George Washington University, a prestigious institution located in the United States capital, is under fire for an innocuous-sounding course it's running tomorrow.
The unfortunate Timothy Kane, from the university's Multicultural Student Services Center, announced the seminar with the title 'Christian Privilege: But Our Founding Fathers Were All Christian, Right?!' on its website. A series of red-rag-to-the-conservative-bull questions followed, including: 'How do Christians in the USA experience life in an easier way than non-Christians?' and 'Even with the separation of Church and State, are there places where Christians have built-in advantages over non-Christians?' By the end of the evening, he said, participants should know all about privilege in general, white privilege in particular, be 'able to list at least three examples of Christian privilege' and 'be able to list at least three ways to be an ally with a non-Christian person'.
Cue the outrage, with Twitter users complaining that Christians are persecuted around the world and aren't privileged at all. NEWSFLASH: Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world! wrote one user, while another said, 'Talk about intolerance at its best, talk about racially driven religious hate at its best. If you want to gain an under grad degree in hate, enroll at GWU.'
Just when we thought the idea of “white privilege” was stupid enough, the left has now coined the term “Christian privilege.” NEWSFLASH: Christians are the most persecuted religion in the world! This is just sick!— Mark Lutchman (@marklutchman) April 3, 2018
Now, let's not be unaware that this backlash is largely confected by the usual media suspects, who take a certain line on these things. Christians, in their narratives, are always the victims, increasingly driven out of mainstream society by the forces of liberal darkness. That's what drives the success of the God's Not Dead film franchise, which gives a voice to a whole Christian sub-culture.
But there's something pretty repugnant about representatives of this culture drawing a parallel between the minor inconveniences involved in being a Christian in a plural society and the genuine suffering of Christians in places where your faith can get you shot. It is, with respect, not the same. And the GWU course is about the former, not the latter.
As such, white Christians shouldn't find it contentious. Of course, in a white majority country, Christians are privileged. Of course, in a Christian-majority country, Christians are privileged. It's true in the US, it's true in the UK and all over the world. What's wrong with acknowledging that?
This is not, however, solely a rhetorical question. The whole 'check your privilege' thing can be abused, like every other human enterprise. Rather than just advising people to be aware of where they're coming from before they comment or opine, it can be used to shut down debate altogether. It becomes another blunderbuss in the increasingly weaponised public square. At its worst, it says you only have a right to an opinion if you belong to the particular group or sub-group you're talking about. That's just nonsense, an abdication of intellectual responsibility that needs to be called out in defence of free speech and free thought everywhere.
But here's the thing: I am a white Christian middle-class male. I am privileged. I'm not ashamed of it for one moment, because it's pointless being ashamed of what I can't control (what I can control, on the other hand, is another matter entirely). But it simply never occurs to me that I couldn't do any job I wanted, walk down any street I like, or express any opinion I want. If I'm not running the world it's because I can't be bothered, not because of my gender or my skin colour.
I need to know, not just how illusory those assumptions are (it's OK, I have friends who'll tell me that) but what it's like for people who don't even have those illusions, and who'll consequently never be all they could be – who assume they can't do things, while I assume I can.
And Christian privilege in particular? You bet. In England there's a state church, for heaven's sake. Even in the more enlightened UK nations, bishops are listened to because they're bishops. In the US, highly politicised evangelicals make headlines all the time.
There's nothing wrong with learning about how that works, acknowledging we don't deserve it and humbly laying it down. And yes, that does sound pretty biblical, doesn't it?
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods