Christians, Fish and the Removal of Hats

A newly-appointed cardinal adjust his beretta as Pope Benedict XVI leads the mass in solemnity of the chair of St. Peter with
A newly-appointed cardinal adjust his beretta as Pope Benedict XVI leads the mass in solemnity of the chair of St. Peter with new Cardinals in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican on February 19, 2012. The Pontiff put his stamp of authority on the body that will elect his successor as he appointed 22 new cardinals at a time of roiling tensions in the Vatican administration. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/GettyImages)

On a cold and windy day this week, outfitted in my warmest winter outfit from head to toes, I entered the Memorial Union on our campus with the intention of mailing a package to my cousin in Portland, Ore. Soon after I pulled open the door through my double-layered gloves and entered the Gold Star Hall, replete with its lovely stained glass windows and the names of Iowa State University students who had fallen in war engraved proudly on the walls, a young man, who had been walking behind me, hurried his pace. Overtaking me and looking directly into my eyes, he commanded: "Sir, you need to take off your hat!"

The door through which one enters the Memorial Union displays a prominent sticker announcing: "If you are able, please take off your hat as a sign of respect."

I clearly, though firmly, responded to the young man that "Taking off one's hat stems from a Christian tradition. I am Jewish, and to us, we cover our heads as a sign of respect." The man's mouth distorted irritably as he mumbled something under his breath, and he walked down the stairs, possibly on his way to the food court, or maybe to enter the Memorial Union Chapel to compose himself beneath the seven-foot Christian cross while seated upon the pews bearing chiseled crosses on its sides, on our publicly tax supported land-grant university campus.

The tradition of removing one's hat began in medieval times with men in Christian churches as a sign of respect to God. A number of other religious and cultural traditions, however, including Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and others, show respect for God and for individuals by covering one's head.

As the old saying goes, the fish is the last to see or even feel the water because it is so pervasive, and therefore, the fish take the water for granted. Often, those beings situated outside the water can, in effect, perceive the water's existence with its edges, depths, surfaces, consistencies and reflections.

By analogy, what many (most likely the majority) within our society consider as "normal" and appropriate, upon critical reflection many perceive as (re)enforcements of mainline Christian standards and what is referred to as "Christian hegemony" and "Christian privilege," though presented in presumably secularized forms, and as such, are reminders that the United States is, indeed, not the inclusive and welcoming land of freedom, justice and equality that it purports to be.

This applies as well to many terms that have entered the standard lexicon and daily speech. Terms and phrases such as "knock on wood," "cross your fingers," "to have an epiphany," "you're a saint," "Baptism by fire," "hail Mary pass," "the Holy Grail of...," "I take my hat off to you," "church and state," "BC/AD (Before Christ/Anno Domini), "THE new millennium," "El Niño /La Niña," "Devil's advocate" and many others derive from Christianity in that they have Christian antecedents.

As a nation, I hope we can embrace our rich diversity and enhance multiculturalism and cross-cultural literacy. According to the National Association for Multicultural Education:

"Multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity as acknowledged in various documents, such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, constitutions of South Africa and the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. It affirms our need to prepare students for their responsibilities in an interdependent world." (Feb. 1, 2003)

Without a strong emphasis on multiculturalism in our school and larger society, we will continue down the historical path laid by those who have gone before us in the United States, which Joel Spring refer to as "cultural genocide" defined as "the attempt to destroy other cultures" (p. 3) through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of "deculturalization," which Spring (2004) describes as "the educational process of destroying a people's culture and replacing it with a new culture" (p. 3).

Antonio Gramsci advanced the concept of "cultural hegemony," which describes the ways in which the dominant group successfully disseminates its social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as "common sense," as "normal," and as "universal." This hegemony maintains the marginality of other groups with different or opposing views. Hegemony is advanced through what Michel Foucault (1980) terms "discourses," which include the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. These are implanted within networks of social and political control, described by Foucault as "regimes of truth," which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as THE truth.

I define "Christian hegemony" as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on Christians. It is the institutionalization of a Christian norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be Christian, thereby privileging Christians and Christianity, and excluding the needs, concerns, religious cultural practices, and life experiences of people who are not Christian. Often overt and at times more subtle, Christian hegemony is oppression by design and intent, but also by neglect, omission, erasure and distortion (Blumenfeld, 2006).

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term "cultural pluralism" to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot"), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Today, the United States stands as the most culturally, ethnically, racially, linguistically and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

  • Blumenfeld, W J. (2006). Christian privilege and the promotion of "secular" and not-so "secular" mainline Christianity in public schooling and the larger society. Equity and Excellence in Education. 39(3).
  • Foucault, M. (1980). The history of sexuality, Part 1 (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.
  • Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Trans.). New York: International.
  • Kallen, H. (1915). Democracy versus the melting pot, The Nation, 100(2590) 190-94, 217-30.
  • Spring, J. (2004). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.