I've heard testimony from Sikhs, disparagingly called "towel-heads" (in reference to the turbans they wear as an expression of their faith) to "go back where you came from." Periodically, we hear about synagogues being desecrated with swastikas and Wiccan priestess Cynthia Simpson has been barred from providing an invocation when the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors meets, a practice wide open to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Examples abound showing how people from traditions other than Christianity are demeaned, denigrated and mocked.
I think that much of the whimpering we hear from Christians today regarding "feeling denigrated" is no different from the whimpering we have heard (and still hear) from men who feel threatened with the modest gains women have made within the public sphere in the past half century. When women were tucked away safely within the bonds of domesticity, there was little (if any) challenge to what was called the "natural" order of things. Men were the movers and shakers of the world, operating in the public sphere and deciding what women could (or could not) do. Change is unsettling. It is especially unsettling and threatening to people who by virtue of their status or place in a society enjoy privilege, with its attendant entitlement, for no reason other than the fact that they belong to the dominant class or associate with a point of view that is taken for granted.
Since the inception of our country, most people (at least nominally) have aligned themselves with some branch of Christianity. However, the number of people who belong to other faith traditions has been growing. These other faith traditions have become more and more visible and increasingly vocal. They are taking part (or trying to take part) in the political process of our country. One of the responses to this "threat" has been for Christians to "batten down the hatches," so to speak. Hence, we have been seeing for some time now the entrenchment of Christianity in the form of the ultra-conservative Christian Right. One need not be a Christian who belongs to the Christian Right, though, to feel threatened by the various ideas and viewpoints being circulated in the marketplace of ideas. Many Christians are calling "foul." Their boat is being rocked. They are suffering from a bout of seasickness and it doesn't feel good. Welcome to the world!
It is never right or "politically correct" to disparage, denigrate or mock. The perception many Christian folks have that they are being disparaged, denigrated and mocked stems from a sense that the status Christianity once enjoyed in the United States is being eroded. It's really no different from the feeling that many white people had when African-American people no longer "knew their place and kept in it." Rosa Parks, remembered as the African-American woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, has become a symbol of the change that happened in America during the Civil Rights era, late 1960s. Most (certainly not all) white people have moved beyond a sense of feeling threatened or being afraid that "my country has gone down the tubes" because African-Americans no longer "know their place."
I look forward to the time when those Christians, who now feel threatened by ideas and/or faith perspectives other than their own, no longer do. It would be even better if Christians who nowadays feel "denigrated" could arrive at a place where they could view faith traditions (and varying views within their own tradition) as a resource of "truth" rather than aberrant rhetoric. S
Esther Nelson teaches religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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