Christian Policies Saturate the U.S.--What Can We do About It?

"Living in the Shadow of the Cross" explains how to understand and resist the power and privilege of Christian hegemony.

The following are excerpts from the new book Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemonyby Paul Kivel (New Society Publishers, 2013): 

What is Christian Hegemony? 

I define Christian hegemony as the everyday, systematic set of Christian values, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of US society. Nothing is unaffected.

Christian dominance is a complex and shifting system that benefits all Christians, those raised Christian and those passing as Christian. However, the concentration of power and wealth accumulates to a predominantly Christian power elite. All others experience exploitation and constant vulnerability to violence.

This dominance operates on several levels. First is the subtle internalization of Christian beliefs by individuals. The behavior and voting patterns of millions of people in the United States are influenced by concepts such as original sin, manifest destiny, the existence of “the one truth” contained within Christianity and the notion that humans were given dominion over the earth. 

The social, political and economic (as opposed to spiritual) power that individual clergy exert on people’s lives is another level of impact. Many clergy condone US expansionism, missionary activity towards non-Christians and exclusion of groups deemed sinful or dangerous.

Some denominations wield very significant power in the US. For example, the Mormon, Catholic and other churches, along with many individual religious leaders, raised millions of dollars and mobilized constituents to vote for Proposition 8 on the California ballot - a 2008 measure that made same-sex marriage illegal.

There is also a vast network of parachurch organizations - general tax-supported nonprofits such as hospitals, broadcasting networks, publishing houses, lobbying groups and organizations like Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, The Family, World Vision, International Association of Character Cities- and thousands of others which wield influence in particular spheres of the US and internationally. As just one example, the Child Evangelism Fellowship runs Good News Clubs in public schools across the US, teaching hundreds of thousands of children to find Jesus and proselytize other children.

Another level of Christian dominance comes from the power elite, those who control the largest and most powerful institutions in the US. The Koch brothers (combined net worth $43 billion), Rupert Murdoch (over $8 billion), the Walton Family (combined net worth over $90 billion) and the Council for National Policy exert this kind of power.

And finally there is the level that provides the foundation for all the others: the deep legacy of ideas, values and practices produced within dominant western Christianity over the centuries. That legacy continues to shape our culture and frame public policies.

All these levels of Christian dominance have significant impacts. The personal shows up in the way many Christians internalize feelings of superiority, entitlement and judgment - as well as guilt - while those who are not Christian may primarily internalize low self-worth.

Interpersonal effects include specific acts of aggression directed at those who are not Christian or Christian of the wrong sort e.g. people who are LGBTQ.

The institutional effects show up in the ways the health care, educational and criminal legal systems favor Christians and Christian values and treat others as outside society’s circle of caring. For example, most institutional policies privilege Christian holidays and cultural norms, treating other religions’ practices as unusual and therefore easily dismissed. The levels of this institutionalized system of dominance are interconnected, so the cumulative impact creates a structure that is all-encompassing.

Christian dominance has become so invisible that its manifestations even appear to be secular. In this context, the oxymoronic phrase secular Christian dominance might be most appropriate. Of course, there are many forms of Christian fundamentalism which are anything but secular. But the more mainstream, everyday way these seemingly subtle values influence our lives is less evident, although no less significant. This less visible Christian hegemony is the focus of In the Shadow of the Cross.


US Foreign Policy

Christian Dominance is visible at every level of US foreign policy from the concept of a cosmic battle between good and evil to a belief in our Manifest Destiny to bring various kinds of salvation to benighted peoples. As religious historian Andrew Preston has extensively documented, “American foreign relations retained core features developed early on … not merely over decades but down through the centuries.” He further explained, “In the American context, this has often meant waging war in the name of God, or at least in the name of serving him and fulfilling his will. This is familiar rhetoric in the history of American exceptionalism: the stuff of providence, manifest destiny, a New Jerusalem, and a shining city upon a hill.” Sometimes American exceptionalism led to policies of compassion, charity and peace. More often it promoted land theft, war and other forms of aggression.

Influential leadership groups such as the Family and Council on National Policy, powerful international Christian missionary/aid organizations such as World Vision and networks of organizations such as those constituting the Christian Zionist lobby are vehicles through which Christian power and privilege are expressed. The reach of the US Empire is enormous, affecting lives in all parts of the world. As examples below will demonstrate, it is not surprising much of the world views the US Empire as a Christian one. This is what some people want; it is what many people fear.

Us and Them

The oft-used phrase “You’re either with us or against us” encapsulates the belief in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Early Christians offered pagans and Jews a choice: “Convert or die.” Centuries later, crusaders offered Jews and Muslims the same choice. Later still, indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere were told to convert and give up their land or be killed. Today the US offers similar ultimatums to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan or North Korea. Accept our terms or we will "bomb you back into the stone age,” as US presidents, policy makers and military officers have phrased it.

