Christian Privilege in the Academy?

Interfaith BannerIn InterVarsity and many other Christian organizations, we’re used to thinking of Christians as a minority – even a persecuted minority – within the academy, particularly at the more prestigious universities. For example, responding to a common question asked by many faculty and graduate students, we recently published an essay by Ken Elzinga of the University of Virginia titled “Being Open About My Faith Without Turning People Off.” There is another way of looking at Christianity in the university, however.

Photo credit: Interfaith chaplaincy banner at Nichols College, by Svadilfari via Flickr. Click for larger image.

Last week, my friend Julie forwarded me a link to Tricia Seifert’s article, “Understanding Christian Privilege: Managing the Tensions of Spiritual Plurality” (PDF). Comparing “Christian privilege” to the more commonly used terms male privilege and white privilege, Seifert identifies several areas of university life in which structure or assumptions favor Christianity over other religions, such as:

  • the academic calendar, which includes breaks for Christmas and sometimes Easter, but not High Holy Days, Ramadan, or other religious festivals
  • meal plans, which often don’t take into account the dietary needs of non-Christian students
  • at private colleges, chapel space, which, even if open to non-Christian use, is usually filled with Christian imagery (see this story/blog about the recent creation of a Pagan worship space at the Air Force Academy)
  • nondenominational, but Christian “flavored,” prayer at graduation ceremonies and athletic events

Seifert offers some practical advice for addressing Christian privilege, and also suggests that Christian privilege affects the learning community:

The responsibility of educating the whole student includes creating a community in which all students feel safe to practice and share their spiritual beliefs and supported in learning about the spiritual beliefs of others. To create such a community, educators need to help students develop the ability and willingness to question educational practices and programs that privilege the spiritual identity development of one group over others. Students have made great strides in questioning other forms of privilege, such as male privilege and white privilege. The changing demographics of our college and university campuses and their increasing spiritual plurality necessitate a commitment to helping the campus community recognize and confront Christian privilege in the same way that it has confronted other forms of privilege.

Take a few minutes to read Seifert’s article (it’s about 6 pages) and consider what you think about the idea of Christian privilege.

Some questions for discussion:

How would you respond to Seifert’s article?

Do you agree that there is Christian privilege within the academy? Why or why not?

How do you think religious plurality affects the campus learning community?

How can Christians best contribute to the religiously diverse community at secular universities?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Jordan commented on February 16, 2010 Reply

    The “academy” as it was historically conceived is an invention of Western civilization, which in turn was definitively formed, at least in large part, by Christianity.

    So this kind of “privilege” shouldn’t come as a surprise. But at what point does a university’s accommodation to other worldviews, civilizations, and so on turn it into a multiversity?

    George commented on February 19, 2010 Reply

    In the fall I will have a book come out titled “Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Poltiical Bias in Academia.” In that book I will provide empricial proof that being an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian makes it less likely for a person to obtain an academic job. So I find the idea of Chrisitan privilege in academia laughable. I mean really. What would you rather have – An academic calendar that shows your holidays or an ability to get a job without facing religious bigotry?

      Micheal Hickerson commented on February 19, 2010 Reply

      George – let me know when I can get a copy of your book. I’d love to feature it.

      In Souls in Transition, Christian Smith proposes a “cultural triumph” for liberal mainline Protestantism, suggesting that most American youth sound like liberal theologians from 50 years ago and don’t even realize where they get their beliefs. Do you think something like that could be operating in the academy, where the “privilege” belongs to those to hold to a liberalized, cultural Christianity?

    George commented on February 19, 2010 Reply

    That is not a bad argument. Atheism is devoid of an abilty to create overarching values. Liberal Protestantism can create and legitimate values of tolerance and multiculturalism in a way that atheism can not. My atheist and agnositic students often do not realize the source of the values they have and usually do not have the philosophical knowledge to know that they can not make value claims with their presuppositions. So one might be able to make an argument of liberal Protestant privilege. My research shows that their is little bias against mainline Protestants. But claims of a general Christian privilege are vastly overblown.

