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How American Christianity became white

Because it’s enshrined in the First Amendment, we presume religious equality is manifest in our society as well. A new book by Khyati Joshi examines white Christianity’s role in upholding whiteness.

“White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America” and author Khyati Y. Joshi. Courtesy images

(RNS) — In 1989, Peggy McIntosh, a scholar at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, published a short article in Peace & Freedom magazine titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In it, McIntosh introduced the idea that white people carried around an “invisible package of unearned assets.”

McIntosh’s critical lens for understanding social power dynamics continues to shape discussion on racial inequities 30 years later.

In Khyati Joshi’s  new book, “White Christian Privilege,” Joshi brings religion into the conversation about privilege, arguing that our perception of whiteness suffers from an “optical illusion”: that religion is one place where there is equality in America.

Because it is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, we presume that religious equality is manifest in our society as well. Yet any analysis that neglects white Christianity’s role in creating and upholding whiteness, Joshi argues, fails to capture the full picture. 

VIDEO: “Becoming Less Racist: Lighting a Path to Anti-Racism” with Khyati Joshi

Joshi upends our usual approach to these questions by focusing not on marginalized communities’ experiences, but the other side of the equation: how the dominant group has created, sustained and framed its distinct advantages. In helping us to see “the rules of society that have been constructed to benefit Christians,” Joshi connects the dots of just how this privilege functions.

The relationship between whiteness and Christianity becomes clearer as Joshi follows multiple threads through American history that inextricably intertwined one’s faith and the color of one’s skin. In the 1790s, the U.S. Congress passed a naturalization act that declared one must be a free white man of good moral character to become a citizen. Explicit about race and gender (white, man) but implicit about religion (good moral character), the legislation deftly linked whiteness and morality, itself an indicator of being a Christian in good standing.

Nearly a century later, when African Americans were granted citizenship through the 14th Amendment (1868) and the Naturalization Act of 1870, it seemed on its face a sign of racial progress. But non-Christian communities — East Asians, South Asians and Native Americans — were still denied citizenship, ensuring that who counted as an American had as much to do with religion as it did with race.

Joshi organizes the rules of Christian society using three key concepts. The first is Christian privilege, which pertains to everyday advantages that folks who identify as Christian or grew up as Christian have in the United States. She gives an example from her childhood in the American South in which a Hindu American named Suha is barred from starting on his high school soccer team because he refused to recite the Lord’s Prayer with his coach and teammates prior to their matches.

Suha’s story transported me back to my high school soccer days in Texas. My team, too, would recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game. I would kneel alongside my teammates and bow my head out of respect – it never occurred to me until much later that I could have requested we say a Sikh prayer as well. Christian prayer was the default, and that this seemed normal to all of us.

Joshi’s second concept, Christian normativity, is related: It refers to how Christian ideas, beliefs and practices have become so entrenched in American society that they have become the national standard. Christian — and particularly Protestant — ways of doing things come to be so normal that non-Christian approaches are perceived as deviant, even threatening. It doesn’t take much of a leap from there to understand why maintaining Christian normativity is at odds with achieving religious pluralism and religious equality.

The third bucket is Christian hegemony. Here the state is the power that endorses Christianity, inserting the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance and the inscription of “In God We Trust” on our currency. These and other examples, Joshi argues convincingly, point to how deeply Christianity has been established as our official religion.

The first half of the book, which recounts how these constructs have worked their way through American history, is fascinating and illuminating: fascinating because it helps us see the subtle and overt ways in which religion has partnered with race to produce American racism; powerful because Joshi sheds light on an aspect of white supremacy that is so often left under the hood.

In the latter chapters, rather than historicizing and teaching, she shifts slowly into practical matters, which comes as little surprise to those who know her social justice training. It’s also refreshing in an academic text, a genre that more often than not wallows in problematizing and stops short of solutions.

An entire chapter, “Making Meaning and Making Change,” offers helpful advice on how to move forward, as well as a vision for what it would take to establish religious equality and religious pluralism in America.

Two ideas of hers stuck out to me in particular, both of which I am yearning to see realized. One is changing our assumptions. Once we can see clearly past the optical illusion of Christian privilege, we will become conscious of how damaging our assumptions of Christian normativity can be for religious minorities. Seeing its harmful impact can and should move us to challenge and change our assumptions of what is normal and acceptable.

Second is Joshi’s suggestion of changing our paradigms. Living within a structure built on white supremacist and Christo-centric norms makes it difficult for those who are not white and not Christian to establish equal footing. Bending the structure, opening the door for other faiths to exercise privilege of their own, won’t work, as we will ultimately end up with the same results. A meaningful interrogation calls on us to replace it with a new paradigm, one that does not privilege any groups over any others.

These interventions are as powerful as they are compelling: It is clear that without these steps, we have no path to realizing religious equality and pluralism.

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