Usually, when Americans talk about inequality, we’re talking about economic disparities. Over the past several years, such conversations have tended to focus on the troubling and growing gap between the “1 percenters” and everyone else.
But every once in a while, we need to remind ourselves and our fellow Americans that there are other kinds of inequality — sometimes affecting economic opportunity, sometimes not — that can also be deeply corrosive of public life and civility.
The obvious example, of course, is racism, which has become more visible due to some white folk’s seething resentment over Obama’s election. But racism isn’t the only manifestation of tribalism and legal disadvantage that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to address.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a flare-up of America’s long-simmering “culture war,” thanks to Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and defied several court orders demanding that she follow the law.
Her legal position is untenable, even ludicrous. She has a constitutional right to religious liberty but no right to hold a government position and no right to use that position to deny equal rights to others But her defiance has once again exposed a persistent belief on the part of many Americans that this is a “Christian Nation,” and that any denial of Christian privilege is tantamount to persecution.
Indeed, in a particularly offensive assertion of that perspective, Davis’ lawyer characterized her five days in jail for contempt of court as “just like what happened” to Jews in Nazi Germany.
Several Republican candidates for President have rushed to defend Davis and “religious liberty.” An increasingly unhinged Mike Huckabee has warned of the imminent “criminalization” of Christianity; rhetoric from Cruz, Trump, Jindal and others has been equally intemperate. Anyone listening to them would conclude that secularists control America and are oppressing the few remaining Christians.
Sane people, on the other hand, observe that over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, that every President the country has ever elected has been Christian, and that Christians — at least white ones — are privileged by the culture to an extent that few of them recognize or admit.
Christians routinely get time off work to celebrate religious holidays, Christian music and television programs with Christian themes fill the airways, and multiple stores carry items Christians need in order to celebrate religious holidays. Unlike Muslims, Jews and others, Christians aren’t pressured to celebrate holidays that conflict with their religious values. The (extensive) list goes on.
The erosion of privilege can trigger unpleasant responses from those who feel entitled to deference. Some men react badly as women make inroads into what was once a “man’s world.” Efforts to ameliorate structural racism engender hostility and resentment. We probably shouldn’t be surprised to see the same reaction from those who have uncritically accepted Christian privilege as their due, and who consider any diminution of their exalted social status an unwarranted affront.
How did Orwell put it in Animal Farm? Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
And some want to keep it that way.
Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net.