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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 Hegemony by 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.