Khyati Y. Joshi’s White Christian Privilege analyzes the way in which “pervasive Christian privilege prevails in the United States today” (p. 1). She further argues that “Christian privilege in the United States has always been entangled with notions of White supremacy,” (p. 2) such that White Christian privilege in particular is deeply embedded in our nation’s laws, practices, values, norms, and even language. While Joshi does provide examples of real racial and religious discrimination that Christians should abhor, her analysis takes place within a critical “social justice” framework that is deeply flawed and leads to conclusions that Christians must reject. In this way, her book is helpful for correcting some common Christian misconceptions regarding contemporary critical theory.
Misconception 1: Critical theorists and Christians can agree on fighting “oppression”
One of the primary ways Christians are drawn into critical theory is through the redefinition of words like “justice” and “oppression.” Christians who are rightly concerned about true justice and resistance to actual oppression sometimes don’t pause to ask how these words are being used. At the outset, Joshi makes clear that –to her– oppression does not merely refer to the “prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control” that we see in chattel slavery or sex trafficking. Rather, to Joshi, “oppression” is simply the flip-side of “privilege.”
“religious oppression is present wherever we find privilege: in legal policies and structures, in social designs and cultural practices, and at the level of individual discrimination” (p. 10)
“the privilege that American Christians enjoy… results in the oppression of members of religious minorities and atheists” (p. 22)
“Privilege is a product of institutional oppression and legacies of social power” (p. 128)
“[those with privilege] must take responsibility for having benefited from the oppressive practices which produced their privilege” (p. 206)
Consequently, in order to dismantle oppression, we must dismantle the systems that create “privilege.” But what is privilege?
Briefly, privilege refers to the ways in which one group is advantaged because their beliefs and practices are taken as the norm, or standard, or default for society. Whites, men, and heterosexuals are all named as privileged groups, but Joshi focuses on Christian privilege in particular. She writes:
“Protestant perspectives have become the ‘truths’ at the bedrock of American society” (p. 1)
“Christian privilege is structural. It has afforded the Christian majority the historic and contemporary power to shape social norms. This Christian normativity makes Christian values intrinsic to our national identity, conveys the status of truth and rightness on Christian culture, and makes Christian language and metaphors and their underlying theology the national standard” (p. 3)
“Christian hegemony thus refers to the predominance and endorsement at the national level of Christian observances, beliefs, scriptures, and manners of worship. Christianity is embedded in our national laws, mores, and expectations as ‘regimes of truth’” (p. 4)
“The external/structural dimension of privilege refers to the construction of what is normal and not normal, what is acceptable and unacceptable, as decided by society. Privileged groups define the mainstream culture–behavior patterns, symbols, institutions, values, and other socially constructed components of society” (p. 129)
“A norm defines and is defined by its opposite: the ‘other,’ the exclusion of which is simultaneous with, and mirrors, the inclusion of what is normal. The norm encompasses everything from theological ‘truth’ to manners and customs of practice; by comparison, the ‘other’ religions come to be seen as deviant, wrongful, evil, or sick.” (p. 134)
On p. 138, she lists several examples Christian privilege, which include how “core Christian beliefs, such as the virginity of Jesus’ mother Mary, the Resurrection, and the Assumption, and many of the ‘miracles’ attributes to Jesus, are treated as true and accurate.”
In the final section, I’ll say more about the relationship between Christianity and culture. But for now, we need to recognize that Joshi’s commitment to dismantling oppression entails the creation of a society in which neither Christian values nor Christian beliefs are socially dominant. LGBTQ issues and abortion are mentioned specifically by Joshi. With respect to these topics, Joshi would not only want to remove laws which enshrine “Christian values,” she would also want to ensure that Christian perspectives on these topics are no longer accepted by mainstream culture as obviously true, good, and normal.
Misconception 2: Critical theorists merely want to extend privilege to everyone
Occasionally, Christians co-opt the language of “privilege” to argue that we should work to extend privilege to everyone. Joshi emphatically rejects this idea:
“The aim is not to share privilege, so that more people have it…As a nation, we should be pursuing and enjoying the absence of privilege, replacing it with opportunity, dignity, and safety that are equally available to all… We must dismantle the structures in place, not to redistribute privilege but to replace the very notion of privilege with a fulfillment of the ideas of equality” (p. 225)
These statements flows necessarily from her understanding as “privilege” and “oppression” as two sides of the same coin. On her view, if privilege exists then oppression exists. Thus her goal is not more privileged groups, but no privileged (or oppressed) groups at all.
Misconception 3: Concepts like “privilege” and “structural oppression” only apply to race
Throughout her book, Joshi says explicitly that she is engaging in an “intersectional” approach to Christian privilege, meaning that she sees it as inextricably linked to race, sex, sexuality, nationality, etc.
“Christian privilege in the United States has always been entangled with notions of White supremacy.” (p. 2)
“Christian privilege interacts with other privileges and cultural norms, such as heterosexual privilege, to create cross-cutting patterns of benefit and detriment” (p. 128)
“We cannot just talk about White supremacy, without talking about the role of Christianity in creating and maintaining White supremacy” (p. 200)
The very phrase “Christian privilege” mirrors Peggy McIntosh’s phrase “white privilege” (p. 135-136). Elsewhere, Joshi makes an analogy between “color-blind racism” which “pretends a person of color is socially raceless [resulting] in the marginalization and oppression of people of color” and the “optical illusion of American ‘religious freedom'” which “[pretends] that US society is religiously neutral [obscuring] Christian privilege and religious oppression encountered by religious minorities” (p. 29-30).
