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Bless their hearts, Christians use a lot of micro-aggressions

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"Bless your heart." You may not be familiar with this saying if you've never ventured below the Mason-Dixon Line, but it doesn't mean "bless your heart." It means "you're an idiot, but I'm too polite to say it out loud." In my part of the country, you'll hear things like, "That girl is just the most trusting thing you've ever seen, bless her heart," and everyone knows it means, "You could sell that girl a glass of water if she was drowning." It's an insult, and it's veiled in polite language, and curiously, it's okay to say it in most settings. You can't say, "That girl's an idiot," but you can say, "Bless her heart" -- even though they mean the same thing.

Language is funny that way. The way we say something often has more to do with whether it's acceptable than the actual message we're trying to convey. In 1970, this observation led Chester M. Pierce to coin the term "micro-aggression." A micro-aggression is a “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people" (Sue, et al., 2007). By the way, Dr. Pierce was the first African American full professor at Massachussetts General, and is a Professor Emeritus at Harvard. He knows his chops.

Put simply, a micro-aggression is language that seems innocuous, but actually promotes inequality in a significant way. Since 1970, the term has been applied to more kinds of inequality, especially gender. But in theory, it can apply to pretty much any social inequality, and I'd like to propose that one of the most overlooked of these is religious inequality. Depending on which poll you believe, and which measure of religiosity you're using, between 60% and 90% of Americans are Christian. Much of our history was written by Christians. Christian churches enjoy special tax and legal privileges. It's nearly impossible to get elected to public office if you're not a Christian. Most of our big holidays are co-opted Christian holidays. Christian religion is even taught as science in schools. In many ways, Christians have advantages over non-Christians (especially atheists) that are similar to those white men enjoyed over other races, women, and... well... pretty much anybody who wasn't a white man for the history of the United States. Christian privilege is a real and powerful thing in this country.

These religious advantages, like racial and gender advantages, play out in hundreds of small ways every day, and one of the most obvious is microaggression. I wrote articles about two of these seemingly innocuous phrases: "I'll pray for you," and "God bless you." Both have been better received than I expected. When I penned them, I expected a significant amount of kickback from people telling me to lighten up because they're just harmless words. To be sure, I've gotten some of that, but by a wide margin, I've gotten comments of support for finally speaking up against phrases that bother a lot of people. Most people, it turns out, are too polite to say anything about them, even though they are offensive.

Having said all this, I'm willing to bet that in many readers, there's still a lingering question: "So what? Just suck it up and live with it. Just because you're offended by it, doesn't mean it's wrong to say." It's a reasonable objection at this point, and deserves a thorough answer. People can be offended by things that aren't wrong. So I do need to justify why these micro-aggressions are both offensive and wrong.

Rather than spout a lot of science journal findings on micro-aggressions, why don't we do a simple thought experiment instead. If a thing is no big deal, it's no big deal to anybody, right? Or, to put it another way, if it's no big deal for you to say "God bless you" to me, it's also no big deal for me to say something similar to you. Let's test that idea.

Satan bless you.

How's that work? What do you think would happen if I went to a grocery store in Gainesville, Georgia on a Sunday afternoon and shook hands with everyone who would talk to me, and said, "Satan bless you" to them? Would it be no big deal? It's just words, right? They don't have to pray to Satan, or be blessed by him, or anything. It's just words.

If we're honest, we know that's not how it would play out. Christians really don't like Satan. He's the enemy in their religion, and for the True Believers (TM), there are people who really, truly believe that if I said that to them, bad things might happen because the real Satan might listen to me and take me up on my offer. That's not a small thing. Beyond that, it's rude, right? There's something just kind of... wrong... about it. People shouldn't go around saying "Satan bless you" to other people on the street.

But... people are free to go around saying "God bless you" to other people on the street. And that makes all the difference for this discussion. What's good for the Christian is not good for the Satanist. And really, it's not good for the Muslim, either. What would happen in that same grocery store if a Muslim went around wishing Allah's blessing on people? Given Georgia's new "Guns Everywhere" law, there's a reasonable chance he might not make it out alive. Christians aren't fond of Allah, any more than they are fond of Satan.

This is how micro-aggressions work: In saying something potentially offensive to others, the speaker sets a social norm. They have the power of their cultural majority backing them, and that means that anyone who disagrees with them is going to be a jerk. People will line up to chide the offender for poor manners, and for infringing on the speaker's right to religious freedom. Only the oppressor gets this protection, for if anyone utters a comparable minority phrase, they are immediately and firmly "put in their place."

Think carefully about this before you dismiss it. If it's all just words, and no big deal, why don't you spend a month saying "Satan bless you" to everyone you see? It's just words. If it's no big deal, do it on a lark. For fun. Just for kicks. Because it's no big deal.

We all know nobody's going to do it. If a thousand people read this article, I'd bet dimes to dollars not one would actually go through with my little dare. If it really is no big deal, why won't anyone do it? The answer, of course, is that it's a big deal. It's a very big deal to go against the Christian majority in America. You will be punished.

So, it's unequal. Christians get to say their things, and other people don't. But why is that inherently bad? What about "When in Rome?" It's a Christian country, right? And most people are Christians, so if you say "God bless you" to a thousand people, you won't be offending people most of the time, right? Well, yes, that's mathematically true. But is that how we create a functional society? By only offending people in minorities? That's really what we're asking, isn't it? I suppose if you're okay with that, then you and I have nothing else to talk about, but I aspire to something higher.