Dominant Christianity has cloaked its violence under the mission of saving people. In a relatively recent example, the US under President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days and nights, destroying one of the most progressive countries in Europe. But this was called humanitarian intervention and is still widely seen as such by most people in the US.

Even today, no matter how many wars we fight, how much we are complicit with the conditions that impoverish people, people in the US pride ourselves on our generous and benevolent motivations in invading other countries. These relations of rescue, whether individual or national, continue to justify interventions rarely beneficial to those receiving such so-called help.

Another recent example of this dynamic is the response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The charitable response of individuals in the US was needed, substantial and well intended. However, the U.S. has long supported economic policies that deliberately impoverished Haiti and provided military support for dictatorships. The US participated in deposing Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. The US used the humanitarian crisis to send in large numbers of troops and slow down the distribution of aid from around the world, setting the stage for further economic exploitation. At the same time, US media blamed the Haitians for lack of infrastructure - infrastructure that had been deliberately sabotaged by US policies which prevented importation of certain kinds of needed materials. Confirming their sense of the US as a generous Christian nation, people could feel good about their charitable response, blame the Haitians for their problems and ignore the devastating centuries-long impact of US interventions.

In contemporary US foreign policy the narrative describes entire nations supposedly held captive by barbarian leaders such as communist dictators, Muslim terrorists, anti-colonial nationalists.

In 1941 Henry Luce, enormously influential publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote an editorial titled “The American Century.” He said that the US “was destined to be the Good Samaritan and the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice.” Luce argued the United States had, “the right to go with our ships and ocean-going airplanes, however we wish, when we wish, and as we wish.”

Today this missionary zeal is still linked with what the US considers its responsibility to bring US-defined modernity, democracy and most recently, free markets, human rights and civil society to other peoples - almost always against their will and with the use of overpowering force. Those who lose in struggle with us (the Russians or Saddam Hussein) are confirmed as evil, and our every victory is taken as a sign of divine providence and the country's exceptional goodness.

Of course, if a government sees itself as anointed by God and carrying out God’s mandate, then there is no moral or legal standard it need accept about its actual behavior. As cultural historian Robert Jewett has noted, this leads to “a problematic sense of innocence, moral superiority, and entitlement … [because] … If you believe you are already virtuous, you feel automatically entitled to reform others.” Or, as Graham Greene described a typical American in his novel The Quiet American, “He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance.”

Finally, it becomes easy to blame what some may be call a failure in US foreign policy on the resistance of other peoples to one’s efforts to help them, rather than on the intrusiveness of the United States’ military/missionary actions.

Faith-Based Initiatives

Faith-based initiatives - and the benefits they provide to Christian groups - are not new, but they have received more prominence in recent years because of former president George W. Bush’s programs and President Obama’s extension of them when his administration began.

This round of faith-based initiatives actually began under President Clinton when he signed the 1996 US Welfare Reform Act, which allowed some houses of worship to receive tax dollars for delivery of social services. This law eliminated safeguards intended to prevent recipients from subjection to unwanted proselytizing, the display of large religious icons in areas where services were provided and other forms of captive-audience religious expression. Since the US government has relaxed guidelines for the separation of church and state in this area, more than 100 cities and 33 states have established similar faith-based social service initiatives.

Christian organizations have strongly lobbied for cutbacks in government services and the privatization of education, health care, housing, and other public programs. This lobbying is obviously self-serving if the groups opposing public service then turn around and request government funding for providing the same service, but without government control or standards. In 2009, groups self-described as faith-based received $2.2 billion in grants from federal agencies, according to documents provided by the White House.

While religious charities receive billions of dollars, funding for federal programs continues to be cut. This is neither accidental nor unintentional. As Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), the largest Christian prison program in the country has said, referring to a lawsuit, "What's at stake is not just a prison program, but how we deal with social problems in our country. Do we do it through grassroots organizations [sic] or big government? We know what works."

Challenging Colson’s assurance about what works, the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization, conducted an assessment of faith-based initiatives in Texas in 2002. They found that “positive results have proven impossible to document or measure.” The program has “provided a refuge for facilities with a history of regulatory violations, a theological objection to state oversight and a higher rate of abuse and neglect.” These programs “endangered people in need and lowered standards of client health, safety and quality of care in Texas … and ha[ve] resulted in preferential treatment of faith-based providers in government contracting opportunities. Taxpayer funds have been co-mingled with church funds and spent on overtly religious activities.” Despite evaluations of this kind, the faith-based initiatives program has been continued and even ramped up by the Obama administration under the new name of White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

A 2001 Pew Forum survey found most Americans would not favor allowing groups not Christian or Jewish (such as Muslim Americans, Buddhist Americans, the Nation of Islam or the Church of Scientology) to apply for federal funds to help people in need or to deal with social problems. And, in fact, outside of a handful of Jewish groups over the years, almost no non-Christian organizations have received funding under the faith-based US federal programs. 


