On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege

Frequently, when I write about religion, of my lack thereof, I get requests to distinguish between "real" Christians (those Christians who centralize personal beliefs of love and service, and are generally more progressive) and "Christianists," or some variation thereof (those Christians who centralize cultural beliefs of evangelism and control and seek to impose/legislate their beliefs, and are generally more conservative). Often, Christians in my life identify themselves to me as "real" Christians by approximately this measure. Occasionally, a reader will even request that I stop identifying certain people as Christians.

In March 2007, a reader left the comment: "Would you folks please stop putting the word 'Christian' in front of the name 'Ann Coulter' as an adjective? Those of us who actually do practice our religion would appreciate it."

My answer was no, I wouldn't stop. And my answer about distinguishing between "real" and "unreal" Christians, beyond noting that there are Christians who try to impose their beliefs on others and those who don't, is also no.

Contrary to what some might believe, it's not because I'm trying to be a belligerent shit. It's because I don't want the responsibility of deciding who's Christian and who isn't—and I can't imagine why any Christian would want to give that responsibility to an atheist in the first place. Yes, I have personal opinions about how closely self-identified Christians of all stripes hew to their own religious text, but it's flatly not my place to kick someone out of the Christian community, even semantically.

And, truth be told, even if I did feel like it were my place, I wouldn't stop identifying as Christians people like, for example, Ann Coulter, anyway—because Christianity is about culture as much as it is scripture no matter on what part of the Christian spectrum one falls.

Coulter describes herself as a Christian and is regarded as a Christian by a sizable portion of the American Christian community. She's invited to speak at Christian conferences. She appears on the same stages as elected GOP members of Congress who are running for president and have made their Christianity a central part of their campaign. She is provided cover for her outrageous commentary and hostility toward feminists, the LGBTQI community, POC, liberals, etc., by Christians and Christian organizations specifically because she calls herself a Christian and so do they.

Coulter, and Christians like her, are part of a specific Christian community. It's not the same, not remotely the same, as many Shakers' Christian communities, or my parents', or lots of other people's, but that doesn't mean that it's not Christian.

Christianity has a 2,000-year history that has seen countless iterations of the religion based on countless interpretation of the text and shaped to fit countless times and spaces and needs in disparate cultures all around the world. Christians have done great things, and not-so-great things—and anyone who makes the personal choice to carry the Christian mantle associates themselves with a history that includes all the good stuff and all the shitty stuff, too. One can't say, "I only associate with the good Christianity—not the inquisitions and the genocides and the warmongering and the colonialism and the institutional misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism…"

That's all part of Christianity's legacy, too—and it just isn't intellectually honest to say, "Well, those weren't real Christians." Yes, they were. And so are the Christians who do shitty stuff today.

They might not be the same kind of Christian as you are, but they are nonetheless Christians.

Christianity, at least (and especially) in America, is a privilege—and, like any privilege, it can be uncomfortable to face the ugly reality of what other members of a privileged class can do to non-privileged folks, even if you don't do it yourself. I'm white, I'm straight, I'm cisgender: I understand the impulse to distance oneself. But as a white person, I am obliged to acknowledge that the history of white supremacy in America is one of slavery, of lynchings, of segregation, of sundown towns, of internment camps, of genocide, and of all manner of institutionalized racism. I don't get to say (nor do I want to) that the KKK aren't "real" white people.

They sure as hell are.

That Christianity is a chosen privilege does not mean its members can claim a lower standard of rigorous self-examination. And it doesn't mean that less privileged Christians, i.e. progressive Christians, can claim a lower standard, either, just because the more privileged Christians marginalize them. Poor whites don't get to disclaim their white privilege just because they are further marginalized by their lack of wealth.

In fact, chosen privileges demand, if anything, a higher standard of self-examination, because one has a choice whether to participate in the privilege. But so often, the fact that Christianity is a choice is instead used to deny the effects of that privilege altogether—"I'm not one of those Christians; I'm one of the good ones!"

All the benefits of the privilege that saying "I'm a Christian" confers; none of the responsibility for the effects of Christian supremacy.

I am a part of the feminist community, a portion of which is institutionally transphobic. (As but one example of embedded bigotry.) Not just transphobic in the way any individual can have internalized transphobia, but subscribing to delineated and codified anti-trans feminist theory. We share the label, but not the belief—and that frustrates the hell out of me.

But I don't handle it by saying, "Those aren't real feminists," and leaving it at that and hoping all the trans readers at Shakesville will oblige my assertion of superiority to transphobic feminists. I have made an ongoing examination of my cis privilege a central part of my feminism. (Which is not to say I never fuck-up; in fact, fucking up is an integral part of my learning process, unfortunately for the people I hurt in the process.) I don't choose to ignore that feminism, a community of which I am a part by choice, runs a spectrum and has a history that includes ugly things.

What asking to be granted a disassociation from Christianity's spectrum and history that includes ugly things does on a practical level is expect marginalized people to pretend that none of the bad things that have been done to them in the name of Christianity have anything to do with actual Christians.

In my own experience, that doesn't just mean regularly having to watch people who call themselves Christians argue that my body should not be my own, that my marriage isn't "real" because it wasn't formed in a church, that my LGBTQI loved ones are not deserving of equality, that I and my fellow progressives are traitors to our nation, that I couldn't possibly be moral because I am an atheist, and on and on and on.

It has also meant being targeted by a man calling himself a Christian, being wantonly smeared nationally by people calling themselves Christians, receiving rape and death threats by people calling themselves Christians, having people calling themselves Christians come to my door and dump garbage on my lawn, and eventually being left with no job and no income, all because of people calling themselves Christians.

The "they're not real Christians" refrain rather quickly loses its strength as a consolation to someone barraged by hatred from people calling themselves Christians. Even the liberal Christians I know had a harder time choking out that line after watching Donohue et. al. exact their "not real" Christian terror campaign upon me, because it sounds so hollow when you're telling someone with an inbox full of prayers they'll burn in hell as soon as they die (and hopefully soon).

Frankly, it's hurtful to me when Christians address what happened to me by saying, "Those aren't real Christians," expecting me to salve their discomfort about the baggage of privilege by not disagreeing. People who would never in a million years think to try to console a victim of a hate crime with "All [white/straight/cis/abled] people aren't like that!" nonetheless responded that way to me when I was targeted and threatened by droves of self-identified Christians.

I already know that all Christians aren't like that—and everyone who said it to me knew I was well aware of that fact. But in the wake of large members of a certain segment of Christianity attacking me, most of the Christians I knew felt obliged first and foremost to distance themselves from the group that hurt me, and do it in a way that protected their idea of Christianity, that reasserted their privilege—a privilege that is shared by the very people who attacked me, solely by virtue of their calling themselves Christians.

And they expected me to be comforted by it.

I understand, really I do, why liberal Christians want to think of this as somehow "different" from other issues of privilege. I understand why they don't want to be associated with people with whom they share a label but little else. (See again: A feminist community with institutionalized bigotry.) But requesting this exception, asking to receive the benefits of Christian privilege while accepting none of the responsibility of Christian supremacy, is not only unfair; it's flatly not progressive, because it ultimately serves to more deeply entrench Christian supremacy and privilege.

Asking me to make distinctions about "real" Christians is asking me to participate in my own marginalization. That is a request I cannot accommodate.

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