How our dominant Christian worldview shapes everything from personal behavior to public policy (and what to do about it) Over the centuries, Christianity has accomplished much which is deserving of praise. Its institutions have fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, and advocated for the poor. Christian faith has sustained people through crisis and inspired many to work for social justice. Yet although the word "Christian" connotes the epitome of goodness, the actual story is much more complex. Over the last two millennia, ruling elites have used Christian institutions and values to control those less privileged throughout the world. The doctrine of Christianity has been interpreted to justify the killing of millions, and its leaders have used their faith to sanction participation in colonialism, slavery, and genocide. In the Western world, Christian influence has inspired legislators to continue to limit women's reproductive rights and has kept lesbians and gays on the margins of society. As our triple crises of war, financial meltdown, and environmental destruction intensify, it is imperative that we dig beneath the surface of Christianity's benign reputation to examine its contribution to our social problems. Living in the Shadow of the Cross reveals the ongoing, everyday impact of Christian power and privilege on our beliefs, behaviors, and public policy, and emphasizes the potential for people to come together to resist domination and build and sustain communities of justice and peace. Paul Kivel is the award-winning author of Uprooting Racism and the director of the Christian Hegemony Project. He is a social justice activist and educator who has focused on the issues of violence prevention, oppression, and social justice for over forty-five years.
Paul Kivel is a social justice educator, activist, and writer, has been a leader in violence prevention for more than 45 years. He is a trainer and speaker on men's issues, racism and diversity, challenges of youth, teen dating and family violence, raising boys to manhood, and the impact of class and power on daily life. Paul has developed highly effective participatory and interactive methodologies for training youth and adults in a variety of settings. His work gives people the understanding to become involved in social justice work and the tools to become more effective allies in community struggles to end oppression and injustice and to transform organizations and institutions.
Some people see the Devil around every corner. Paul Kivel falls into this category. But instead of seeing the Devil, he sees a dark manifestation of the evil of Christian Hegemony. Living in the Shadow of the Cross is a disjointed and shallow attempt to unravel what the author sees as the worldwide threat of Christianity’s power elite.
As a practicing witch and pagan, I completely recognize the dangers of allowing faith-based beliefs to seep into public policy and law. We’ve seen, particularly over the last two election cycles, how the Religious Right has worked to trample on the rights of others by pushing a religious agenda into our political discourse. I had hoped Kivel’s book would be a serious discussion on this matter. Instead, it is an almost comical diatribe against Christianity in general. I say almost comical, because Kivel falls into the very trap he accuses the Christian hegemony of employing: he uses a massively wide brush to paint the whole a single color.
Among his targets are the “Christian power elite”of the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdock, and the Walton Family. I don’t argue the damage these groups have done economically and politically to the United States. But to claim they are part of any “Christian” power elite by virtue of the fact that they self-identify as Christians is no more honest than claiming Osama Bin Laden accurately reflected the beliefs of all Muslims.
He also offers a “checklist” to encourage you to think about how Christian dominance has impacted your life. Some of the items, like the fact that the word “God” appears on our money or that we generally consider Sunday a day of rest, are pretty standard and straightforward points. But he also ventures into really bizarre terrain with points such as:
“You have viewed Christian-themed movies not identified as such (for example Star Wars…)”
No. As a card-carrying Star Wars fan (my blog IS called Tales From the Sith Witch, after all!), Christianity played very little into Lucas’ franchise. The Jedi code was inspired by Eastern religious principles like Hinduism and Taoism. Lucas himself has said that he was directly influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell, namely The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and he set out to create a modern mythology along the lines of classical myth. If Kivel sees a Christian theme, it is only because so much of Christian mythos evolved out of the earlier classical mythology of which Lucas himself was trying to emulate.
Later, he offers this point in a discussion of how language shapes perception.
“Take the word outpost. Its formal definition is a small military base in another country or an outlying settlement. But it’s hard to hear or use the word without immediately thinking about the phrased an “outpost of (Christian) civilization.”
