Christian Privilege, Christian Fragility, and Religious Freedom

Recent legislation in North Carolina and Mississippi suggests that the expectation of non-discrimination against LGBTQ people is an infringement on religious liberty. These bills have favored particular religious beliefs about sexuality, marriage, and gender, providing protections for people who would deny services to LGBTQ people and defining who can use what bathroom.

This legislation and the widespread support for it among many conservative Christians reflects forms of Christian privilege and Christian fragility that are actually in direct opposition to true religious liberty.

Because Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States, unacknowledged benefits accrue to its practitioners. For example, the work calendar is generally built around Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. Christians can easily find foods in public facilities that meet religious dietary requirements. In fact, Christians can, without much difficulty, navigate most American institutions without their religious identities, commitments, or loyalties called into question, and they can assume that most people around them share their identity and many of their values.

Despite arguments that somehow Christians in the United States are facing persecution, Christians actually hold incredible social, political, and economic power, and Christian beliefs often determine legislation, policies, practices, and budgets in social institutions ranging from education to healthcare to marriage to public bathrooms.

One of the characteristics of privilege is that those who have it do not have to see it. The privilege is so assumed, so integrated into their identities and the dominant culture that they do not have to notice the subtle advantages they are given by their privilege. And so Christians in the United States do not have to see their Christian privilege. They can see legislation that discriminates against others as simply reflections of "American" values and not notice the ways certain Christian beliefs, not some universal values, have shaped laws.

But when laws change, and the rights of marginalized peoples are recognized, the challenge to the assumptions of Christian privilege can feel like an attack on Christianity. Because certain Christians have assumed their religious worldview as normative, laws that affirm, for example, marriage equality may seem an attack on presumed expectations of Christian norms. In other words, Christian privilege allowed many Christians to understand heterosexual marriage as normative, natural, and inevitable and therefore same sex marriage was an impossibility because it would have been unnatural, invisible, and outside the conceivable norm. Christian privilege did not let some Christians even imagine that same sex marriage could exist. Marriage was synonymous with heterosexuality, and that expectation did not even need to be stated because no other possibility existed.

The affirmation of marriage equality by the Supreme Court disrupted Christian privilege by making the assumptions of heteronormative marriage visible and changeable. But because some Christians had assumed marriage could only exist in consonance with their particular Christian understandings of marriage, the Supreme Court's decision felt like an encroachment of their rights--because privilege had allowed them to assume marriage as a right, even a God-given right, that belonged only to heterosexuals.

Similarly, the recent greater visibility of transgender people has challenged assumptions about the fixed nature of gender and certain Christian understandings of gender as something assigned by God and therefore immutable. Because so much of Christianity is rooted in patriarchy, challenges to gender are particularly threatening because of their potential to undermine the hierarchies of gender at the center of much Christian theology. The fact of transgender people makes visible the fiction of the immutability and inevitability of gender.

The response of many Christians, including legislators in North Carolina and Mississippi, to the visiblity and progress of LGBTQ people is rooted in what I have elsewhere termed "Christian fragility." The idea of Christian fragility arises from the notion of "White Fragility," coined by Robin DiAngelo. Christian fragility is an emotional state in which Christians cannot tolerate the stress that arises from challenges to their beliefs. In response to this stress, Christians resort to anger and defensiveness, positioning themselves as victims of religious discrimination and insulating themselves from people and ideas that offer sustained challenges to their beliefs. By attempting to reassert their privilege and dominance, they hope to regain an equilibrium that reinforces their beliefs and quashes challenges to those beliefs.

So, in response to the progress of LGBTQ people in the United States and the concurrent disruption of Christian privilege that has come with that progress, the fragility of a certain kind of Christian identity has led to reactions of anger and defensiveness, including passing legislation that, in the guise of religious liberty, actually institutionalizes discrimination against LGBTQ people for purely religious reasons.

Early Southern Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins said, "To put the power and prestige of the state behind one form of religion and merely tolerate others is not religious liberty. It is religious coercion" ("The Baptist Conception of Religious Liberty" in Walter B. Shurden, ed. Proclaiming the Baptist Vision: Religious Liberty. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1997, p. 87).

For states to pass legislation based on a particular religion does not protect religious liberty but violates it. As the courts have attempted to untangle cases of religious freedom, they have asked a number of questions. Does the legislation impose a substantial burden on religion? Does the state have a compelling interest in involving itself in matters of religion? Is there a religious intent to the law? Or does the law serve primarily secular purposes?

Anti-discrimination laws pass these tests. Asking businesspeople to provide services to LGBTQ people or allowing people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity does not impose a substantial burden on religion. People can still believe anything they want about LGBTQ people. People can still worship as they want, preach against homosexuality, and engage in heterosexual behavior guided by the dictates of their faith. Respecting the civil and human rights of LGBTQ people is not a substantial burden on religion. The state also has a compelling interest in non-discrimination, civil rights, and equal treatment, and anti-discrimination laws do not have a religious intent, but they do serve primarily secular purposes.

On the other hand, recent legislation that allows discrimination in the name of religion does not seem to pass these tests. These so-called "religious freedom" measures do have a religious intent, they do favor one religious group over another, and they do not primarily serve secular purposes. Instead, these laws serve as a way to reestablish equilibrium for those Christians whose religious beliefs and identities are challenged by LGBTQ people and laws that support non-discrimination. These Christians have used the state to advance their own religion over the civil and human rights of others. As Mullins noted, this is not religious liberty but religious coercion.

Most perplexing, however, is the extent to which Christian fragility leads some Christians to violate larger principles of Christian faith in order to regain the equilibrium of Christian privilege. Christian notions of hospitality to strangers, love for enemies, and sacrifice of one's own freedom for the sake of others are abandoned in the need to reinforce identities shaped by narrowly defined beliefs rooted more in history and prejudice than in Christian love, the Bible, or Christian theology.