Discrimination Against Christians?
The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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