Actually, it’s VERY easy to use the word without thinking about that phrase. I do it all the time. Kivel’s own prejudicial worldview is showing with some of these more elaborate stretches.
And even when he makes what on the surface appears to be a valid point, he misses the larger picture. For example. he discusses how Christianity considers homosexuality sinful, and how the Christian hegemony works to restrict the rights of homosexuals. A valid point. But how, exactly, is this different from what goes on throughout Muslim nations in the Middle East? Israel prohibits same-sex marriages as well. Last time I checked, it wasn’t part of the Christian hegemony. Yes, it is a valid point to say that Christianity embraces a patriarchal worldview that is often used to exploit and abuse women. But how is this different from any other religion? How does dropping the abuse of women in the lap of Christian hegemony mesh with the horrible, widespread rape and sexual assaults of women in India?
I was incredibly disappointed in this book. I was expecting a thoughtful, honest discussion of the subject. What I read felt more like an amateur hatchet job better suited for the conspiracy theory sites.
Reviewer Note: I was supplied with an advanced review copy of this title.
Although recommended to me by a trusted source and dear friend, I find myself unable to slog past chapter 2. It is too polemical even for me, with a level of baby-and-bathwater rhetoric that—even as a recovering Roman Catholic and avowed enemy of the regressive patriarchal authoritarian woman-hating sex-fearing money-grubbing child-raping death cults that generally pass for Christianity today—I find myself entirely unable to swallow. If, instead of Christian Hegemony, you are interested to learn why even so many liberals hate those who proudly adopt the moniker of Social Justice Warrior, this myopic twaddle may give you some idea.
This was an interesting book, to say the least. I was not able to finish the book as his writing style was difficult to digest. Kivel seeks to show that the entire span of western culture has been heavily influenced and driven by a Christian narrative and worldview.
I don't think he succeeds in showing this for a number of reasons:
1. His writing style is extremely polemic and aggressive. He speaks in incredibly over generalizations which are clearly exaggerations. His style of writing undermines the very point he is trying to make.
2. Kivel has a very specific way of viewing the world and systems, summed up in this quote: "Our society is based on inequalities of wealth and power—multiple, intersecting systems of oppression." This view shapes everything which he talks about through the book. It would have been much more helpful for this to be clearly stated at the outset instead of buried in the book much later on. When I read this quote, the entire book came into focus as it helped me understand where he was speaking from.
3. Kivel attributes many characteristics of culture to specific Christian values that are over-simplistic or not unique to the Christian worldview. For example, he has a long chapter about how dualism is a Christian value which has caused lots of harm in the world, not allowing people to view life in grays. It is only good and bad. Sin and virtue. The example he gives is that when people say that 'rain is bad' which he claims is a moralistic dualistic view of rain. But rain is amoral, neither good nor bad, he claims and the Christian worldview does not allow for such amoral ideas. This idea is clearly false. One only has to read the Bible with mildly sympathetic eyes to sees lots of areas of gray throughout the story of Scripture. Not every decision is either good or evil.
4. To build off the last point, just as an example, many other worldviews clearly have concepts of good and evil. Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism for example clearly talk about good and evil. Have these traditions also been contaminated with Christian hegemony? Kivel leaves no room for the idea that some common cultural ideas are built into what it means to be human. There are stories and desires which are common across cultures.
5. It would be curious to hear Kivel speak of how a culture can be built without common cultural values. It is the very nature of cultural dynamics that these elements must be present. It is akin to angrily writing about how the sky is blue. It is a fact of every culture that there is an underlying worldview which colors the culture's ideas. The fact that American and much of western culture has a Chrisitan heritage is Christian is hardly news and not much of a matter of debate.
6. Perhaps the most interesting idea about the book is that Kivel is Jewish. Nearly all of the arguments which he levels at a Christian hegemonic system would apply to Jewish thought as well. He does not address this within the book.
For these reasons, Kivel does not succeed in his mission of showing how a Christian worldview has corrupted every corner of western thought.
