‘Tis the season: for last-minute gift-buying, red Starbucks cups, and for some, the annual declaration that Christians are under siege.
I’m talking, of course, about the “war on Christmas” that resurfaces every year, where right-wing evangelicals claim that saying “happy holidays” is a form of oppression, make lists of stores to boycott for not saying “merry Christmas,” and take this shift in language as a portent of more significant persecution to come.
As someone who identifies as Christian, I wince at this hullabahoo every year. And I shake my head in disbelief, because if there’s any religious group in America being oppressed on a broad scale, it is not Christians. A basic understanding of power and privilege is enough to comprehend this.
People identify themselves in a variety of ways — race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, physical ability, and so on. In each of these areas, there has historically been one group that has held a disproportionate amount of influence. It usually doesn’t take much to figure out which group that is; just take a look at who’s been in charge. For example, if you want to know which sex has historically held power in this country, you might observe that though males make up less than half of the population, they comprise 90% of current governors, 82% of current senators (98% of senators past and present), and 100% of the presidents we’ve ever had. Ergo, we would say that when it comes to sex, males are the group with power.
Along with power comes privilege: Being a member of the group with power comes with advantages, big and small, that members of other groups don’t have. And the people who have these privileges often don’t notice that they have them, because they’ve always had them — but those who don’t have them are often keenly aware.
To illustrate: I identify as heterosexual. I probably don’t need to convince anyone that heterosexuals are the group with power when it comes to sexual orientation. Because I am heterosexual, I have certain privileges that my LGBT friends do not. For example:
– When I got married, I could do so in any state I wanted.
– I can walk down any street in America holding my partner’s hand and not worry about people staring or whispering — or my safety.
– I can dance at weddings with my partner without anyone freaking out.
– I can turn on the tv, go to movies, turn on a computer, go to a bookstore, and/or walk by a magazine stand and see plenty of varied, non-stereotypical depictions of people like me and partnerships like mine.
– I can feel fairly certain that my sexual orientation will never be a liability to me when it comes to buying a house, getting a job, or running for political office.
– I can look at who’s making decisions in this country, see an abundance of people who identify the way that I do, and rest assured that my interests as a heterosexual are being advocated.
– I won’t have to worry about coaching my future children about how to respond when their friends ask them about their family structure.
I could go on, but you get the point. These privileges may not seem like much to me, but to my LGBT friends who don’t have them, they’re very significant — and even more so when they’re all added together. (For a further discussion of privilege, I highly recommend Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a brief article that changed my life.)
Now, going back to Christmas. As I said before, I identify as Christian. There are some who claim that Christians are an oppressed minority in this country, but when you look at who’s currently in power and who’s historically been in power… you’d have a hard time substantiating that argument. We have yet to elect a president who doesn’t identify as a Christian of some kind (and before you throw down the Jefferson Bible to refute that point: Which religious text was he modifying? It wasn’t the Koran). There are still many states where not identifying as Christian is enough to prevent you from getting elected to public office.
Let’s consider some of the privileges I enjoy as a Christian:
– I never have to worry about making up work or homework on my religious holidays, because the government observes them and everything shuts down.
– I can go to pretty much any city in America and find a place of worship for my religion.
– I can turn on the tv, go to movies, turn on a computer, go to a bookstore, and/or walk by a magazine stand and see varied, non-stereotypical depictions of people practicing my religion and celebrating its holidays.
– I can look at who’s making decisions in this country, see many people who identify the way that I do, and rest assured that my religious liberties as a Christian are protected.
– I never have to explain my religious symbols, garments, practices, or holidays or worry that someone will think that they’re weird.
Again, I could go on. And there are probably plenty of examples that I haven’t even thought of because I’m so accustomed to having them but are plainly clear to my Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic, and atheist friends who don’t have them.
So to those who claim that Christianity is under attack because the greeter at Target didn’t wish them a merry Christmas:
1. The simple fact is that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and assuming that everyone does, or should, is arrogant and oppressive.
2. I encourage you to look at the bigger picture and the myriad privileges you enjoy that people of other faiths do not. Power can be uncomfortable to think about — people who have it often have a hard time owning that they do, and it shakes our beliefs in a just world and a meritocratic society. It also comes with a choice: Either you can hoard it for yourself, making sure that only you and people like you benefit from it; or you can share it, using it to empower people who are not like you, to give them a voice, to advocate for them to have the same privileges you do. In a season when we celebrate Jesus giving up his divine power, and all of the privileges that came with it, to enter a flawed and broken world, it seems especially appropriate that we do the same. So maybe, instead of using our power to insist that everyone do what we do, we can use it to affirm people in whatever traditions they observe. And maybe that starts by wishing people a happy holiday, whatever holiday that might be.