Monday, July 14, 2014

Defending the Faith: Resistance and Struggle in Recognizing Christian Privilege



Many scholars have asserted that current discourse around diversity and marginalized groups is not meeting the goal of cultural competence (Allen, 1995; Weiler, 1988). Specifically, a lack of discussion around the roles power, privilege, and oppression in perpetuating inequalities is apparent (Case, 2013; Miller, Donner, & Fraser, 2004; Razack, 2002). Much research has been conducted on privilege, which has been defined as “systematically conferred advantages individuals enjoy by virtue of their membership in dominant groups” (Bailey, 1998, p. 109). However, the bulk of this research has focused on White (e.g., Pewewardy, 2007), male (e.g., Farough, 2003), heterosexual (e.g., DiAngelo, 1997), and social class (e.g., Kivel, 2004) privileges. In contrast, research on both Christian privilege (e.g., Blumenfeld, 2006; Clark, 2006) and teaching about issues of privilege (Curry-Stevens, 2007; Walls et al., 2009) are less frequently found in the literature.


Research has shown discussions around power, privilege, and oppression may be lacking in classrooms because both educators and students alike can have a hard time managing these conversations (Hyde & Ruth, 2002; Woodford & Bella, 2003). When these conversations do occur, instructors and students may experience anger, defensiveness, guilt, and pain (Ferber, 2003; Miller et al., 2004; Stone et al., 1999). Several pedagogical techniques have been suggested, such as cross-identity teaching teams (e.g., D’Angelo & Flynn, 2010) and single identity caucusing (e.g., Walls et al., 2010). However, teaching about Christian privilege specifically can present unique barriers, particularly within social work classrooms (Coholic, 2003) where students may not be getting the support necessary to work through personal beliefs within the realm of social work values (Canda, Nakashima, & Furman, 2004).

The Research Question

In this qualitative study, authors Walls and Todd use a grounded theory approach to explore the question, “What themes emerge as Christian-identified graduate students engage in an educational process that supports and challenges them to explore Christian privilege?”

The Sample

Data from this study were drawn from web logs (blogs) written by 13 Christian-identified graduate students as part of a requirement for a course entitled “Disrupting Privilege through Anti-Oppressive Practice,” offered through a social work program. These 13 students were part of an in-class Christian caucus. Two Christian-identified co-instructors for the course who acted as facilitators for the Christian privilege caucus were also included as participants, as they provided responses to student blogs. Additionally, researchers explored caucus-level blogs kept as part of the course requirements. Participants self-identified as:

  • 2 male; 13 female (including 2 co-facilitators)
  • 3 person of color; 13 White (including 2 co-facilitators)
  • 14 heterosexual; 1 queer (1 co-facilitator)

The Results

Thirteen themes, organized by four major categories, emerged from the data.

Contextual Factors

Four of the 13 original themes were categorized as contextual factors: newness of the Christian privilege dialogue, as the water is to the fish, I have made my own gated community with religion, and experience of being victimized by other Christians. Together, these themes represent contextual factors and previous life experiences that colored the students’ experiences of navigating Christian privilege. For many students, this was the first time they had examined Christian privilege, academically or personally. When students began to examine their Christian privilege, they began to notice its existence in everyday life (e.g., the structure of the work week). Many students acknowledged a lack of interaction with other faiths, including other Christian-based denominations, as well as victimization experiences by other Christians. For example, many students provided examples of not meeting others’ expectations of Christian living.

Relationship with the Other

Three of the 13 original themes were categorized as relationship with the other: “I am the Way,” Christianity’s role in regulating and sanctioning gender and sexuality, and recognizing the pain in others. Together, these themes represent how the Christian students relate to those persons who either do not share the students’ religious identity or are marginalized by Christian ideology. Several students referenced the Christian ideology that Jesus is the way to God the Father and how personal belief in this philosophy had impacted relationships with others. Specifically, many students acknowledged that they had been assuming their “truth” was universal. In terms of gender and sexuality, this predominantly female sample frequently referenced feelings of personal marginalization as a woman within Christian churches. Similarly, students’ discussed the marginalization of same-sex sexuality within Christian contexts. One participant specifically discussed how Christian beliefs are used to inform political action regarding same-sex partners, despite the fact that many Americans do not identify as Christian. Moreover, students’ recognition of others’ pain assisted in reducing students’ resistance. For example, one student said that when non-Christians are marginalized, Christians benefit from that experience, a feeling that troubled this particular student.

Emotional Reactions and Defensiveness

Five of the original 13 themes were categorized as emotional reactions and defensiveness: defensive posturing, fears, yes/but reactions, self-righteousness, and distancing from other Christians. Several students reporting feeling attacked, unsafe in sharing opinions, and protective against hearing the stories of non-Christians. Many were fearful of losing their faith through disrupting their Christian privilege. Some students exhibited self-righteousness through patronization and exclusion of non-Christians, viewing Christianity as superior to other religious traditions, and struggling with Christian dogma that they should aim to convert non-Christians to Christianity. Students who were ambivalent about disrupting their privilege used “yes/but” statements; the privilege was recognized, but the individual did not necessarily want to surrender the privilege. Lastly, many students attempted to distance themselves from Christian traditions that they believed to be negative (e.g., anti-science), while aligning themselves with a Christianity that embraces social justice.

Christian Beliefs as a Resource

The final theme, Christian beliefs as a resource, merited its own category and focuses on how students started to re-evaluate what Christianity could be without oppression. Many students cited anti-oppression work as both a way to help strengthen their relationship with God and a way to be more “Christ-like.”

The Implications

Given that generalizations cannot be made from this exploratory study, more research is needed on how students both think of and fear addressing Christian privilege. The authors present several pedagogical suggestions for facilitating courses around Christian privilege:
  1. Instructors should be patient and supportive as students explore their fears. This may be particularly helpful if the instructor shares the students’ Christian identity.
  2. Students who subscribe to non-Christian faiths or worldviews may have experienced marginalization based on this identity or others. Instructors should aim to help these students stay engaged and manage triggers without invalidating their experience(s) of marginalization (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007).
  3. Creating caucuses for Christian-identified students can provide a space to share experiences and work through the deconstructing privilege process.
  4. Challenge the notion of a universal truth by exploring other religious traditions and worldviews.
  5. Be aware of Christian-identified students’ use of language and behavior that may suggest they are using distancing (i.e., from “bad Christians”) as a defense mechanism.
  6. Work with students on how to use Christian ideologies as a way to challenge social injustice.

For More Information

If you’re interested in reading more details of the study, it is included as a book chapter in the new book Conservative Christianity and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights. To read more about Dr. Walls and his research, check out his University of Denver portfolio here.


Walls, N. E., & Todd, J. (in press). Defending the faith: Resistance and struggle in recognizing Christian privilegeManuscript submitted for publication in A. Dessel and B. Bolen (Eds.), Conservative Christianity and sexual orientation in social work: Privilege, oppression, and the pursuit of human rights. Washington, DC: Council on Social Work Education Press.


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