Consciousness-Raising for the Nonreligious

Tom Flynn

Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States, edited by Warren J. Blumenfeld, Khyati Y. Joshi, and Ellen E. Fairchild (Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers, 2009, I SBN 978-90-8790-677-1 [cloth], 978-90-8790-676-4 [paper]). 184 pp. Cloth $99; paper $39.


Remember consciousness-raising? Dismissing it as a trapping of the 1960s is too glib. It is the tool by which successive waves of activists sought (often successfully) to aid members of disadvantaged groups in recognizing that they were disadvantaged, in spotting practices used by privileged groups to perpetuate their unjust advantages, and in resolving to resist the status quo. Name an American minority that’s improved its social position in the past few decades—African Americans, Latinos, women, Native Americans, LGBTs, and so on—each has spawned its own consciousness-raising literature. Early entrants in the genre had to devote themselves to persuading members of their particular target group that the social forms they’d grown up with were neither benign nor neutral but rather encoded social structures that served the majority by duping or cajoling majority members to “love their chains.” Members of a genuinely oppressed minority could scarcely be expected to resist social practices that they still embraced as cultural norms! The best-remembered book of this sort may be Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, which sought to convince women that the “see Jane cook” housewifely stereotype was worth rebelling against.

Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States, edited by Warren J. Blumenfeld (Iowa State), Khyati Y. Joshi (Farleigh Dickinson), and Ellen E. Fairchild (Iowa State), aims to play a similar role for non-Christian Americans, including the nonreligious. Where Friedan wrote a popular manifesto, the coeditors of this tome have assembled a scholarly anthology aimed principally (though not exclusively) at educators. That, along with a couple of substandard selections, suggests that this rather pricy small-press book won’t be non-Christians’ “shot heard round the world.” But there is much in this anthology that secular humanist activists—and anyone who cares about social equity for Americans who happen not to be Christian—can learn from.

The editors maintain that Christian Americans enjoy, often but not always unconsciously, a position of illicit and unjust social privilege structurally similar to those enjoyed in earlier decades by whites vis-á-vis Americans of other races, men vis-á-vis women, straights vis-á-vis gays, and so on.*

The book’s first article, by coeditor Blumenfeld, is a thundering catalog of the manifold ways in which “the dominant group (in this instance, Christians) reiterates its values and practices while marginalizing and subordinating those who do not adhere to Christian faith traditions” (4). In fact, manifold may be too mild a word. Here are just a few of the indicators:

  • Historically, traditional blue laws blocked most Americans from engaging in commerce on days the Christian tradition designated as holy.
  • Non-Christian religious groups continue to be belittled when journalists and commentators assign words like sect and cult to religious entities that would earn more respectful terminology if Christian.
  • Employment, housing, and other forms of overt discrimination against non-Christians still occur, if less openly these days.
  • In an under-acknowledged form of cultural imperialism, public memorials, from sites where police officers died in the line of duty to the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where valiant passengers brought down United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, are almost invariably marked with crosses. Quick, was everybody on Flight 93—okay, except the terrorists—Christian?
  • Hardly anyone thinks of this—which is just why we need consciousness-raising—but what message does it send to non-Christians that though many have forsaken the explicitly Christian “ad” (anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”) for the more neutral “ce” (Common Era), we still count our years from the purported birth year of Jesus Christ?
  • Finally (and admittedly, a special irritant for me), what does it say that even Americans striving to be more inclusive have simply relabeled that portion of the year dominated by Christmas as “the holiday season”—offering a patronizing tip of the hat to non-Christian observances courteous enough to fall during the same time of year while they more harshly marginalize faiths whose feasts fall during less-favored seasons?

Blumenfeld makes a strong case that Christian privilege is more pervasive than even most activists surmise—and that the first step toward resisting such injustice is learning to identify it efficiently.

Hector Avalos, a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry, offers a solid summary of the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli between the United States and the so-called Barbary States, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Avalos views this as an accurate picture of the sentiment regarding religion held among the founders, then treats it as an index case for the way history has been distorted by ideologues determined to redefine America as a Christian nation. Coeditor Joshi provides an incisive analysis showing that the structures of Christian privilege mirror those associated with white privilege in American life. This is an important insight for scholars and activists because both white advantage and the means of resisting it have been exhaustively studied. Jennifer Harvey and Miriam Singer offer capable examinations of same-sex marriage controversies and the Faith-Based Initiative, respectively, as mechanisms for furthering Christian privilege.

From there, the entries are more of a mixed bag. Lisa Weinbaum gives a personalized report on her experience in trying (ultimately unsuccessfully) to compel Las Cruces, New Mexico, to abandon its official logo—three Christian crosses. Sociological analysis and discussion of the author’s personal tribulations make for an uneasy combination. On the other hand, Mamta Motwani Accapadi and Jason Nelson offer fascinating discussions of a controversy over Christmas decorations in a student center serving mostly non-Christian students and the dilemma of teachers who seek to treat non-Christians evenhandedly despite their personal Christian orientations. Though written principally for activists and educators, these essays are rich with examples of the impact of Christian privilege on members of religious outgroups. Coeditor Fairchild closes with a statement of her own beliefs consciously modeled on John Dewey’s 1897 “Pedagogic Creed” that will probably be useful mostly to educators.

With a few caveats, this book is recommended as a resource for secular humanists eager to raise their own consciousnesses and to build a more vivid mental picture of what a truly, justly post-Christian society may one day look like.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States, edited by Warren J. Blumenfeld, Khyati Y. Joshi, and Ellen E. Fairchild (Rotterdam/Taipei: Sense Publishers, 2009, I SBN 978-90-8790-677-1 [cloth], 978-90-8790-676-4 [paper]). 184 pp. Cloth $99; paper $39. Remember consciousness-raising? Dismissing it as a trapping of the 1960s is too glib. It is the tool …

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