In the April/May 2005 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn writes in his article “Discrimination Against Christians? Oh Please...”:
Majority Christians accurately foresee that their present-day privileges may one day go the way of teacher-led Bible reading. Just as Southern whites did after the Civil War, majority Christians are reacting in ways that are, well, reactionary. ...
Attacks on teaching evolution and efforts to reinstate school prayer increasingly portray majority Christians as victims. And, of course, there was last year’s eagerness to turn back the clock on “Happy Holidays.” Taken together, these initiatives could move the country back toward de facto discrimination against both the nonreligious and all those who are religious but not Christian.
Clearly, majority Christians are getting a lot of mileage out their claims of discrimination. So it’s time to ask some blunt questions. Are majority Christians being discriminated against? No. Are they being treated unfairly? No. Is anyone trying to take their rights away from them? No. But are majority Christians the targets of a reform movement that seeks to take privileges away from them? Emphatically, yes. Many of those privileges are illicit, and their removal will help to bring about a more just and equitable society.
Like Southern whites in the Jim Crow years, today’s Christian Americans have been made to give up only some of the illicit privileges they accumulated in the past. The unfairness of the privileges they retain grows more odious with time as the nation becomes more religiously diverse. “Judeo-Christian” practices that seemed acceptable when Christians and Jews dominated debates over religion in public life are transparently unacceptable today, when Christians and Jews share the nation with atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, neopagans, and so on.
This concept of “religious privilege” is very important, I think. Use of the word “privilege” emphasizes the fact that Christianity and Christians have gained from social and legal benefits that they were never really entitled to. Because they persisted for so long, though, Christians seem to have gotten the idea that they deserved them — and now that they are disappearing, the impression exists that vital rights are being lost.
If we were dealing with actual rights, like the right to speech, then claims about discrimination and persecution would be justified. As it is, though, the truth is that Christians are losing privileges — they are losing the ways in which they have been treated better than everyone else. Because of this, they are not actually being discriminated against — but the discrimination against others is ending. It’s not unlike how the elimination of “white privilege” was perceived by whites during the Civil Rights era.
Flynn goes on to quote Ronald A. Lindsay, a church-state separation attorney and a founding member of the Council for Secular Humanism’s First Amendment Task Force, who summarized in 1990 what’s really happening when conservative Christians complain about discrimination:
What is going on here is whining: whining by individuals and groups who have been deprived of the truly privileged position they once enjoyed. For most of this country’s history theism, in particular Christianity, has enjoyed favor. . . . The courts have put an end to some, but certainly not all, of this collaboration between church and state. In doing so, the courts have upset many who assumed that this was the proper way of doing things . . . and who did not see anything coercive, let alone unconstitutional, about such practices. Not unnaturally, they have interpreted the courts’ action as an attack on religion, when in reality they were simply an attempt to put an end to the privileged position that religion enjoyed.
Particularly ironic about this is that privileges for religion have not entirely ended — religion in general continues to enjoy a relatively privileged place in society. What’s ending are privileges for Christianity in particular. Thus complaints about “attacks” on religion are really complaints about “attacks” on Christianity, in which the “attacks” are really policies designed to place Christianity on the same (otherwise privileged) level as all other religions.
Religious privilege — and in particular Christian privilege — is one of the few traditional privileges that continues to be openly defended in modern society. Other forms of privilege, like white privilege and male privilege, may continue to exist but it’s regarded as impolite to actually argue in defense of them anymore. Perhaps one day religious privilege will go the way that white privilege and male privilege are going, but it won’t happen without conservative Christians doing a lot more whining first.