Islamophobia as Public Policy

On August 25, 2010, Ahmed H. Sharif, a taxi driver in New York, was attacked with a knife and slashed on the neck and face by Michael Enright. The attack occurred immediately after Sharif had replied yes to his young white Christian passenger's question about whether he was a Muslim. After fleeing the taxicab, Enright was quickly caught by the police and charged with attempted murder. The attack on Ahmed Sharif was not only a personal tragedy but, like all hate crimes, a reminder to the Muslim community that they are seen by many in the US as outsiders, and thus legitimate targets of violence.

In the summer of 2012, Muslim Americans experienced numerous violent attacks such as the burning to the ground of a Missouri mosque; an air rifle fired at the Muslim Education Center in Illinois while 500 people prayed; the throwing of a homemade bomb at a Muslim school in Illinois and a Muslim home in Florida; harassment of worshipers at a California mosque and the desecration of other mosques across the country.

The regular occurrence of these attacks, the complicity of public officials with some and the widespread refusal to condemn the violence make these events visible examples of dominant power. The safety white Christians experience when building churches and praying, the lack of harassment and discrimination they experience in work sites, schools and neighborhoods, the access to political representation and economic or educational opportunities all define Christian privilege.

Islamophobia is a blanket term for a combination of religious, racial and cultural oppression targeting anyone perceived to be Muslim, Arab or generally Middle-Eastern. The word technically means fear or hatred of Islam and focuses on individual attitudes, obscuring the larger system in which such attitudes develop. Anti-Muslim oppression is a more accurate term for systematic and institutionalized marginalization, discrimination and violence directed at Muslims, who are racially profiled in airports and urban settings, routinely discriminated against in job and housing situations and portrayed as dangerous fanatics in the popular Western media, particularly in movies and video games. Islamic organizations are under intense surveillance by the US government, have their charitable activities challenged, are routinely denied building permits and find their mosques and cultural centers attacked. Describing the cumulative impact of these practices a leader of the Muslim Peace Coalition has said:

The Muslim community in the United States has been living in a virtual internment camp ever since 9/11. Since then, more than 700,000 Muslims have been interviewed by the FBI. Practically all mosques have been ‘checked for nuclear bombs’ or other fear-provoking reasons.

What popular culture in the US doesn't reflect is that most Muslims in the world are neither Arab nor Middle Eastern. Mainstream media portray Islam as a monolithic, militaristic religion, unchanged since the seventh century, hostile to Christianity and inimical to all things modern and Western. Extremist clerics such as Osama Bin Laden are assumed to be typical representatives.

There are estimated to be between three and seven million Muslim Americans. In contrast to the stereotypes, vicious hate speech and the violence directed against them, a Pew Research Survey reported, most Muslims in the US are well-educated and middle class. The report concludes that Muslim Americans are "... largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world."

Anti-Muslim oppression targets present-day Muslims not as they are, but as they have been demonized for centuries in the Western imagination. They are the dark, menacing, non-Christian Other, intent on destroying Western civilization. This imagined danger justifies public policy targeting individual Muslims and Islamic organizations for continual vilification; these policies encourage discrimination and hate crimes.

A well-funded anti-Muslim network of Christian individuals and organizations stirs up these issues and taps into mistaken but widespread beliefs. A USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted in July, 2006 found 39% of respondents felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage favored requiring Muslims, including US citizens, to carry a special ID "as a means of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States." About 1/3 said US Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and over 1/5 said they wouldn't want Muslims as neighbors. Those numbers are likely to be much higher today (2013) as conservative leaders crank up their anti-Muslim messages.

Islamophobia serves the same purpose in the war on terror that McCarthy's anti-communism played in the Cold War, and the Inquisition played in wars against heresy. An ideology stirs up fear and hatred against a group of Others which is then used to justify continual war abroad and surveillance and control at home. McCarthy and current leaders in the Islamophobia movement may be extreme individuals, but they “emerge from within the political establishment, the security apparatus, the academy, the think tank milieus, and the mainstream media.” Muslims, one of dominant Christianity’s oldest groups of Others, has been put in the spotlight once again to justify new crusades. 

Just as with racial profiling and discrimination directed against other groups, anti-Muslim oppression threatens our collective safety when resources are selectively and inappropriately directed at specific communities. It threatens our civil and religious liberties when one group is singled out as not entitled to constitutionally guaranteed rights. When Christians and others speak out and stand strong as allies to the Muslim community they challenge violence and injustice, increase their own safety and freedom and challenge age-old Christian stereotypes and myths.

Published with permission from New Society Publishers.