by Wade Rathke
October 3, 2020
Atlanta As always, there are things you know, things you think you know, and then the dreaded assumptions that mask as both, but are neither. It’s those assumptions that Professor Khyati Joshi of Fairleigh Dickerson University in Virginia surgically attacks in her book, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, all of which led to a lively conversation on these themes on Wade’s World recently.
As Professor Joshi said from the beginning, part of what she was trying to do in her book was look at the history of such privilege, not simply the current manifestations of it that permeate our civil and secular society. Good examples were everywhere it seems. Certainly, the stains of slavery are ubiquitous on this issue, but also take something that many assume to be a pillar in the US Constitution, the separation of church and state. Joshi points out that oft-repeated concept dates simply to a letter from Thomas Jefferson where he used the phrase. Or, the modern obsessions with the Pledge of Allegiance that was only rivaled recently by the issue of kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner, preening as a national anthem. The phrase “under God” linked to “one nation” dates only to the early 1950s.
Joshi deals with these cultural and religious assumptions on a regular basis, not just in her book and university, but in regular workshops where she mentioned having been in dialogue with 500 to 1000 people even during the pandemic months. She’s not trying to shame people or even to negate the traditional touchstones, but to get people to realize the issues that underlie the assumptions that many have unthinkingly.
In our conversation she offered some personal experiences, growing up, as she said, a “brown Hindu girl in Atlanta.” She didn’t do well in American literature classes, partially because some of the metaphors were steeped in this white Christian privilege. One story she told was of a teacher referencing an allusion to the story of the good Samaritan. Hearing that, she was dumbstruck, because she had no idea what was being discussed. Her point was not that the biblical reference didn’t have value, once she understood it, but that it was so deeply embedded in the teacher’s expectations of the class, that there was no effort to explain it. For those of us force-marched through years of Sunday School, where as my high school Latin teacher would have observed, repetitio est mater studiorum or “repetition is the mother of study,” it was easy to recognize how common such oversights inevitably must be and therefore deserving of our constant attention.
Joshi points out that Christianity no longer even claims the majority of adherents in the United States, which might be part of why evangelicals and conservatives are so focused on its advocacy, as it slips in standing. Other religions in our diverse population are increasingly common, as is no religion or religious practice. Joshi argues for a “social justice religion” that might find a more fertile soil in the country now, especially if accompanied by “critical consciousness” about both what we know and what we assume, making our cultural interchange more accountable and encompassing. All of which offers much food for thought and a regimen that requires constant and daily practice in order to do no further harm.