White Christian Privilege
The Illusion of Religious Equality in America
- ISBN: 9781479840236
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: July 2020
America is currently experiencing a rapid decline in the number of self-identified religious practitioners, and there is also a heightened awareness of racial oppression in this country. In White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, Khyati Joshi provides a prescient analysis of religious and racial privilege to reveal the illusion of religious equality and shows how religious minorities have been denied religious freedom throughout the long tenure of White Christian dominance in America. To cope with systemic injustice, whether one is benefiting from or being oppressed by White Christian privilege, Joshi argues that a “critical consciousness” must be employed. Such a consciousness understands how privilege operates, recognizes systemic inequality in our midst, and works towards increasing greater equity, equality, and justice for people of all religions and races.
The cultural norms, institutions, and legal infrastructure of this country are fortified by White Christian privilege and recognizing this is a crucial first step to becoming an ally and working towards greater equity for all. Joshi takes an intersectional approach in her analysis of White Christian privilege that is sensitive to the ways that class, gender, sexual orientation, and race influence how social injustice is experienced in America. She reveals how privilege is experienced differently among Christians, and how practitioners of other faiths undergo varying levels of disadvantage because of their minority status.
The centrality of the First Amendment in US culture has led many to assume that all Americans enjoy religious freedom simply by being citizens. Most Americans assume that in the absence of government interference, people of all faiths do not experience forms of discrimination. Joshi’s work reveals that the notion that religion and government are separate enterprises, where one institution is not beholden to another, can veil White Christian privilege. She tells history through the lens of the disenfranchised to expose how religious minorities have been stigmatized and shows that there has never been an equitable policy when it comes to respecting the free practice of all religions.
Ever since White Christian settlers first set foot on the indigenous territory that would later be named the United States, the sentiment that Christianity—and the White race along with it—was more civilized has been proclaimed and sedimented into the culture. Throughout this nation’s history the majority of those in power have believed that White Christians exemplify a humanity that is more civilized, knowledgeable, and virtuous. European colonists believed that furthering their racial and religious superiority was a means to rid the world of ignorance and prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. White Protestants oppressed Native Americans, and later Africans, Asians, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and other people of color, through othering them on the basis of physical characteristics, as well as their cultural and religious practices, which they deemed inferior. Early settlers used the doctrines of Manifest Destiny and Discovery to justify the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans as a means to promote what they believed was a supreme race of God-fearing people.
Joshi connects history with the present by discussing how the policies of White Christian hegemony continue to marginalize religious minorities, people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Such policies of exclusion are seen in the various instantiations of immigration and naturalization policies, which Joshi reveals are intentionally curated to perpetuate a White Christian majority. Immigrants are given certain legal leniencies if they are closer to White Protestantism, and those who are further from this are stigmatized as uncivilized or un-American. Joshi emphasizes throughout this work that privilege is not only a function of skin color, but also of religious identity.
According to Joshi, White Christians have normalized the belief that a moral, trustworthy, and legitimate American must not only have European blood but be Christian as well. The author drives home the poignant fact that White supremacy is also Christian supremacy. If we are to understand the history of race in this country, we must consider it through the lens of religion as well. Joshi points out how scholars in religion and ethnic studies have missed this connection. Religious studies scholars have failed to adequately engage with race, and ethnic studies researchers have shied away from assessing the role religion plays in social justice issues. Joshi is among an increasing number of scholars whose work adequately reflects how deeply connected race and religion are in America, and this text convincingly shows that White supremacy and Christianity both mutually-reinforce systemic inequality.
Importantly, Joshi’s work is also practical in its scope and emphasis. She identifies numerous unearned advantages Christians experience in chapter 4 to reveal how religious minorities are subject to laws, language, and structures that privilege Christianity and limit their own faith practices in everyday life. In the fifth chapter she also discusses how Christians continue to remain skeptical of the impact their privilege has on religious minorities, which contributes to their failure to confront their privilege head on. Importantly, efforts at improvement cannot come from one group alone either. For real change to occur, it is critical for not only White Christians to engage in this work, but religious and nonreligious minorities as well.
To intercept White Christian privilege requires a social justice approach that rethinks the ways in which we speak and formulate our understanding of others among us. The best means to achieve this is to change the assumptions we have about them and become more informed about traditions we may be unfamiliar with. Joshi is not aiming for religious minorities to gain more privilege, or to flip the power binary so Christians are no longer privileged; rather, she states that we should strive for an America where “all may feel included and live freely with all of our own histories, ancestries, and beliefs respected” (225). Such a nation would no longer be plagued by White Christian privilege, and instead would be a place that would welcome and celebrate people of all religions and races.
Deena M. Lin is a lecturer in philosophy and religious studies at San Francisco State University and California State University, East Bay.Deena LinDate Of Review:March 31, 2022