There was a good part of reading this book, which was that it is a good warning of the dangers of writing about a religious tradition in an uncharitable way which you clearly don't deeply appreciate and understand. I am afraid that many Christians sound as Kivel does when writing about other faith traditions, although maybe not to the extreme. When you frame everything uncharitably, it is easy to make most ideas seem foolish or even sinister. It would be good for every Christian writer to read part of this book and feel the sting of the Christian worldview being grossly misrepresented.
I read this fully expecting it to be a very good book, or at least a very thought-provoking book.
But it wasn't.
Sad thins is, it COULD have been a good book. Could have been great.
The basic premise is a good one-- the "Christian hegemony" influences many things in American government and culture, in the Western world in general. As someone who is very, very tired of hearing Christians complain about how terribly they're persecuted, I thought I'd enjoy reading something on this topic.
And Kivel is a good writer. He flows. He's easy to read. He knows how to use words. That's important. A lot of people with big ideas are just plain lousy writers, and so I appreciate a person who can get to the point and make the read bearable.
And, you know, I think I probably agree with Kivel on most things. All throughout the book I felt myself nodding along, not with his basic thesis (is there a coherent thesis, even?) but with side issues that came into the book. Kivel is very clear on his stance regarding misogyny (he's against it), homophobia (against it), racism (against it), xenophobia (against it). I like that. I like that he is a progressive who sees that these issues are systemic issues, not just "bad apples" issues.
And, like I said, I dig the supposed premise of this book.
But here's the thing: he fumbles it.
Badly, I think.
Yes, he makes some good points. Yes, the stuff he has to say about "Christian hegemony" influencing policy toward Israel and the Middle East, influencing policy on climate change, is important, and not said often enough. Yes, lots of other examples he throws in are also valid, true, hit the mark. That's great.
But then there's a whole bunch of other stuff.
The problem with this book is that Kivel goes too far. There's a real issue that he's trying to address, but in doing it he sees everyone and everything as part of the problem, a bogeyman behind every bush and around every corner. Some of the important issues he addresses are in fact actually VERY IMPORTANT ISSUES, but their connection to "Christian hegemony" is not clear and he just doesn't make the case; he mistakes correlation for causation, he takes nearly universal problems and pretends they are "Christian" problems. Then he throws in piles of utter nonsense that make you wonder what the hell he's even thinking.
I could go on and on and on and on (the margins of my copy got heavily penciled during my read) but I'll try to give just a handful of examples.
Kivel tries to connect everyday language to Christian hegemony to make some sort of point (not sure what) and ends up sounding ridiculous. "Outpost," for instance, is a word that he can't hear (and assumes none of us can hear) without thinking of Christian imperialism. Which is news to me, as I've never, ever heard that word and made that connection. He offers a glossary at the end of the book where he shows "how Christian values and vocabulary have a deep impact on what we consider normal." That glossary includes "economy," "guilty," "clean," "truth," "trust," "oath," "science," "brother" and more. And while some of those words may be used at times in a Christian context, Socrates was seeking truth and humans were taking oat and people liked things that were clean long before Christianity took over the Western world.
Kivel's attempts to show how Christianity has influenced media and entertainment are just awful. He lists "The Chronicles of Narnia" as a series of books that "hides" a Christian message for children (it doesn't hide the message; it was written by a Christian theologian as a Christian allegory and Aslan is pretty clearly just Jesus with claws) and he argues that "Star Wars" is a Christian-themed movie. "Star Wars," FYI, drew largely on Buddhist stories for its inspiration. Kivel's reasoning behind his argument? "Star Wars" is a story about good vs evil, hence, you know, Christian. As if anything that posits good vs evil is a "Christian" story, as if no other culture or religion ever said "hey, some things are good, are things are evil" and made stories about that. Ludicrous.
Per Kivel, any good/bad or black/white thinking is an example of Christian hegemony, in spite of the fact that these are nearly (not entirely) universal themes. Per Kivel, the belief that "hard work" is somehow morally good is a sign of Christian hegemony; which tells me maybe he's never been to Japan, or to a Zen Center, or to any of the many of the other places and cultures that believe in the value of work.
