country, and it’s not because of the Muslims inside them. Musaji points out, “Much of this violence is the result of religiously motivated reprisals against the Muslim community in general for acts committed by particular individuals or organizations”.
Now, say I wanted to build a Church. I bet my proposition wouldn’t run into any local opposition. Fundraising to support this Church wouldn’t be investigated by government entities or so-called “think tanks”. And most definitely, my plan to build a church wouldn’t be linked to some “terrorist organization” in a distant “Christian land”. But such isn’t the case for Muslim Americans. Heated confrontations have broken out in communities across the country where mosques have been proposed. Muslims have grown accustomed to mosque opposition. A mosque in Baltimore that President Obama recently visited is said to have links to Hamas, based in Palestine, and the Muslim Brotherhood, centered in Egypt. These links are ambiguous, to say the least. Really, I doubt I’ll ever hear the words, “radical Church linked to fanatics in the Vatican”.
In about one week, I’ll be traveling to Boston to celebrate my 31st birthday. Imagine, for a second, me bringing the Bible on the flight. Now, picture me reading the book and praying – out loud – with my rosary beads in hand. Do you think anyone will report me? Doubtful. That’s because the Bible is privileged in America.
In Googling “flying with the Quran”, an article showed up, “What do you do if you catch someone reading the Quran on your flight“. God forbid if that ever happened (I’m being sarcastic). Flying while praying – and Muslim – is a serious issue for Muslim Americans. As Khaled Beydoun points out, anything associated with “Muslim terrorism” – like Arabic – can trigger that irrational fear (read: Islamophobia) and, in turn, can lead to the removal of Muslim, Arabic-speaking, or “Muslim resembling” passengers. Has anyone ever heard someone say “Christian resembling” passengers on a plane? Didn’t think so. As a Catholic, I know that I can practice Catholicism without being questioned, mocked or inhibited. I can assume – with certainty – that anyone I meet isn’t going to be suspicious of me because I’m Catholic. Most people who I interact with will have at least a decent understanding of my religion.
Oh, and when was the last time you saw an anti-Christian bumper sticker? Probably never. And when was the last time you saw an anti-Islam bumper sticker? Probably recently. I’m sure you can add to my list, but here are some of the blatant anti-Islam messages that I’ve seen on the back of cars: 1) “We Will Crush Islam!”; 2) “All I Need to Know About Islam I Learned on 9/11”; 3) “I Will Not Submit!”; 4) “Proud Infidel”; 5) “Muhammad Sucks”; and 6) “Bring Back the Crusades”. These bumper stickers send a message – “you’re not wanted here”. That’s not okay. Muslims are welcome here, because this is America and we’re supposed to be a nation that stands for religious freedom.
It’s also easy for me to find my Christian faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books and other media outlets. Typically, when I see a priest on television, he’s playing a supportive role, like helping Catholics deal with the death of a family member. Bookstores at airports are usually jammed with “nice”, self-help books written by very wealthy Christian evangelists. Muslims, however, are generally portrayed as national security threats everywhere you look. As President Obama noted in Baltimore, “our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security”. His comment suggests that Muslims are only depicted as “terrorists”. Hollywood also hasn’t figured out how to depict Muslims. Movies like Zero Dark Thirty and Argo – at one time the Best Picture finalist and Best Picture winner, respectively – show the antagonism between the so-called “Western world” and the “Muslim world”. In a nutshell, Muslims are depicted in these movies as people who “hate our freedoms”. That’s all too typical and something heard regularly on Fox News.
And how about job opportunities? Personally, I can tell you that I’ve never felt discriminated against because of my religion while applying for a job. I’ve yet to hear any Christian American say, “I didn’t get the job. It’s because I’m Christian”. And I’m almost 31 years old. That’s a long time to have never heard a statement like that. Basically, I can choose any career path without having to explain my religion to my potential employer. You can bet that future employers, when interviewing me, will avoid associating my faith with the Ku Klux Klan or other radical Christian groups like the Christian Identity Movement.
Yet, I’ve heard a few of my Muslim friends say, “I didn’t get the job. It’s because I’m Muslim”. A Carnegie Mellon study from 2013 shows that bias against Muslims Americans is having an impact on their job prospects, especially in Republican states. The research reveals that self-identified Muslims are called back at a lower rate nationwide by prospective employers than Christians with the same names and qualifications. That, my readers, is Christian privilege.
In a nutshell, Christianity can be a tiny part of my identity without it being the defining feature. I’ll never be perceived as the “Christian guy” at a party or at work. I’ll never be the “exception” to those practicing my faith. I’ll never be asked to speak for other Christians.
Life is tough for Christian Americans. Isn’t it?