The other day I was reminiscing with a coworker about our first meetings in an English class we’d taken together in the first year of university. She was loud, crazy, creative, I was the boy who wrote a dramatic play about murder and Pokémon cards. We got along well, and one day we’d had a serious discussion about the fact that I was obviously, uncomfortably religious in a class full of theatre students disgusted with conservatives and religion.
“You know,” she said in a friendly manner, “you’re the only smart Christian I’ve ever met.”
At the time she was stupid enough to say it straight, and I was stupid enough to be flattered. It wasn’t a flirtation; I don’t date non-Christians and she wouldn’t date me. It was simply (in her mind) the honest truth.
The other day, years later, I reminded her of this line, and she considered it for a moment. “It’s still probably true,” she said, which surprised me. “That’s like me saying you’re the only smart woman I’ve ever met,” I replied, challenging her to find the false analogy.
Another female coworker frowned at me. “That’s not the same at all!” she said, and with a wave of the scorn wand the conversation was over.
It wasn’t really an argument, it wasn’t really even a disagreement. A statement was made, another proposed, and then both were swept away by a shift in the conversational lens. My friend and I had a good laugh about it later when I admitted the exchange was still bothering me, but it wasn’t the time to abstract a grand philosophic argument to defend my position.
Which is why I’m going to do it here.
First of all, let’s look at a couple phrases similar to “you’re the only smart Christian I’ve ever met”:
i. “You’re the only good-looking Japanese person I’ve ever met!”
ii. “You’re the only Muslim I’ve ever met who doesn’t want to kill infidels!”
iii. “You’re the only normal homosexual I’ve ever met!”
Obviously, it would be hard to get away with saying any of these phrases aloud in a university context. Depending upon the audience, they could draw accusations of everything from crass ignorance to hate speech, and most students would shy from even hinting at the sentiments expressed in the above examples.
Which is why I find it curious that “You’re the only smart Christian I’ve ever met” is a phrase that struck no one else in the office as abnormal. I work for a campus newspaper, hardly a day goes by when someone is not pontificating about the abuse of minority group ‘x’ or the dangers involved in social project ‘y’. We are always fighting discrimination, marginalization, ignorance, and bigotry, so why is the blatant generalization of an entire social group as ‘stupid’ allowed to stand?
There are two major defenses to my friend’s statement that I can foresee:
1. Unlike gender, race, or sexual orientation, religion is a choice. Free discussion of religion is guaranteed in the American constitution (and somewhere in Canadian Charter as well, I’m sure), and therefore my friend has the right to discuss the consequences of religious belief in whatever manner she sees fit unless she directly incites violence against members of that religious community.
2. Christianity is an oppressor religion that has been used time and time again by the white majority throughout history to justify violence and cultural destruction. It is solidly entrenched in North American political and cultural institutions and therefore religious criticism is an important part of maintaining separation of state. (This is the non-PC definition. I’m not going to bother messing around here.)
In response to 1: I find it interesting that, in our society, the fight to get a quality recognized as an innate part of a person’s ‘being’ directly determines the success of the effort to get that quality universally accepted. No one ever says ‘I decided to become bisexual’ or ‘all of a sudden I wanted to switch genders.’ Instead, they claim “I discovered this about myself” or “I was a woman on the inside, I should have known all along.” Not that these statements aren’t true (though they probably aren’t universally true), they simply show something essential about human decision-making in that we don’t actually want to make decisions. Instead change is simply discovering that what we are is not what we thought we were, and therefore we’d better change to be true to ourselves. In other words, we attempt to remove our own agency even as we wield it.
Christianity, from the inside, is not a choice. All people are created in relationship with God, and ignoring that relationship does not change that fundamental fact. All are born in relationship with God, all will die in relationship with God, and any ‘choices’ made in the middle will not change this fundamental arrangement. Argued from this theological perspective Christianity is not terribly different than gender or race.
Of course, for those who don’t believe in God and/or Christianity, this is quackery, but consider for a moment an argument that I might consider to be quackery that you may take more seriously.
In the study of gender, the nouns ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are respectively defined as the physical differences between the sexes (biological anatomy), and cultural and social differences. While individuals are born with ‘sex’, their gender is defined by cultural, social, and personal values. Some individuals ‘decide’ (using the above definition) to change genders, or ‘discover’ (once again see above) that they have been raised as the ‘wrong’ gender. Is gender a choice? Perhaps, perhaps not. Some individuals even choose to alter their sex to align with their chosen gender.
Does that we can make fun of them? Is it okay to call all transsexuals stupid?
The answer (obviously) is NO.
So why are Christians considered to be an exception?
In response to number 2: I’m not going to deny that Christianity has been wielded as a weapon by societies needing a convenient political expedient. I’m also not going to deny that Judeo-Christian values sit at the foundation of many of our Canadian institutions.
But let’s look for a moment at the wording of my friend’s statement. “You’re the only smart Christian I’ve ever met” is not an attack on a religious system, it is an attack on individual people. Christianity is not stupid, Christians are stupid.
My friend is generalizing an entire group of people by qualifying them with a derogatory characteristic.
Now that sounds dangerous doesn’t it? It sounds positively narrow-minded, especially considering the three examples I gave above. It’s the kind of needless, casual bigotry that causes people with cardboard placards to gather outside your front door, or motivates advocacy groups to boycott your employer. It’s the kind that institutions like campus newspapers are meant to fight.
So is there actually a difference between the statements “you’re the only smart Christian I’ve ever met,” and “you’re the only smart woman I’ve ever met”?
I’m not going to argue that it’s just as easy to ‘choose’ to be a woman as it is to ‘choose’ to be a Christian. I’m not going to argue that it should be okay to publically criticize the nature of ‘woman’ the way it is okay to publically criticize Christianity. I’m just going to argue that both women and Christians deserve our respect, and in my office only one of the two is apparently worth respecting.
In an age that is rife with accusations of a double-standard, I accuse the world once again of enforcing inequality. I accuse my friend, a wonderful woman with amazing talent, of perpetuation the same harmful ignorance that she herself decries in so many other contexts.
As a Christian (or as a male, or as a white male, or as a white, straight male, or as an American white, straight male) I don’t want to considered the sole exception to the rule.
Because I’m not, and with a little self-awareness you would realize it.
P.S. This post is not meant to express the idea that sexuality is a matter of ‘choice’ first and foremost, I don’t believe that. Also, my friend’s comment is merely an example of a larger trend, not the catalyst for this entire discussion. I say silly things in conversation the same as anybody else and I’m always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I find, in this case, the attitude expressed in my friend’s comment is common in secular, academic contexts..