The separation of church and state is a notion often emphasized in the U.S. This is the same country that claims not to have an official religion yet allows Evangelists to visit college campuses every week just to preach outside of the ITE building. However, the false perception of religious equality in the U.S. does not relate to religion alone. It is the product of an intersection between both race and religion, which goes overlooked when analyzing either issue.
Race and Religion: The Illusion of Religious Equality in the U.S. was a lecture session hosted on Tuesday, Sept. 28 via Webex. It was moderated by UConn Sociology Professor Bandana Purkayastha, who introduced the evening’s speaker, Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, a current professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of the book “White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America.” Joshi offered insight on what sparked her own interest in dealing with race and religion, as well as an interesting comparison between racism and religious oppression.
Being Indian American and Hindu herself, Joshi explained how her experiences in dealing with discrimination were misleading, as she was never sure if they were racially or religiously motivated. She pointed out that religion is often more involved in racial incidences than we think, citing violent events like the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a “Muslim” Hindu family being intentionally run over in southern California and the infamous Muslim ban signed by former President Trump.
“Not being Christian has been a constant undercurrent in the story of exclusion,” Joshi said.
Her statement was a segue into the session’s main topic, which explored the parallels between racism and religious oppression. According to Joshi, racism is made up of a system of advantages (white privilege) and disadvantages (prejudice against BIPOC) based on race, just as religious oppression is also a system of advantages (Christian privilege) and disadvantages (prejudice against religious minorities, atheists and humanists) based on religion. She went on to explain how developments like White Christian supremacy play a part in the further alienation of BIPOC people within their religious communities.
“We have Asian American Christians, African American Christians, Hispanic Christians who have Christian privilege, but then there’s White supremacy that exists,” Joshi said. “Christian communities of color don’t have the same level of privilege that White Christians do. So White Christian supremacy is the overarching phenomenon going on.”
Joshi made sure to mention the long history of White Christian supremacy, including its humble beginnings starting in 1492, when Jews and Muslims were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, South Asia and Africa were colonized by British explorers and Africans were sold to slave traders. White colonialism was not only fueled by a perceived ordination from God; it ended up perpetuating the interchangeable nature among the words “Free,” “White” and “Christian.”
To illustrate this perpetuation, Joshi went over three ways in which “Christianity has had a significant role in the construction of Whiteness”: the genocide of Indigenous and Native American populations following laws like the Manifest Destiny Civilization Act of 1819 and the 1830 Indian Removal Act; the Biblical justification for slavery which later led to the Three-fifths Compromise and the initiation of Jim Crow laws; and the social and legal exclusion of non-Protestants through strict immigration and citizenship laws.
“Whiteness and Christianity are built into the edifice of American history, law and line,” Joshi said.
The session was later accompanied by a Q&A, where attendees were able to submit questions using the chat feature. The last question of the evening was announced by Purkayastha.
“There is a separation of church and state in this country,” Purkayastha read. “Do you see some of the ideas — our understanding of how race and religion intersect and the outcomes it has — do you see that somehow being fragmented simply because of this church-state separation? How do you place that against this background?”
Joshi first answered by clarifying that “separation of church and state” is not mentioned anywhere within the country’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It was merely a phrase written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Danbury Baptists. She then continued to explain the government’s role in the issue.
“Religion can be present, it really can,” Joshi said. “Government should not be endorsing a religion or the idea of religion. That’s what our friends who are atheist and humanist have been arguing and suing because of the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. And the turmoil that causes for young children — and teachers by the way — who don’t want to say it … but that’s important to make note [of], is that that’s another big myth around these issues that people believe: ‘Oh, there’s separation of church and state.’ Yeah but no, it’s not in any founding document.”