Under this intersectional paradigm, critical theorists loudly critique those who attempt to engage in a one-dimensional analysis that would ignore race or gender or sexuality or gender identity or religion or nationality as sites of oppression.
Misconception 4: If an author doesn’t say “critical theory” they’re not doing critical theory
Anyone who has read the work of Khyati Joshi, Robin DiAngelo or Ibram Kendi or Patricia Hill Collins or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva should recognize that they are all employing some shared analytic framework. Phases like “white privilege,” “intersectionality,” “social justice,” “hegemonic power,” “systemic injustice,” “lived experience,” “liberatory/critical consciousness,” and “internalized oppression” suffuse their work. Whether we want to label this framework “critical theory” or “critical social justice” or “applied postmodernism,” it certainly exists and undergirds all their work.
However, Joshi is instructive here. She relies on the concepts of hegemonic power, systemic oppression, and intersectionality throughout her analysis, but doesn’t actually mention the phrase “critical race theory” until page 208 where she writes that she and her students “applied the skills of critical race theory to identify and explore the Christian normativity and privilege embedded in US law.” This should serve as an important reminder not to assume that someone isn’t doing critical theory merely because you don’t see them use the phrase “critical theory.”
Misconception 5: Embracing critical theory won’t affect our theology
Occasionally people insist that critical theory is nothing more that an analytic tool which can be employed without altering our theology. There are many reasons that this claim is incorrect, but I’ll focus on the one most relevant to Joshi’s work: evangelism.
At a personal level, Joshi seems to be a standard religious relativist who agrees with her UMC church that there are “many paths, one journey” (p. 220). Consequently, one might think that she wouldn’t care whether a particular person chose one path over another. However, as a social scientist, she views the social dominance of Christianity to be oppressive. Thus, when Christians evangelize, they necessarily evoke and reify a power imbalance. It’s no surprise, then, that she takes a dim view of Christian evangelism.
For example, when she lists “extreme forms of Christian supremacy,” she includes “the Intervarsity Fellowship booklet ‘Internationals On Campus’ which identifies Indians as requiring ‘special care’ and offers advice ‘training students to reach Hindus’ and ‘bringing the gospel to our Muslim friends'” (p. 170). Elsewhere, she warns that “Internalized Christian dominance” includes how “Christian rituals, traditions, and stories are regarded as superior to other beliefs” (p. 172).
Of course, Christians can do evangelism in demeaning ways. But that observation is distinct from the idea that evangelism is a necessarily oppressive manifestation of “extreme Christian supremacy.”
Joshi’s book is flawed not only because of her reliance on critical theory, but also because of her fundamental assumption that no religion is objectively true. But if Christianity is objectively true, then her abhorrence of “Christian hegemony” is largely (though not entirely, as we’ll see shortly) unnecessary. For example, very few people worry about the problem of “gravitational hegemony” or “anti-homicide hegemony” in our culture. That is, we are not concerned that the theory of gravity is taken for granted as true or that our culture has almost universally internalized the norm that “murder is wrong.” But if Christianity were just as objectively true as gravity or the immorality of murder, what precisely would be wrong with people assuming that it was true? Nothing, as far as I can tell. The real problem would not be the widespread assumption that Christianity is true, but the way that non-Christians might be treated in such a society. So rather than working to “dismantle Christian hegemony,” Christians would do far better to work to see that all people, including non-Christians, are treated with love and dignity, as Jesus himself commands.
But should Christians promote or even tolerate “Christian hegemony”? There has been much discussion of the dangers of “cultural Christianity” in recent years, as some evangelicals argue that it produces nominalism and hypocrisy. And certainly, we should recognize that “cultural Christianity” or “Christian hegemony” on their own will not save a single soul. Merely living in a culture that assumes Christian values and a Christian vocabulary is no substitute for a living faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet, at the same time, when people sneer at “cultural Christianity” they sometimes forget the alternative. Do we really want to live under “pagan hegemony,” in which it’s normal to leave female infants to die of exposure or to watch gladiators disembowel each other for sport? Indeed, it seems to me that Joshi’s notion of hegemony is so broad that she will end up inevitably carving out exceptions for values that she happens to support. After all, she talks about producing a society that values “equality” and “universal rights.” What are these if not values that she wants all of society to promote and, eventually, to take for granted?
In summary, Joshi’s project is hamstrung by a flawed conceptual framework based on critical theory and an undesirable goal of a society without any shared values. Christians should be grateful, not ashamed or unhappy, if actual Christian norms like care for the poor, biblical sexual ethics, and reverence for God are widely accepted in a culture. Love and respect for non-Christians should necessarily flow out of these same values.
“Whiteness has been a dominant theological outlook by which non-White, non-Christian persons have been assessed along a hierarchy of humanity” (p. 6)
“Growing up in suburban Atlanta in the 1980s… I didn’t recognize the Christian normativity and privilege that I was surrounded by… I knew something wasn’t right, but until graduate school I didn’t have the language to name or explain my experiences as belonging to a religious and racial minority. Developing a critical consciousness is a difficult process”(p. 178)
“Christianity’s social power results in injustice for others” (p. 195)
“When I speak of ‘dismantling’ I mean taking down the edifice of White Christian supremacy, brick by brick: repealing a law, changing a policy or standard, discarding outdated and Christian normative turns of phrase…” (p. 206)
“it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist” (p. 209)