The Southern Strategy of Christian privilege

"When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." Though the authorship of this quote is still contested, examples continue to abound, whether liberals refusing to mask for co-workers who might be immune-compromised or want to protect themselves and their families from COVID, or Christians in the United States and other countries weaponizing victimhood.

I don't live in other countries. My experience in the US is one of an overwhelming overt, covert context and subtext of psychological, legal, historical, and cultural imposition of Christian-themed ideological viewpoints and judgments about the world. These viewpoints and conclusions become justifications for discriminatory laws and policies in the name of religious freedom. This is not about the debate over the separation of church and state – you can check out Philip A. Hamburger's recent book on that controversial subject, but to share this essay by Chrissy Stroop "'Tolerance' and 'religious freedom' are subtle codes for Christian supremacism," in Open Democracy.

"Christian privilege, which shapes political speech in the US in many ways, isn't a concept we're used to discussing very much. That's why I'm devoting this week's column to unpacking the concept further. Christian privilege functions in much the same way as white, male, cisgender and straight privilege function: subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) conveying advantages to those who belong to society's de facto normative category and corollary disadvantages to those who fall outside that category.

Unjust social systems operate most smoothly when they are assumed and we remain largely unconscious of them, or of possible alternatives. But once they are named and brought into the open, we can begin to see the world in a different way – and to see ways that we might work towards greater equity by dismantling social hierarchies based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and, yes, religion (or lack thereof). Like other forms of privilege, Christian privilege is most effective when we don't mention it. And that's why I intend to keep talking about it whenever the topic is relevant."

The Christian dog-whistle politics explored by Stoop in this and other writings are another, often less emphasized element, of the so-called Southern Strategy so clearly articulated by two GOP strategists some 13 years apart.

In 1968, John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy chief, stated, "You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. Raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Then, in 1981, "[t]he late, legendarily brutal [GOP] campaign consultant" Lee Atwater clarified the strategy for organizing white voters and increasing Republican voting power and political positioning, "You start out in 1954 by saying, "N*****, n*****, n*****." By 1968 you can't say "n*****"—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "n*****, n*****." The audio of Atwater's interview is available here.

Chrissy Stoop is a co-editor and contributor to the book, Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church.

"Following the 2016 election of President Trump, Stroop coined the hashtag #EmptyThePews on Twitter as a call to take a moral stance against the kind of fundamentalist, authoritarian, or otherwise conservative churches that helped bring about the current political situation and all its cruelty, division, and hate. The hashtag continues to circulate with the eye-opening and often heartbreaking stories of those who found the resolve to leave evangelical, Mormon, Catholic, and other religious communities."