I’ve been involved in a lot of programming related to religion at my corporate workplace. In the name of diversity and inclusion, one event I’m organizing currently is centered around the question, “How do you bring your religious self to work?” Religious persons, whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, often see their religious identities as central to who they are. For Catholicism, the duty to worship and other religious duties are the most important and most fundamental, taking a priority over any other part of life. The Christian faith is both the source of strength and motivation behind our worldly endeavors, and also that to which such endeavors are ultimately oriented. But in American workplaces, religion has nonetheless been treated as a taboo subject.
When one enters the workplace, one is expected to become an apolitical, areligious, de-raced, and de-cultured technician in the name of “professionalism,” something which Critical Race Theorists have been especially helpful in identifying as anything but “neutral.” Patricia J. Williams writes of the stereotypical “young urban professional”:
One who has achieved a certain tweedy neutrality of dress, speech, mannerism, and desire. Although there is facetiousness in this depiction, there is certainly nothing too unfamiliar in it… Ironically, such an identity is not an expression of individuality; it is, rather, fashion, a collective aesthetic, a species of mass behavior wrapped in the discourse of self-interest… a conformed identity, so normalized that we seem to have lost the ability to see it as such.
Critical Race Theorists see the production of a white identity, presented as a “neutral” identity, especially in the desegregation of schools. Gary Peller writes how “neutrality” presented a concern for many black communities during the era of school integration. For integrationists, “the norms that constituted the neutral, impersonal, aracial professional character of school integration… [were] a particular cultural assumption of a specific economic class of whites.” That class wanted to achieve integration as “the transcendence of the black community in favor of ‘neutral’ practices.” This effectively meant eradicating black schools that served the habits, dispositions, cultures, and needs of black students and expanding historically white schools that served the habits, dispositions, cultures, and needs of white students.
As John Calmore has written, “Assimilation resembles the attempt to run away from ourselves, with success coming only through the negation of self, history, culture, and community.” The modern “professional” has often been an inhumane ideal demanding that many of us pretend that some of the most important and fundamental aspects of our identities don’t exist. And “assimilation” never involves entering into neutral norms. It always involves entering the norms of a particular community and culture.
Corporate America is now going through a reckoning. We are now realizing that “neutral” expectations for professionals regarding hair, punctuality, speech, and a host of other characteristics and habits are often not so much “neutral” as they are the expectations of upper-middle-class white men (who outsource childcare largely to their wives). In a long-overdue racial reckoning, many workplaces are now exploring the extent to which “professional” expectations have served to marginalize, overlook, and even underutilize BIPOC employees. American workplaces are seeing changes from dress codes to scheduling to recruitment, in efforts to draw on the strengths of their diverse employees.
Religion should be included in this conversation. While discrimination based on religion has not been anywhere near the severity of discrimination based on race, discrimination does occur. And, of course, black Americans have been subject to discrimination based on both. Religious persons should thus see Critical Race Theorists and others who fight for a better place for our entire selves as allies, and religious persons likewise should be allies to them.
For Christians, the expectation of an “areligious” workplace is not so much a neutral expression, as it is an expression bound up with a (non- and, at times, anti-Christian) view of religion. The Christian religion holds that Christianity is meant to imbue every aspect of life, and so the expectation that the Christian enter the workplace as “areligious” is the expectation that the Christian be something other than he is. It is an expectation that the Christian in the workplace both conceive of and present himself as some other. The modern “professional” ideal sees Christian identity as a sort of layer of clothing that can be exchanged for a business suit, shed or put back on, depending on the circumstances in which one finds oneself. This is fundamentally against how Christians conceive of ourselves.
This view of Christian identity as porous is especially oppositional to Christians who come from backgrounds where religious identity isn’t just centered around affiliation identification but is bound up in family, culture, dress, speech, and a host of other facets of life. While American white liberal progressive evangelicals may have an easier time readjusting religious identities and presentations to meet the consumerist capitalist needs of contemporary culture, those of us who have different backgrounds will have a much more difficult time doing this.
