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Discrimination Against Christians?
Oh Please...

Tom Flynn

The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 3.

As you read this essay, spring is in bloom. As I write it, 2004's year-end holidays are winding down. They were marked by a surprisingly vigorous Religious Right campaign opposing the secularizing of the season. "Don't say 'Happy holidays,' say 'Merry Christmas,'" majority Christians demanded. Implausibly accusing minority non-Christians of discriminating against them, protesters offered this refrain: "It's time the Christian majority stopped letting minorities push it around."
To be sure, this agitation targeted so-called political correctness as much as secularism, properly defined. Still its intensity was noteworthy, and it merits our continued attention even though the winter holidays are past. We can expect to hear similar rhetoric all through 2005 as Christian conservatives defend Intelligent Design, school prayer, gay-marriage bans, public Ten Commandments displays, God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and other "culture war" issues.

What's really going on when majority Christians shout, "It's time we stopped letting minorities push us around"? How should secular humanists respond?

To begin unpacking "We're the majority," I begin with an irreverent fable. I trust its relevance will shortly be clear.
Once upon a time, white Christian males dominated the American South. This majority arrogated to itself a stunning array of privileges, not least that of owning other humans and appropriating the fruits of their labor. For white Christian Southern males, especially those who owned plantations, life was sweet. But time passed, mores changed, and other Americans started thinking the life of white Christian Southern males might be too sweet. Increasingly, many of their privileges came to be recognized as illicit, improper, and morally repugnant.

And so it has happened that America spent the last hundred and eighty years, give or take a few, taking privileges away from white Christian Southern males-privileges that, unsurprisingly, said males viewed as their birthright.

One flashpoint came in the early 1860s, when the rest of America took away white Christian Southern males' privilege of owning other humans. That was such a big project, it took a civil war. White Christian Southern males bitterly resented this loss, and their reaction was, well, reactionary: they imposed Jim Crow laws, formed the Ku Klux Klan, established picture postcards of lynchings as a new folk-art genre, and so on. The rest of America sort of looked the other way.

More time passed. Mores changed further. At last it dawned on the rest of America that the privileges white Christian Southern males had been allowed to hang onto were pretty noxious too. This occasioned another big project, though not quite another civil war. America spent the middle decades of the twentieth century taking away white Christian Southern males' privileges to block African Americans from voting, to bar them from white water fountains and lunch counters, to send their own children to all-white schools, to have the front of the bus to themselves, and on and on.
Did white Christian Southern males resent this? You bet. When they complained that their historical privileges were being taken away, were they speaking truth? Absolutely. So why did their, um, plight command so little public sympathy? The rest of America was confident that the privileges taken away from white Christian Southern males were privileges they never should have had in the first place. They were privileges, but never rights: they were illicit, and their removal was imperative to bring about a more just and equitable society.

Did white Christian Southern males ever shout, "We're a majority and it's time to stop letting a minority push us around"? Of course they did, time after time-but the rest of America had the wisdom to recognize this for the caterwauling of bigots bemoaning their loss of ill-gained favor.

Okay, end of fable. What insights can it offer us about present-day Christians' complaints that their rights are being trampled to coddle the sensitivities of minorities?

Unsettling parallels connect the Southern whites of decades past and today's majority Christians. Both groups enjoyed a former period of dominance during which they amassed privileges whose propriety would later come into question. So broad were the privileges acquired by majority Christians that they gave rise to de facto, and sometimes de jure, discrimination against all Americans who were not Christian. Those privileges included releasing students from public schools during class hours for religious education, ended by Supreme Court decisions in 1948 and 1952; compulsory teacher-led prayer and Bible reading, likewise ended in 1962 and 1963; and school-sanctioned prayer at public-school graduations, likewise ended in 1992. Less formal privileges-say, harassing Jewish pupils by making them fasten the star to the top of the school Christmas tree-were largely abandoned by social consensus. But majority Christians retain many other historic privileges that are no less questionable: "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" on U.S. money, the National Day of Prayer, closing public schools and government offices on religious holidays (for example, Good Friday is a legal holiday in fourteen states),1 paid legislative chaplains-then there's that presumptuous notion that all of America should close on December 25 while Christians hold their birthday party. (Of course, this is only a partial list.)
Majority Christians accurately foresee that their present-day privileges may one day go the way of teacher-led Bible reading. Just as Southern whites did after the Civil War, majority Christians are reacting in ways that are, well, reactionary. We've seen brazen efforts to create new categories of Christian privilege. Government funding for faith-based organizations has blossomed, based in part on the astonishing contention that government's previous reluctance to fund faith groups (you know, the separation of church and state) amounted to state discrimination against religion. Attacks on teaching evolution and efforts to reinstate school prayer increasingly portray majority Christians as victims. And, of course, there was last year's eagerness to turn back the clock on "Happy Holidays."2 Taken together, these initiatives could move the country back toward de facto discrimination against both the nonreligious and all those who are religious but not Christian.
Clearly, majority Christians are getting a lot of mileage out their claims of discrimination. So it's time to ask some blunt questions.

Are majority Christians being discriminated against? No.

Are they being treated unfairly? No.

Is anyone trying to take their rights away from them? No.

But are majority Christians the targets of a reform movement that seeks to take privileges away from them? Emphatically, yes. Many of those privileges are illicit, and their removal will help to bring about a more just and equitable society.
Like Southern whites in the Jim Crow years, today's Christian Americans have been made to give up only some of the illicit privileges they accumulated in the past. The unfairness of the privileges they retain grows more odious with time as the nation becomes more religiously diverse. "Judeo-Christian" practices that seemed acceptable when Christians and Jews dominated debates over religion in public life are transparently unacceptable today, when Christians and Jews share the nation with atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, neopagans, and so on.

