Christian Privilege in the Academy?

Interfaith BannerIn InterVarsity and many other Christian organizations, we’re used to thinking of Christians as a minority – even a persecuted minority – within the academy, particularly at the more prestigious universities. For example, responding to a common question asked by many faculty and graduate students, we recently published an essay by Ken Elzinga of the University of Virginia titled “Being Open About My Faith Without Turning People Off.” There is another way of looking at Christianity in the university, however.

Photo credit: Interfaith chaplaincy banner at Nichols College, by Svadilfari via Flickr. Click for larger image.

Last week, my friend Julie forwarded me a link to Tricia Seifert’s article, “Understanding Christian Privilege: Managing the Tensions of Spiritual Plurality” (PDF). Comparing “Christian privilege” to the more commonly used terms male privilege and white privilege, Seifert identifies several areas of university life in which structure or assumptions favor Christianity over other religions, such as:

  • the academic calendar, which includes breaks for Christmas and sometimes Easter, but not High Holy Days, Ramadan, or other religious festivals
  • meal plans, which often don’t take into account the dietary needs of non-Christian students
  • at private colleges, chapel space, which, even if open to non-Christian use, is usually filled with Christian imagery (see this story about the recent creation of a Pagan worship space at the Air Force Academy)
  • nondenominational, but Christian “flavored,” prayer at graduation ceremonies and athletic events

Seifert offers some practical advice for addressing Christian privilege, and also suggests that Christian privilege affects the learning community:

The responsibility of educating the whole student includes creating a community in which all students feel safe to practice and share their spiritual beliefs and supported in learning about the spiritual beliefs of others. To create such a community, educators need to help students develop the ability and willingness to question educational practices and programs that privilege the spiritual identity development of one group over others. Students have made great strides in questioning other forms of privilege, such as male privilege and white privilege. The changing demographics of our college and university campuses and their increasing spiritual plurality necessitate a commitment to helping the campus community recognize and confront Christian privilege in the same way that it has confronted other forms of privilege.

Take a few minutes to read Seifert’s article (it’s about 6 pages) and consider what you think about the idea of Christian privilege.

Some questions for discussion:

How would you respond to Seifert’s article?

Do you agree that there is Christian privilege within the academy? Why or why not?

How do you think religious plurality affects the campus learning community?

How can Christians best contribute to the religiously diverse community at secular universities?

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