I posted a version of this op-ed on Unmasked, but in a time of intense anonymity on this campus, it felt important to stake my name to what I wrote.
Last Thursday, a group of white men passed out miniature bibles outside of Paresky and on Spring Street. Like several people on social media posted, I thought it was the College giving out journals or planners so I took one. When I saw it was a Bible, I immediately felt uncomfortable. I am very outwardly queer and trans, blur the binary, and tend to be perceived somewhere between “dyke” and “fag.” While there are many Christians who support queer people and many queer Christians, in general, people who pass out bibles on street corners do not tend to like people like me. I looked into the organization stamped on the Bible, Gideons International, and felt fairly certain that these particular men were in that subgroup. They are an evangelical society of Christian men only (their wives are — and I quote — “auxiliary”).
Many people on campus – including me – expressed discomfort online at this new campus presence. In response to these comments, someone posted on Unmasked, “Not a practicing Christian, but uncomfortable with the way people disparage Christians on this campus,” which launched a 62-comment-long thread. There were a lot of comments that boiled down to: “If you said X thing you said about Christianity about Islam or Judaism it would be Islamophobic or antisemitic. So why is it different for Christianity?”
It is different. Criticizing Christianity is different than criticizing other religions.
Christianity is the most dominant religion and has been for centuries. In much of the world, especially in the United States, this dominance has included large-scale genocide and colonialism. It has shaped the way our society has responded to women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people in massive (often bad) ways. Many religions have problematic views, but they have not shaped the fabric of our country like Christianity has. As a commenter on my post noted, the currency of our nation says “in God we trust.” That God denotes the Christian God. All but two presidents – Lincoln and Jefferson – have been Christians. 88 percent of the current Congress identify as Christian. While we may be a more secular campus, Christianity dominates our nation and exerts tremendous power.
Like expressing frustration at white people or at men, expressing frustration at Christianity is expressing frustration at systems that have perpetrated massive harm to those not in their subgroups and at the privileges that people in these dominant groups gain from their membership. Not all men are sexist, but sexism remains, and men benefit from its history and present. Not all white people are racist, but they benefit from racist histories and systems. Not all Christians have problematic beliefs, but all Christians benefit from Christianity’s dominance, which is rooted in its problematic history.
Additionally, critiques of Christianity are not generally rooted in racism and therefore cannot be equated to Islamophobia and antisemitism. While Christians are of all races, whiteness is coded into the religion in America due to its history and demographics. While many people of many races and ethnicities practice Judaism and Islam, Islam is consistently associated with brown-skinned people from South West Asia and North Africa and there is a continued belief (in many places) that Jewish people are of a different race than white, Anglo-Saxon people. Because of this, Islamophobia and antisemitism are rooted in racism. Critiques of Christianity are not rooted in this same racism. So, it is impossible to assert that critiquing Christianity (or even bashing it) is comparable to Islamophobia or antisemitism.
The people passing out Bibles were white men. That context matters. The bibles are symbolic of a religion with a history of violent, forced conversion and dominance in the United States. These men have inherent privilege that allows them to pass out bibles without serious risk of harm. It would be different if people of color were passing out bibles. It would be different if copies of the Qur’an or the Torah were distributed.
For many reasons, people on this campus may have reactions to the men being here. I cannot speak for everyone, but I do think a lot of these reactions are rooted in the complex histories and powers associated with Christianity. I do not think they are articulating a problem with Christians generally. Nor do I think many of the critiques are meant to silence religion or hamper religious freedom. I critiqued the distribution of Bibles and I believe in the freedom to practice religion (as long as doing so does not harm others). Respecting freedom to practice religion does not mean we can’t be critical and thoughtful about it. The reflex to defensiveness should be examined under all the complex privileges that exist within Christianity.
All beliefs should be examined within their history and contexts. In fact, critically thinking about our religious beliefs is one of the most sacred things we can do. I come from a Quaker- Jewish family and those beliefs shape me deeply. Those beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum. An important part of being Jewish for me is criticizing the State of Israel and the settler colonial violence it perpetuates. An important part of being Quaker for me is grappling with the violent Christian histories Quakerism exists in.
Christianity is not simple. A belief in Christianity must grapple with that. Christians, Muslims, Jews, and all religious people are not monoliths. There is no single way to be a religious person. But religions have histories and powers. It is worth examining your own position within them.
Alice-Henry Carnell ’22.5 is an English and environmental science major from Towson, Md.