Majority Christians may object that some of these minorities are tiny. But limiting majority prerogative for the protection of even small minorities is a bedrock American principle; John Stuart Mill reminds us that tyranny of the majority is "more formidable than many kinds of political oppression." That's why we have a Constitution, after all.

In addition, some non-Christian minorities aren't all that small. American Muslims may already outnumber American Jews, while the U.S. Buddhist and Hindu communities number around one million each. Then there's the real elephant in the living room: us. The number of Americans with no religious preference (including secular humanists and atheists and a lot of other folks besides) has doubled in the last ten years to 16 percent. That's forty-seven million people, making "Nones" more numerous than any single faith group except Roman Catholics.

It's also worth noting that, in what Religious Right activists love to call "a Christian nation" and "the most devout industrialized country on Earth," fully 40 percent of the population belongs to no church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.
One additional factor helps explain why protests against the secularization of Christmas 2004 were so frantic. The peeling away of Christian privileges has spread beyond the halls of government. The secularizing thrust has spread to the private sector, too. Though private employers, merchants, mall owners, and broadcasters don't labor under the establishment clause, many of them traded "Merry Christmas" for "Happy holidays" anyway. Maybe they feared American Civil Liberties Union lawsuits; more likely, they recognized growing religious diversity and didn't want to alienate Muslim or Hindu or nonreligious workers, customers, or viewers.

No wonder conservative Christians are pouring their energies into a reactionary agenda. They might even succeed, and we should never underestimate the harm this might do to the social fabric. But now is no time to lose hope. Never forget that white Southern Christian males were ultimately separated from most of their illicit privileges, Klan or no Klan.

Still, the parallels between Southern whites and America's Christian majority aren't perfect. White racists formed a majority only in the South; the rest of America furnished a larger majority whose power made it possible to strip away Southerners' illicit privileges. By contrast, the Christian majority is the American majority. Is it foolish to imagine that this majority could be a party to the removal of its own privileges, illicit or otherwise? Quite the contrary, I believe there are three reasons why this is just what secular humanists should hope-and strive-for. First, America has learned a lot about tolerance since the Jim Crow years. Today, I suspect that there does exist a significant constituency whose members would be willing to act on a sufficiently powerful moral insight that challenged them to abandon some of their own privileges. Second, non-Christians -- religious and otherwise -- are numerous enough to wield significant power on their own behalf, especially when you count those forty-seven million "Nones." Third, America's Christian majority is far from monolithic. Fundamentalist zealots dominate the headlines, but quite a few Christian centrists and liberals are as pleased as any Hindu or secularist when a department store changes its tagline to "Season's greetings" or a school Easter parade becomes a spring pageant.

We who fight to separate church from state and to further the secularization of American public life-because we are nonreligious, or because we simply care about fairness-whatever our motives, we truly constitute a new civil rights movement. Engaging a society in which majority Christians had once amassed a stunning array of illicit privileges, we have responded with years of patient activism that has stripped away perhaps half of Christians' illicit historic privileges. The other half remains to be dealt with.

Don't take my word for it. Consider the words of Ronald A. Lindsay, a church-state separation attorney and a founding member of the Council for Secular Humanism's First Amendment Task Force. As early as 1990, he summarized believers' protests over their losses in the debate over religion in public life in these words:

What is going on here is whining: whining by individuals and groups who have been deprived of the truly privileged position they once enjoyed. For most of this country's history theism, in particular Christianity, has enjoyed favor. . . . The courts have put an end to some, but certainly not all, of this collaboration between church and state. In doing so, the courts have upset many who assumed that this was the proper way of doing things . . . and who did not see anything coercive, let alone unconstitutional, about such practices. Not unnaturally, they have interpreted the courts' action as an attack on religion, when in reality they were simply an attempt to put an end to the privileged position that religion enjoyed.3

As individuals, majority Christians can't be blamed for feeling like victims, or even for whining about it. But other Americans-including moderates and liberals within the Christian majority-should be encouraged to reject these claims of victimhood, just as most Americans rejected the victimhood claims of white segregationists in the South.

Majority Christians are betting big that they can turn back the clock and use their slowly eroding majority status to "keep minorities from pushing them around." If the history of Southern racism has anything to tell us, they probably won't succeed. Will 2005 see a Bull Connor moment?4 Might conservative Christians so overplay their hand that average Americans, even some within the Christian majority, come to regard conservatives' cries of discrimination as "the caterwauling of bigots bemoaning their loss of ill-gained favor"? The sooner that tipping point is reached, the sooner the threat of secular Americans being utterly marginalized will recede. And the sooner our great project to finish the job of secularizing America can get underway once more.

1. "Court Upholds Good Friday Laws," Christianity Today, March 6, 2000.
2. "Happy holidays" is an improvement on "Merry Christmas," but our ultimate goal must go one step further. Even "happy holidays" encodes a presumption that everyone is celebrating some holiday in the year-end season, and that's just not true. Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists don't; Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists don't; quite a few nonreligious people don't. We've moved from a culture where everyone is expected to celebrate Christmas to one where everyone is expected to celebrate something in November or December; the next step is to move to a culture where "the holidays" are broadly understood as something that only some people elect to do. When people hesitate to wish others "happy holidays" without first making sure that the targets of their good cheer are in fact observing a holiday, we will have taken one giant step toward a fairer future.
3. Ronald A. Lindsay, "Neutrality Between Religion and Irreligion? Is It Required? Is It Possible?," Free Inquiry, Fall 1990, p. 19.
4. Bull Connor was Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963 he subjected peaceful protestors to mass arrests, police-dog attacks, and high-power fire hose streams. His grotesque over-reaction pushed most of middle America off the fence and firmly behind the civil rights movement.

Tom Flynn is Editor of Free Inquiry.

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