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Coming to Grips with Christian Normativity

Looking Through the Eyes of the Other

Coming to Grips with Christian Normativity  

by Kevin Singer 

This fall I started the journey toward a Ph.D. in higher education at North Carolina State University. While walking around various parts of campus, I noticed the presence of several bi-fold signs fastened to campus fixtures like streetlights and trees with bike locks. They were being used by a large Christian student organization to advertise their weekly services. Since first noticing them, I have walked by these spots on several occasions to find many of these signs unmoved; same locations, same bike locks. It is as if they too have become campus fixtures. As I continued to encounter sign after sign while on campus, it began to bother me.

Photo: KS

Photo: KS

Full disclosure: I am a committed Evangelical Christian who benefited greatly from my involvement in a Christian ministry while in college. In fact, while pastoring a college ministry in the years following graduation, I encouraged similar kinds of behaviors. Once, my ministry team and I planted Easter eggs all over campus to promote our Easter service - 2,000 of them to be exact. They contained candy and fliers notifying students that if they attended our service, they would be entered in a drawing to win an iPod Nano. We received permission to distribute the eggs without any resistance from the Student Activities Office and the Campus Police Department.

So what changed? Why was I now bothered by this PDC (public display of Christianity)? For one, I tried to look at the signs through the eyes of my non-Christian friends, particularly those who represent worldview-minority groups that are typically met with skepticism or discrimination on campus. I asked myself: what would happen if the Muslim Student Association or the Freethinkers group bike-locked large signs to streetlights and trees all over campus? Would they be received in the same way? The disheartening answer is most likely not. Secondly, this practice is a clear violation of the University’s solicitation policy for student organizations – which states that the “Display of any poster or other material on the exterior of any buildings, landscape features (including trees and light posts) or other surfaces not specifically designated and designed as a poster display area is strictly prohibited” (REG 11.55.04; 1.3). Were they being given a pass because they were a Christian group?

A discussion with a campus administrator was very telling. I asked her whether she thought the campus climate was hospitable to productive exchanges around worldview diversity. She proceeded to describe the scene when students arrive to campus in the fall before classes start: the presence of Christian groups is everywhere and they aren’t shy. She went on to explain that their zeal and omnipresence gives off the impression, particularly to new international students, that their activities are officially sanctioned by the institution. Some walk away with the impression that the University is far more monolithic in its worldview than they had previously thought.

The situation she described was something I knew well. When I worked as a campus minister, I remember feeling pressure to compete with other Christian groups during the first weeks of school. A few weeks before each fall semester, my team and I discussed how we could make our kickoff events as memorable and enticing to new students as possible. We reserved the prime spaces on campus as early as we could, ordered t-shirts and root beer kegs, recruited volunteers from local churches, and acquired tons of free candy from the local Nestle factory.

I realize now that all of this, Easter egg hunt included, was a symptom of how taken for granted Christianity can be in American higher education. Our group benefited greatly from being Christian, despite the fact that our events were frankly never that great. I can only imagine what this showboating must have looked like for worldview-minority students who were new to campus. Seeing how we dominated the most accessible and visible spaces, they probably wondered where they might fit in and express themselves fully on campus. As for worldview-minority student organizations, I imagine they wondered if they would ever be afforded the same privileges that Christian groups like ours unknowingly enjoyed.

Marsh Plaza at Boston University – Photo:  Wikimedia

Marsh Plaza at Boston University – Photo: Wikimedia

Christian normativity, as it relates to higher education, is the reality that Christianity is the dominant worldview on many campuses across America. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, 66 percent of college graduates identify as Christian. This prominent position comes with certain unearned benefits (e.g. 2,000 Easter eggs, breaking university policy by bike-locking signs to campus fixtures). Mind you, these incidents occurred at public universities, which are not supposed to demonstrate affinity for any one group, religious or otherwise. At private schools, Christian normativity can look like a large chapel complete with stained glass resting prominently at the center of campus, or the ministry of a Christian chaplain who is tasked to oversee religious and spiritual life for the entire institution. At one private Christian school I attended, non-Christian students were granted admission and highly celebrated for their work, but barred from forming student groups around their religious identities or reserving space to perform prayer or meditation. At both public and private schools, Christian preferences are taken for granted in cafeteria food offerings, school traditions, holidays on the calendar, and hiring practices.

As is the case in any situation where certain groups are given privileged positions, Christian normativity comes with the reality that some are not so fortunate. Worldview-minority students struggle to gain the recognition and advocacy on campus that Christian groups have come to expect. At North Carolina State, the institutionally recognized committee of chaplains required a $600 annual fee for membership. The Muslim Student Association struggled to identify someone who could operate like a chaplain on their behalf, and with a smaller pool of financial resources, could also not afford to pay the steep membership fee for their outreach coordinator to join the committee. Other worldview minority groups had the same problem, and as a result, the committee was almost exclusively Christian voices.

Worldview-minority students in a Christian normative setting face the same experiences that people outside of the norm in any society must endure. They are frequently reminded that their beliefs and cultural practices are not the norm. Imagine, for a second, being the only worldview-minority student in a world religion class; let’s say you identify as Hindu. When the Hinduism unit begins, you know what’s coming: the class is going to single you out. The professor is going to redirect difficult questions to you as if you are the world’s authority on all things Hindu. When you speak, the class will assume that you are speaking for all Hindus everywhere. After all, they aren’t familiar with how diverse Hindu beliefs and experiences can be.

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

Further, some worldview-minority students face pressures to conform to the desires or expectations of Christians on campus as much as possible. This might mean overemphasizing beliefs and practices that Christians recognize as cool or nonthreatening (take yoga or meditation). It can also result in an immense pressure to condemn beliefs and practices that Christians on campus find unacceptable whenever they happen to arise. Imagine, for example, being one of very few Muslim students on campus on the day an ISIS attack occurs. You have gotten used to some Christians narrowing in on these events as being the distinguishing mark of your religion, and you don’t want this false narrative about your religion to continue. Everyone seems to be looking to you for a response. However, you’re not someone who likes to be open about your religious beliefs, particularly with people you don’t know very well. But you feel you have no choice.

As a Christian in higher education, I am not satisfied with simply being aware that these things are happening. Christ’s humility and self-sacrifice inspires me to lay down my Christian privileges and seek the welfare of my worldview-minority friends. For me, this began with simply being more sensitive to how situations might look from the perspective of worldview-minority students. It is what caused me to see the bike-locked signs on my campus in a whole new light (and to write this!).

Evangelical Christians are oftentimes known for their desire to be a “good witness” to Jesus Christ. Seeking to dominate the campus culture compromises that witness in the eyes of worldview-minority students, and reinforces suspicions that Evangelical Christians are the bullies on the worldview playground. Therefore, we should remove our “bike-locked signs,” or whatever unearned privileges we might be cashing in on. Rather than shout about our own worldview, let us learn to listen and make space for other worldviews. Let us be remembered for our empathy and generosity toward others.

This article was originally published by INTER: Interfaith Ideas for American Life.

Header Photo: Memorial Bell Tower at NCSU- Photo: NCSU