Now is the time for the American workplace to rethink its relationship to religion, and for religious persons to work on reimagining the American “professional.” Supported by antidiscrimination law, corporate America is increasingly creating space for religious employees. Hijabs are increasingly seen in the workplace. Prayer rooms are included in corporate buildings. Diversity and inclusion best practices include providing dining options that accommodate religious dietary needs. Indeed, a recent report by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation highlights how Tyson Foods employs nearly 100 chaplains, the Chief Flight Dispatcher at American Airlines is also president of the company’s Christian Employee Resource Group, and Google will be keynoting a national Faith@Work conference.
We should all be pushing against the perspective that there is something “unprofessional” about bringing your religious self to work. The “aracial” “areligious” “professional” model is a racist and anti-religious model. It should be replaced with an array of dynamic models, developing out of the diverse persons who actually enter the workplace, rather than the straight white male capitalist model of the “old boys club.” Recent findings on the positive associations between religious diversity and a company’s productivity should make us question whether that club’s expectations actually hindered corporate success.
Of course, accommodation will often be messy and incomplete, needing further work. And there will be limitations. Corporate positions and practices will not always cohere with the religious ideals of employees. When companies take stands on moral issues, those stands may be in conflict with the religious positions of employees. In these circumstances, companies will have to learn to develop appropriate balances and boundaries, recognizing that diversity and inclusion will at times require exploring what a “safe space” at work will look like when, for example, a conservative Christian disagrees with a corporate position on same-sex marriage. The company should be able to both (1) hold its moral positions and (2) hold space for employees who might disagree with those positions. A lot of work needs to be done to maintain this tension in a way that is healthy, productive, and truly inclusive.
And, of course, religious persons should see it as our own responsibility to reflect on how we can be our full selves, including our religious selves, at work in ways that are appropriate and conducive towards a better professional ideal. I’ll finish with a few tips from my own experience:
Talk about your religious life like you would any other aspect of yourself. When I talk with coworkers about what I did over the weekend, I always mention going to church. Because… that’s what I did. I talk about going to my church’s young adult group as I’d talk about going bowling with friends. Religious activities aren’t the only things I talk about. But they’re things that I do, so they’re things I should feel entirely comfortable sharing at work.
Dress in a way that respectfully represents who you are. I have a possible image of my trendy back-in-the-office self as someone who wears Brick House in the City t-shirts with blazers. I like the Brick House shirts because they have messages that come out of my faith, without beating people over the head with my religion. They’re trendy conversation starters, rather than proselytizing proclamations. I’ve also wondered about adding a small crucifix to my wardrobe. If I wear a rainbow watch on my arm in religious settings, why wouldn’t I wear a small crucifix around my neck in professional settings?
Decorate. The principles here are similar to the principles for dress. I didn’t cover my desk with crosses at work, because that would be obnoxious. But I did have a small crucifix on my wall. And my Zoom background includes an image of Jesus painted on a leaf from India (where my grandfather is from), a small image of St. Jeanne Jugan, and some theology and philosophy books. Because that’s who I am.
Drive conversations about religion in the name of diversity and inclusion. If your company talks about the need for persons to feel fully themselves at work, then you should raise questions about whether this includes their religious selves. Don’t be afraid to point out that BIPOC persons overwhelmingly identify religion as important in our lives (75% of Black Americans say “very important,” and 84% of Latinx Americans say at least “somewhat important”). If a company wants to understand its employees, it needs to understand many of its employees as religious. And if it wants to fully celebrate diversity, religious diversity will be part of the conversation.
Chris Damien is writer, speaker, and attorney living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He writes fiction, poetry, essays, academic works, and music. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a B.A. in Philosophy, and from the University of St. Thomas with a J.D. and an M.A. in Catholic Studies. His writing and speaking have focused primarily on faith, (homo)sexuality, Catholic Social Teaching, the clergy abuse crisis, legal professionalism, and liberal education. For more information, check out his website here.