Misogyny is, per Kivel, an outgrowth of Christian hegemony. As is racism. As is able-ism. As is... well, pick something that sucks, and it's probably "because Christian hegemony."
The problem isn't that Kivel is wrong about what sucks.
I agree with him when it comes to black/white thinking, when it comes to misogyny or racism or any of it. I believe that hard work is not necessarily purifying and that we should totally re-evaluate our relationship to the earth and on and on and on and on. Yes, Paul Kivel, these things are uncool and destructive and a better world is possible.
But the majority of what Kivel complains about here has little or nothing to do with Christian hegemony. Sure, the "church" may help prop some of these bad ideas up. But any church would. The problem is more fundamental than Christianity. Christianity isn't the cause, but one of many vessels that carries the disease.
If we really want to address this stuff, we have to go deeper. If we really want to address causes, then we have to ask why Christianity AND Hinduism AND Buddhism AND Islam AND Judaism AND every belief (and lack of belief) have propped this stuff up. And then address that. Address the core, underlying shit.
That's hard to do and requires a big rethink on just about everything.
I've been slogging through this book for what seems like forever. I haven't looked whether Kivel published any journal articles addressing Christian hegemony, but I would imagine such a format would have been much more beneficial for the topic. It would have required him to focus his thoughts and observations and clearly ground them in research and resources. Numerous times I found Kivel making interesting, if not a bit questionable, assertions; when I looked up the associated citation, I found him essentially referring to his own opinion or a tangential point. I found this unfortunate, as I am on board with the premise that Christianity can justify, and contribute to, systems of oppression and exploitation through some of its values, practices, and perceptions. I just feel I need to take a Weed Wacker to separate the wheat from the chaff.
While some of his arguments against Christianity may in fact be caused by other, albeit complementary systems, I found the book's focus on how we can harm ourselves by internalizing mainstream American Christian philosophies such as dualism, judgment, and original sin/evil very helpful in understanding myself.
As I began using books to explore my secular identity, this book helped me codify the constant sense of unease I felt in my family and my community. I appreciate the attention to detail and the practical explanations of how to be a secular advocate in a Christian America.
Paul Kivel addresses what he calls Christian hegemony - the overarching influence and control exercised in terms of public policy, cultural forms and the way issues are framed and carried out. While acknowledging that there are Christians who are working against this hegemony, he gives example after example of conservative Christian groups seeking to impose their theological and political will on the rest of society. Citing such historical trends as the Crusades, the Inquisition, doctrine of discovery, manifest destiny, the institution of slavery, the suppression of women and LGBT folks, and much more, he clearly shows that Christian ideas dominate cultural thinking, and that tremendous harm has been caused by zealous Christians imposing their ways and wills on others. He also takes on notions of good-evil (dualism), sin, forgiveness and evil as concepts infused into the culture and generally acceptable whether one is a Christian or not. He also points out how Christian holidays like Easter, Christmas and thanksgiving get precedence in the societal calendar.
Overall, Kivel makes his point clearly, though sometimes his understanding of certain Christian ideas is far more simplistic than is actually followed. Also one is wondering if he does not accept dualism, evil and other forms of thought, how does he think of them. He spends the book attacking Christian hegemony, but gives little hint as to what alternative he afforms. The overriding theme of the book is that when religion is linked with power to enforce one's beliefs it become oppressive and hegemonic. As an Anabaptist Christian who affirms many of Kivel's critiques, I too found myself wondering if there other ways to conceive of reality than the Christian framework I have lived under all my life. It is an insightful, troubling and worthwhile book for believers or nons.
I found the topic of this book facimaging. Particularly how American Christianity philosophically lead to the militaristic culture and dismissiveness of non- Anglo cultures. I was disappointed that the topics were not better researched. Particularly certain claims were stated but little proof was provided. That being said, I thought the book reinforced my worldview and I need to broaden my reading list...I.e., read the case FOR religion as a positive force in society.
Read chapters 5 and 6, flip through the rest. Those two chapters were really interesting and I'm glad I read them. The rest of the book is weirdly organized and poorly argued. I think it's an important topic, but not sure this book is doing a great job of laying it out.