GWU Is Conducting a Seminar on “Christian Privilege” and Right-Wing Media Is Very Displeased

Admitted George Washington University students and their parents walk across a branded doormat as they tour the campus before deciding whether or not to enroll on April 26, 2017, in Washington.
Admitted George Washington University students and their parents walk across a branded doormat as they tour the campus before deciding whether or not to enroll on April 26, 2017, in Washington.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

This week, in Room 209 of the Multicultural Student Services Center on the campus of George Washington University, the college’s interim associate director for inclusion initiatives will conduct a seminar on the concept of “Christian privilege.” The workshop will last 90 minutes and will include a PowerPoint presentation. There will be a Q&A. Registration is required.

This urgent national news was reported Tuesday by the College Fix, a conservative site focused on investigative reporting on campus atrocities such as all-female debate tournaments, single classroom exercises on gender identity, and dorm-poster displays on “toxic masculinity.” If a freshman sociology major whispers “gender normativity” to herself in a dorm room at 2 a.m., the Fix is on it.

The GWU event will ask participants to examine questions like, “Even with the separation of Church and State, are there places where Christians have built-in advantages over non-Christians?” It seems uncontroversial to answer this question in the affirmative, but the Fix story was engineered to outrage, and it succeeded. The phrase Christian privilege was trending on Twitter for hours on Tuesday, prompting a range of thoughtful responses:

The Fix reporter, a senior at Auburn University, notes indignantly that the GWU event will be held “Just four days after Easter.” Couldn’t the college have waited a more respectful period of time after the most sacred holiday in Christianity, which persecuted American believers are forced to celebrate in secrecy with large parades, an annual party on the White House lawn, and live network TV musicals about Jesus Christ?

Don’t tell the Fix, but the idea of Christian privilege has not gone unexamined by Western Christians in recent years. Plenty of thoughtful Christian leaders have made the point that Western Christians are hardly an oppressed class. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury put it in 2013, “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness’ sake, grow up,’ I want to say.” Even the toxic term itself has failed to trigger much backlash until now. In 2012, activist Sam Killermann’s list of “30+ Examples of Christian Privilege” (14. “It is easy for you to find your faith accurately depicted in television, movies, books, and other media”) made the rounds on a number of Christian sites. Ed Stetzer, an influential columnist at Christianity Today, called the list “helpful and thought provoking, particularly when Christians in the West say they are being persecuted.”

Still, it is hard to overestimate how important the concept of “persecution” is to some Christians in America. Some genuinely believe that American Christians are an oppressed class, because of developments like the legalization of gay marriage and the rising influence of non-Christian and nonreligious voices in American culture. Others are responding to the real and violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East in particular, covered closely by Christian news outlets. It’s a good thing that American Christians view themselves as part of a global body of believers. But for a faith whose founding stories are bound up in narratives of subjugation and martyrdom, it can be tempting to use the oppression of Middle Eastern Christians as proof that Christians everywhere are being similarly abused.

It would be foolish to devote as much firepower to the Fix article as the Fix devoted to the workshop in Room 209. But it’s worth asking why stories like this one find such traction online. Christian conservatives rightly complain when the mainstream media elevates the kooky blatherings of Christian “leaders” like Fred Phelps of the minuscule Westboro Baptist Church or the obscure Florida pastor whose plan to burn copies of the Quran attracted international headlines in 2010. Why, then, do so many of them reward media outlets that ferret out tiny events on college campuses and describe them as the end of Western civilization?