symbolic dominance, culture and religion

When the war of the yard signs was at its peak some years ago, I wanted to put three popular signs in my yard, all together:

Let Your Light Shine: Fight Racism
We Support Gays and Lesbians
Keep Christ in Christmas

My state celebrates the winter season with the war of the symbols.  Nativity scenes on public property justly spark lawsuits by those who are not Christian.  Menorahs and “separate church and state” banners flank the decorated evergreen tree whose very name is subject of debate in the legislature.  Proposals to include Wiccan pentacles and jokes about Festivus poles add to the fun.  Some Christians have decided that “their” holiday has been ruined by any acknowledgment of others, even by as simple an expedient as a generic “Happy Holidays” in public space or by using the name “holiday tree” for a decorated evergreen, itself a pagan symbol morphed into a Christian symbol for a pagan Roman holiday morphed into a Christian holiday.  This seems to me to be so clearly about cultural dominance, not religion, that I find all the arguments unsettling.  The Christmas centered on shopping malls and Santa Claus and Christmas trees is not a religious holiday, unless the religion in question is capitalist consumerism.

The religious holiday centered on the symbol of the nativity is about God embodied in a new human child, a light in the darkness, a hope for the oppressed.  For those of us in this tradition, it is a symbol well worth contemplating, and any Christian of conscience wants to lift up the nativity and downplay the materialist excesses of the secular Christmas.  So it is doubly ironic and sad that deploying this symbol in public space is an act of cultural domination over religious minorities, not a challenge to excess and greed.

As a practicing Christian, albeit a theologically liberal one whose right to the name is disputed by more conservative Christians, I struggle to find a way to be authentically who I am without oppressing others. I feel the same way about the rest of my cultural package: White, Anglo-Saxon, United States, highly educated, English-speaking, politically left-of-liberal.  Some people are trying to marginalize and suppress other people’s religion or culture and impose their own.  But even when we don’t want to, majorities culturally tyrannize minorities by our very majority-ness.  Our mother tongue is the language of inter-cultural discourse, our culture-religion is embodied in our calendar, our customs and interactional styles are the taken-for-granted norm.  Even if nativities and the words of religious carols are banned from public spaces, many of my Jewish, Chinese and other culturally non-Christian friends hate Christmas because it so deeply insinuates itself into every nook and cranny of public life.  Everything is closed Christmas Day except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants.  Winter Solstice parties are not really challenging that deep cultural dominance embedded in the calendar.   My university’s religious accommodation policy quite rightly says that a student may be excused from class for any claimed religious observance.  However this policy does not cover Chinese New Year – the Chinese social equivalent of Christmas –  unless you claim this observance is religious.  Sociologically, it is impossible to disentangle religion and culture, and the legal distinction between the two seems to me to be itself a kind of cultural-religious imperialism.

While believing fully that there are good reasons for both church and state to keep church and state separate, I think the church-state debate has led us into too-narrow a view of the problem.  To be publicly who and what I am is itself a challenge to others, a challenge to more conservative Christians who believe that the very definition of Christian must exclude me, a challenge to people of other religions who believe theirs is the true faith, and a challenge to atheists who believe that all faith is delusion.

My very belief that all of these (including principled atheism) are paths to the same God as I understand it offends pretty much everyone, except those who share the belief.  In this, I am just like everyone else.  Assertively being who we are and saying what we believe is inherently a challenge to others who are not like us.  The challenge is particularly problematic when we are in a position of power in a public institution.  It is a challenge even when we do not want it to be, and it is even more a challenge because there are people out there hostilely attacking other people for being who they are and believing what they believe, or even for trying to reduce hostilities.

This dilemma is just as true for all the non-religious parts of our culture: language, interactional styles, political ideologies, family structures, workplace customs.   Naming and owning my Whiteness, my nationality,  my embeddedness in the academy, the specificity of my culture and accent – all will be heard either as a challenge to others or as an attack on my own kind, depending on whether I highlight the positives or the negatives of my heritage.

“You can’t end this here,” says my house guest, an African-American lesbian from a poor inner city family with strong Baptist and Muslim roots who is now a practicing Buddhist.  She has a PhD and has traveled around the world and has many more cosmopolitan connections than I have.  She also has a very specific cultural background that shapes who she is and what she cares about.  From her I have learned about the experiences of having a drug addict mother, foster care, criminal relatives, and the complex and often invisible struggles of low income students.  Like me, she has had to come to terms with both the positives and the negatives of her heritage.  Together we figured out the implicit culture of the academy, the things you don’t know that you don’t know you don’t know that are so hard to teach because they are things we know that we don’t know we know.  She has learned to negotiate Whites’ unconscious racial threat and tone down her combative “street culture” style when talking to Whites, and I’ve learned to be comfortable with my “white bread” culture, not as a neutral baseline, but as a very specific culture among other very specific cultures.  As she pointed out, our friendship over the years has changed both of us.

I know what my vision is.  That we can be comfortable in our own skins while appreciating others who are comfortable in their own skins.  That in more fully knowing people who are truly different from us, we come more fully to know and appreciate our own culture and background and open our hearts in compassion to the struggles of others.  This is no panacea.  Sometimes when we learn what other people really think, we are appalled. Our culture and values may lead us to advocate things that are anathemas to others, and other people advocate things that we simply have to oppose.   But I believe that we can passionately work for what we believe is right even as we fully embrace the humanity of those who oppose us.  We can live in the understanding that we are one with all of humanity, with all of existence, and that every other person and being is just as real as we are.  This is not a vision of simple solutions or certainty.  It is a vision that is an anathema to some.  But it is where I stand.

(I originally wrote this in 2007 , but it seems just as timely now. Updated in 2019 with just a few edits.)

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

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