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07 June 2012

The Privilege and Persecution of Evangelical Protestants

I wrote yesterday that the dominant narrative among Evangelical Protestants in the United States is that their religion is systematically persecuted by secular society and mainstream culture. The reality, however, is that Evangelicals in particular and Christians in general enjoy widespread and significant privileges because of their membership in the dominant religion. How can we account for this discrepancy? How do those who are advantaged come to see themselves as being disadvantaged?

Part of privilege is not having to confront that privilege. Unlike those who are disadvantaged and are forced to confront that hardship regularly, the privileged are lucky to be able to go through life blind to their advantages. Think about economic privilege as a good example. Imagine an upper-middle class kid who applies to a few colleges, gets a few acceptances, visits a few campuses, and them enrolls and matriculates to college. Now, imagine the working class kid who applies to a few colleges and gets a few acceptances but then must wrestle with the financial realities of higher education. Which school, if any, can he and his parents afford? Can they even afford for him to visit the campuses of the schools to which he's been accepted? The middle class kid never has to see his advantage; he is simply living the lifecourse set out for him. The working class kid, on the other hand, must face head on the structural resistance to his will; he is made acutely aware of his disadvantage.

It's one thing to not be aware of one's privilege, though, and another to image oneself as being disadvantaged. For those with privilege, any attempt to level the playing field--that is, to overcome the structural disadvantages for those without privilege--becomes perceived as an injustice since they are not conscious to their advantages. Let's return to the college applicants example. Say that both the middle class kid and the working class kid decide to go to Harvard. Let's say that the working class kid is able to take advantage of a scholarship or grant program to help low-income students pay for tuition. To the middle class kid and his parents, this might seem inherently unjust, an advantage to which they are not eligible, but it can only be seen as unjust if they ignore the systematic advantages that they have enjoyed (e.g. better social connections, higher levels of income, etc.) up until that point.

How does this translate to Evangelicals? Evangelicalism has two central and related tenets. First, it makes a monopolistic claim to legitimacy and salvation (i.e. "Ours is the one true religion and the only way to Heaven."). Second, it requires its adherents not only to believe but to convert all others to their religion (i.e. "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...."). Because of these perceived imperatives to negate tolerance and engage with the "others," along with their unacknowledged social privileges, Evangelicals interpret any limitation to their usually unimpinged advantages to be an unjust affront, a persecution. (This, of course, also conveniently parallels the persecution of Christ in the Gospel narratives.) Like the comfortable upper-middle class parents angry that their son won't get the financial aid for hardship, Evangelicals get angry if they cannot impose their beliefs in the public square.

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