    Glenn Shrom commented on February 22, 2010 Reply

    On holidays, Romans 14:5-6 speaks very clearly that these are up to individual matters of conscience. The believer in Christ may continue celebrating the Jewish Holidays, or not. I suppose we could also create new holidays in Gentile cultures, or not.

    Out of respect for our Jewish brethren, we should offer Kosher menus, and these would mostly be better for Muslims as well. Acts 15:20 and 15:29 speak to this. Romans 14 and the beginning of chapter 15 also speak of respecting the dietary laws of those who are weaker in the faith. We should at least offer these options if we really want to be Christian, and if we go the extra mile, we will also change our own menus to not offend them.

    People should be able to embrace Christianity without being forced to conform to western culture regarding dress, diet, etc. The New Testament is not geared towards western European or American culture, and we have a lot to learn from other cultures even about our own Bible. Eating pork is not a Christian privilege so much as a Gentile privilege. Gentile Christians should not behave offensively towards Jewish or Arab Christians.

    As far as Christian imagery, for many people the cross is a symbol of intolerance and even persecution towards non-Catholics. If we can’t tell the message of the cross as God’s love towards all people, then the symbol is counter-productive to sharing the Gospel.

    As far as Christian prayer goes, I think that freedom of speech should protect prayers in Jesus’ name and the preaching of the Gospel. A pluralistic society should be tolerant and respectful of religious language and language of conscience, so long as it is not obscene, and not inciting riots or treason. Our government may not prohibit the expression of religion.

    It is impossible to fully include a religion which demands to be the state religion or which prohibits the free exercise of other religions. Christian privilege must remain in place where Christianity respects man’s free choice to worship, or not worship, as he pleases, with protection from violence and state enforcement.

    Glenn Shrom commented on February 22, 2010 Reply

    I just wanted to add a word about this concept of “spiritual plurality”. I really think we are talking more about religious plurality. Spiritually, we’ve really only got two kinds: Satan as the father, or God as the father; either the Holy Spirit resides in a human being, or else He doesn’t.

    There is a huge religious plurality among people who are led by the Holy Spirit, and huge religious plurality among people who are not led by the Holy Spirit. Within almost any stated religious category, we can find people who are led by the Holy Spirit, and people who aren’t. The Kingdom of God is not discerned through observation. You can’t say, “Look, here are the Christians”, in the sense of “Look, here are the followers of Christ”, but only “Look, here are the people of a religion that claims to be Christian”.

    I think the American Church, whether in the university or not, puts too much emphasis on religious uniformity, which matters not in the spiritual realm, and too little on unity and love among the multi-cultural body of Christ, which is what God really wants.

    Joe Whitchurch commented on February 23, 2010 Reply

    I think sometimes age and some cross cultural travel and friendships sensitize me to issues of power as a white male citizen of the USA. Recently I heard a Christian feminist white female debate a female follower of Islam with a Ph.D. on youtube. The debate was recent and vigorous. I commend to you the second part as the rebuttal microphones did not have a distracting a reverb on the sound here:

    I appreciated Mary Jo Sharp’s evangelical feminism (egalitarianism?) but I must admit that when it comes to university policy and enforcement of issues of power. I’m concerned about what Os Guiness refers to as the more coercive versus principled pluralism where such debates probably could not happen or would have to be nuanced so highly that making truth claim distinctions would be seen as undesirable at best and dangerous at worst. Ken Elzinga is a model of principled pluralism and Christian charity (love) at its best. Enjoying the discussion.

    I have a talk Ken gave at Faculty Commons ‘Heart of the University’ linked here: which can demonstrate his demeanor in his own voice and manner. We need more of Mary Jo and Ken. Liberal Protestant tolerance tends to strike me more in the vein of the overly nuanced uniformity or highly relativized universalism. I know there are exceptions and am grateful for them.

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