On Monday, Yahoo Finance published an article examining the role of religious practice in the modern workplace. The article begins by considering a case of apparent anti-religious discrimination at the Manhattan office of JPMorgan Chase. Beginning in the early 2000s, a number of JPMorgan employees organized a Christian prayer group and bible study that met in company spaces. The group was fairly successful and well-attended for several years, but was ordered to cease meeting on company property in 2014, because corporate resources “can only be used for business purposes.”
What counts as “business purposes” becomes somewhat confusing when we look at the measures currently being taken by JPMorgan to promote corporate diversity. The bank makes company resources available to hundreds of “employee networking chapters” devoted to connecting and supporting members of various identity groups (LGBT, disabled, Latino, black, etc.). Not having been to meetings of these groups myself, I suppose it’s possible that they exist solely for “business purposes,” but I doubt it. In all probability, “business purposes” are merely the excuse for a more natural and robust goal: building communities among people who share common viewpoints and experiences.
Christians may look at this list of diversity organizations and feel aggrieved at the double standard. What distinguishes a Christian group from any of these others? Why would JPMorgan go out of its way to bus Muslim employees in the UK to prayers during the day, but ban a Christian prayer group from its offices? Surely those of Christian identity deserve just as much support as those who identify as LGBT, disabled, Asian, black, etc.
Part of the answer lies in the way “identity” functions as a moral and political category. Identities occupy a paradoxical middle ground in contemporary popular anthropology. On the one hand, identities are accepted as brute facts of individual personalities—personal characteristics that are either unchosen, or chosen in a way that does not allow others to question the choice. If someone has a particular identity, that is simply “who they are”—end of story.
On the other hand, identities are clearly a kind of social fiction. They are constructed around widespread patterns of appropriation and designation, and they do not generally admit of definition or demarcation based on objective attributes. No one bothers to ask what constitutes “being black” or “being Asian,” much less “being LGBT.” A person simply self-identifies, appropriates the label, and is identified socially as such—this is enough. Any attempt to pin down which characteristics entitle a person to these identities will quickly reach a dead end.
This is not to say that real characteristics don’t play into the appropriation of an identity (they clearly do), or that identities are simply chosen by those who appropriate them (for the most part they aren’t), or that having a particular identity doesn’t have a real impact on the circumstances or shape of one’s life. What is distinctively constructed about identities is their differentiation from any ordinary social, cultural, or physical type—the elevation of a set of characteristics or labels into a personality-defining absolute.
Christianity is not generally seen as an identity—being Christian is never seen as a fundamental feature of one’s personality, a given that cannot be questioned. Although one can be born into Christianity and raised Christian, we live in a society so saturated with lapsed Christians that no one has any illusions about Christianity being inextricable from the practice of one’s individual selfhood.
Diversity officers treat Christianity differently from Islam for precisely this reason: Islam, like Christianity, is a religion. But Islam is recognized as an identity and given accommodations because, in the West, being Muslim generally goes along with being part of an ethnic minority. Ethnic status is at least partly unchosen, and is identify-defining—therefore Islam, as an expression of ethnic identity, deserves protection and cannot be questioned. Being Christian, on the other hand, is never seen as unchosen, and it does not place one in an ethnic minority. Christians are perceived as being over-represented and over-privileged, and Christianity is thought of as little more than an irrational, tasteless (and potentially pernicious) moral ideology.
Christians deserve no support because they need no support—we are culturally and ethnically at home. Islam deserves special treatment because it is (in the eyes of the relevant persons) foreign.
As much as we might be inclined to fight to get Christianity a seat at the table in the identity regime, this would be a mistake. They are right—Christianity is not an identity. In fact, it deviates on almost every point from the common characteristics of modern identity groups. It is not hereditary. It is not an ethnicity. It can be questioned, and expects to be questioned. It can be dispensed with at any time, for any reason, until one’s dying breath. It is not a feature of Christians’ innate lifestyle tendencies (quite the contrary). It is of a different sort altogether from being a Muslim of Pakistani descent, say, or being a disabled gay veteran.
Our society has a different category for Christianity: “religion.” It used to be that “religion” denoted one’s concrete obligations to the divine, or (more narrowly) adherence to vows made before God about one’s way of life. Several centuries of Enlightenment secularism and American political ideals have given the term a different sense. Today, like identity, “religion” and its instances are more or less indefinable, though religions are commonly seen as sharing a few basic features—among them, subjectivity, irrationality, and privacy.
If we look back to the early Church, we rarely find people speaking about “religion,” and never about “identity.” Christianity was not a personality attribute for them or a privately held superstition—for the greatest of the Church Fathers, it was nothing other than the perfection and fulfillment of the way of life imagined by Plato and the philosophers. To be a Christian was to be a philosopher, since we share with the philosophers a common goal: to see the face of God. Justin Martyr recognized this, as did Augustine, the Cappadocians, and long list of others.
Lately I have been revisiting Plato, and it strikes me that the basic problem of Christianity in the secular workplace is not the selective distribution of “identity” status or the uneven application of liberal principles. Our problem is that we live in a society as hostile to the aims of the philosophical life—a life in pursuit of moral integrity, the truth, and union with God—as was Athens in the time of Socrates. Our fellow citizens do not understand our preference for spiritual goods over material prosperity. They despise us because we disapprove of pleasures everyone else accepts. Chiefly, though, I think they are impatient with our impractical fixation on intangible truths. In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles gives voice to what I take to be the basic attitude toward Christianity in the modern workplace:
My own reaction to grown men who practice philosophy is very much like that to men who lisp and play like children. When I see philosophy in a young lad I approve of it; I think it appropriate and consider such a person well-bred. … But when I see an older man still engaging in philosophy and not giving it up, I think such a man by this time needs a flogging. Such a person, however intelligent he may be, is bound to become unmanly by fleeing the centers of his city and its marketplaces, in which (as the poet said), “men get themselves fame and glory”—instead, he will surely spend the rest of his days muttering in some corner with three or four boys, and never uttering anything well-bred, important, or apt. … Listen to me, my good man, and stop your arguing. Practice the sweet music of an active life, and do it where you’ll get a reputation for intelligence.
Elliot Milco is deputy editor of First Things.