Let's talk about another aspect of micro-aggression, and that is the net payoff of saying something. Suppose you say "God bless you" to me after I tell you of my troubles. I'm not a Christian, so the phrase means very little to me. I don't believe in your god, and in fact, I think he's rather a malicious character. Sure, I know that you're wishing me well in your own way, but the fact of the matter is I really don't like your religion or your god, and I'm kind of resentful that you couldn't just say, "I hope things work out for you." (Or, if you wanted to take it to the next level, "Is there anything I can do to help you?") You can tell me all day long that I should feel differently, but the fact is, I don't like you saying that to me. So, who's benefiting from you saying it? Well... that would be... you. If your goal was to make me feel better, why didn't you say something I would enjoy hearing?

Now, let's talk about what specific benefit you receive from saying it. You get... umm... Well...

Hmmm. What do you get from saying those words to me? You feel good about having wished me well? Okay. That's reasonable. But what else did you get? I suppose you got to exercise your religious freedom, but to turn the tables on you, so what? You exercised your right to piss me off a little bit and make me feel like a jackass for having to either correct you (which, as we know, would be rude) or just suck it up and pretend like I enjoy hearing it. You gave me a chance to think about how I can't say "Satan bless you" to you and expect you to take it gracefully. Basically, you just lorded your religious superiority over me, and there's really nothing I can do about it if I expect to remain "civil."

Is it a small thing? Well, yes. By itself, it's small. But what if I live in a town where I hear it all day every day? This is the illusion of the "just live with it" defense. It's not a small thing if everybody's doing it. The classic example of this is exemptions for pharmacists who don't want to give out emergency contraception. Fans of this legal discrimination claim it's no big deal. Just go to another pharmacist. But what if all the pharmacists for a hundred miles all choose to refuse? Suddenly, "no big deal" has turned into a major crisis.

Back in the mid 2000s, there was a Youtube phenomenon known as the "Blasphemy Challenge." A group of atheists encouraged young people across America to record themselves "blaspheming the Holy Spirit." If you don't know, many Christians believe that this is an unpardonable sin, although precisely what constitutes blasphemy is nebulous, at best. At any rate, thousands of young people took the Blasphemy challenge, and if you look at the link, you'll see well over a million views. Christians everywhere were outraged, but the message from young people was nearly unanimous: "I didn't even know there were other people who felt like me. I am so happy to know I'm not alone in my beliefs."

That's the real danger of religious micro-aggressions. When everyone is doing them, the effect is literally total isolation for people who feel differently. There are still plenty of places in America where saying something bad about Christianity is the equivalent of social suicide. Thankfully, in many areas, we've improved considerably, and part of the reason is that many of us non-believers stopped accepting all the "no big deals" from Christians. We wanted our own holiday displays, our own billboards, and one day, we'd like to be electable to public office. Preserving the "norm" of Christianity, simply because of its majority, is a huge impediment to these goals. The rest of us -- those of us who are not Christian, mostly keep our mouths shut at family gatherings, public meetings, schools, and churches, should we ever darken the doors. Christians, on the other hand, do not. They proudly wish us their god's blessings, tell us all about how they're going to pray for us, and thank their god for things that are happening to us. This is systematic, oppressive inequality, period.

If you will, think back to the beginning of this article, when I explained "Bless your heart." Although this is a very blatant form of micro-aggression, and is really more of a joke now, it illustrates a very important principle. Micro-aggressions communicate more than just their words. In fact, the words are secondary to the real meaning. When Christians say "God bless you," or "Thank God for that," they're communicating a vague well-wish, but also a clear religious message: "My religion is true, and I can freely include you in my religion regardless of your wishes." It is not, as some would claim, an issue of religious freedom. Nobody is stopping you from believing in your god, or praying in your own way on your own time. Nobody is asking you to change anything about your beliefs. We are asking for a blank slate upon which we can practice our own beliefs without the constant intrusion of yours.

Let's talk about the alternative. What would our culture look like if religious sensibilities were equal? My best suggestion is that we'd all keep our religious beliefs to ourselves if we weren't sure they would be well received. Religious people would say "God bless you" and "I'll pray for you" to their church-mates, and would use more general pleasantries in mixed company, like "I hope for the best," or "Best wishes." It's not so unlike substituting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas." It's nothing more than the generalizing of a sentiment, rather than risking a specific that is not going to be well-received. That's all. There will, of course, be accusations that this is Political Correctness gone mad, and that people have a right to say whatever they want. But this misses the point. It's not about what you can and can't say, it's about whose benefit you're speaking for.

And that's really where the rubber meets the road, in terms of the "So What" crowd. Do you want to wish me well, or do you want to assert the dominance of your religion? If you have benevolent intentions, it's time to take off the Jesus-colored glasses and recognize that yours is but one religion among many, and also none. Lots and lots of people don't agree with you, and don't like your religion. That doesn't make you a bad person. It's the nature of religion. But you cross a line when you assume the religion of others. It doesn't matter that you did not create the religious inequality. It is there, and it is real. When you tell us it's "no big deal," you really mean it's no big deal to you. And why wouldn't it be? You get to parade your religion to the applause of many. For the rest of us, we get to watch your parade or face the wrath of the onlookers.

If you want to continue with your little "weasel phrases," by all means continue. You have the right to do so. But in doing so, please bear in mind that you're doing it for yourself, not for us. A key measure of empathy is the ability to connect with someone where they are. It's really the opposite of saying "God bless," which is essentially insisting that someone else come to you. If your true intentions are to form meaningful and lasting bonds with other people, consider leading with neutral phrases, devoid of religious content. Especially if we know you're religious, it'll mean a lot to us that you cared enough to speak our language.

*****

Reference:

Sue, Derald Wing; Capodilupo, Christina M.; Torino, Gina C.; Bucceri, Jennifer M.; Holder, Aisha M. B.; Nadal, Kevin L.; Esquilin, Marta. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, v62 n4 p271-286 May-Jun 2007.

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