Ilhan Omar is right about the Christian singing on a plane video

In theory, the U.S. has separation of church and state. In practice, public displays of Christianity are generally treated as wholesome, quintessential Americana. Non-Christian religions in the public sphere, in contrast, are often treated as curiosities at best and threats at worst. Religious minorities are told — implicitly or explicitly — that they aren’t entirely American and that America isn’t for them.

Non-Christian religions in the public sphere, in contrast, are often treated as curiosities at best and threats at worst.

Americans got a small reminder of that truth over the weekend after a video of a group of Christians singing to the other passengers on an airplane flight went viral. The video appears to have been shot by a pastor named Jack Jensz Jr. — he uploaded the same video to his Instagram account. As you can see in the video, some passengers seem amused; some are recording the performance with their phones. Some appear indifferent or bored.

There’s not a lot of context with the clip. Jensz appears to have been doing charity and evangelical work recently near the Ukrainian border, but it’s not clear whether this flight was part of that. We don’t know whether the singers asked fellow passengers for permission or whether it was a charter flight.

As a Jewish atheist who hates flying, though, I know how the impromptu concert would have made me feel. When I’m in the air, I just want to get where I’m going. I don’t want to listen to a mediocre chorus reiterating that my neighbors think I’m going to hell.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who is Muslim, had a similarly skeptical reaction. Responding on Twitter, she wrote: “I think my family and I should have a prayer session next time I am on a plane. How do you think it will end?”

Christian worship is generally considered harmless, happy, uplifting — even good for you. Muslims in the U.S., in contrast, are regularly demonized and targeted with hate crimes. Post 9/11, airports and airplanes are especially Islamophobic spaces.

Christians’ seizing space, attention and power — that’s a normal, cheerful American tradition. As Omar rightly points out, Muslims’ doing the same thing, though, would be perceived by many as a threat.

Christians’ seizing space, attention and power — that’s a normal, cheerful American tradition.

Sure enough, Omar’s mild comment sparked a backlash. People accused her of being an anti-Christian bigot. Radio host “Joe Pags” Pagliarulo demanded to know “why does this person who lives free and liberated because of the compassion of our country not appreciate that we’re a Judeo-Christian society uniquely founded to protect those of all faiths?” Many people criticized Omar for daring to question Christian behavior on Easter weekend — as if the holiday gives Christians carte blanche to all public spaces (and even though, according to Jensz’s Instagram post, the video was likely to have been shot days or even weeks before the holiday).

Jewish people aren’t generally seen as an active threat in the way that Muslims are in the contemporary U.S. As Pagliarulo’s comments indicate, we’re more often seen as junior partners in America’s “Judeo-Christian” society — we’re embraced as long as we let Christians do whatever they want on planes or elsewhere and as long as we don’t make a big display of our skepticism.  

In contemporary discourse, Jews and Muslims are often framed (not least by Christians) as antagonistic groups. In the past, Omar has been accused of framing her criticism of Israel’s policies in antisemitic ways. I personally admire Omar’s staunch opposition to Israel’s colonial policies, though I think some of her comments have been ill-judged. But when I watch that video, I’m reminded that Jewish people, Muslims, atheists and everyone else who isn’t Christian share certain experiences when they live in a country with an ascendant Christian nationalist movement. 

Sometimes Christian nationalism is silly and trivial, as in the yearly moral panic over whether greeting one another with “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” is an assault on the fabric of America.

Sometimes it’s more ominous — as in the openly Christian effort to ban abortions in states across the country. And right now, anti-abortion rights activism has become central to the identity of many Christians in the U.S. — especially white evangelical Christians and Catholics. As a result, people of all faiths in conservative states are subject to the theocratic dictates of the Christian right.

As the backlash to Omar shows, Christian identity politicians and activists love to complain about persecution. They label Omar or anyone else who questions them as prejudiced. But in reality, Christians have enormous social and political power in the U.S. They can sweep politicians into office. They can force pregnant people to give birth. They can even force you to listen to them sing 30,000 feet up in the air.

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