Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Legacy of Christian Paternalism in the Harry Potter Universe

As long as there has been racism, people have been trying to justify it to themselves and others. Unfortunately, all too commonly, religion has been a prime factor in these justifications. While the Atlantic slave trade was just beginning, before slavery was made hereditary, slavery was justified by the simple fact that slaves weren’t Christian. Worse—they didn’t even know about Christianity! It was obviously necessary to capture them all and take them under the loving wing of white overseers in order to educate them about the Lord and Savior, right? Jesus did say to go and make disciples of all men! And otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get into heaven! And Christian salvation was just the first perk in a long line of awesome things slaves got for being slaves!

Yeah, that was my sarcasm voice.

Slavery is rampant in the Bible. The Hebrews were God’s chosen people, and they had slaves. Not only did they have slaves, but God must have approved of them doing it, because He gave them specific rules in Deuteronomy and Leviticus on how to do slavery the Yahweh way. In the New Testament, in St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, Paul doesn’t so much reject the idea of slavery as he recommends that slaves and their masters maintain an imbalanced system of mutual respect, e.g. slaves should be obedient to their masters, and masters should repay that obedience with compassionate lordship. (Sounds a lot like what he had to say about marriage, so, uh, yikes on that one, dude.)

In the beginning, God created a bunch of stuff, including Adam. In both of the Creation stories included in Genesis, part of the myth involves God granting dominion over the earth and all the creatures He created to Adam, to hold in stewardship. As nonwhite peoples, in particular Black Africans and brown Native Americans, were seen as lesser, subhuman, and savage by white colonialists, it was easy to argue that this sense of God-given stewardship, this paternalism by divine right, should extend to include these other races. (The troubling principles of social Darwinism later lent pseudo-scientific credence to these arguments.) Instances of cultural genocide like the Trail of Tears, the doctrine of manifest destiny, and the Indian Residential School System were all in some way justified by the God-given belief that the white man had authority over how these “lesser races” should be living their lives.

Now, this is all horrifying and unpleasant to say the least, but what does it have to do with geeky stuff? Well, this Christian paternalist mentality is front and center in the Harry Potter universe, with the serial numbers filed off just enough to make it kind of secular.

harry-homework

(via oocities)

The wizarding community may not have racism based on ethnicity and skin color, but you can be damn sure they discriminate against Muggles. They may or may not have God, but they do have magic. Within the community, magic users of Muggle heritage are scorned by upper-class wizarding families who pride themselves on the purity of their magical blood. Outside the community, average Muggles aren’t even allowed to know that the wizarding world exists. Witches and wizards don’t really have a decent reason to keep their abilities secret, at this point; no one’s burning witches anymore, and if Harry’s textbook in Prisoner of Azkaban is to be believed, the people that Muggles actually succeeded at burning to death tended to be other Muggles, as magical folk could just cast a charm on the flames and not die. (While the Second Salemers in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them seem to be threatening another round of witch burning, it’s hard to take them seriously given what we know from PoA.)

The most explicit reason we’re given in the series for the wizards’ secrecy is stated by Hagrid early on in Sorcerer’s Stone: if Muggles knew about magic, everyone would just want wizards to use it to fix their problems. Well, yeah, it’d be cool if you could use that nifty little magic stick to cure cancer, Mister Dumbledore, sir, but creating an insular community incapable of functioning in the larger modern world as a result of your isolationism was probably a better idea in the long run. But seriously, according to JKR, wizards can heal any natural ailment of the body—it’s the magical maladies and injuries that leave people with curse scars, permanently jumbled memories, and prosthetic limbs. A witch could theoretically Banish every nuclear weapon off to… wherever Banished items go. (The Room of Requirement? Is that where every Banished thing goes?) If the wizarding world could cure AIDS with a quick potion and cast a spell to shield nuclear reactors from internal or external damage, then why haven’t they? Is their secrecy more important than all those lives? It’s unlikely that magic could fix every problem Muggles face, since it clearly doesn’t keep the wizarding community from its own problems, but what’s clear from Hagrid’s comment is the wizarding mentality toward Muggles. Wizards believe they are obviously superior to Muggles because they have magic, and if Muggles were ever let in on the secret of magic, they’d just want it for their own selfish comforts.

Like this, but with, like, a lot of nukes in it. (via Harry Potter Wiki)

Like this, but with, like, a lot of nukes in it. (via Harry Potter Wiki)

All this is relevant because it’s these mentalities about Muggles—that, aside from being nonmagical and therefore ultimately lesser, they’re also dangerous, ignorant, and driven by fear or selfishness—that are used to justify the International Statute of Secrecy. The Statute is probably the greatest example of wizarding paternalism in action. Basically, it justifies a ridiculous scope of anti-Muggle action in order to maintain the wizarding world’s secrecy. Muggle trying to hike through the woods where you’re having the Quidditch World Cup? Send them packing by implanting the false memory of an urgent appointment in their head. Muggle accidentally notice something magical? Obliviate them, obviously. “Obliviate first, don’t ask questions later” seems to be the apparent policy of the worldwide wizarding community. Can you imagine the chaos if the Muggles were just allowed to know what kind of things were happening around them?

I can’t underscore enough that erasing memories from someone’s mind without their knowledge and full consent is a kind of mind rape, and yet, just as racism was justified by the paternalistic Christian “need” to help brown folks “better themselves” (in other words, lose their cultures and become more white), anti-Muggle sentiment is supported by an ingrained wizarding belief that, simply by dint of being magical, witches and wizards know better for Muggles what will be good for Muggles. One is a case of forcing knowledge onto a group and the other is a case of forcibly restricting knowledge from a group, but it doesn’t change the paternalistic nature of the action or the fact that it’s motivated by a belief system.

seamus-finnegan

Seamus Finnegan’s mother didn’t even reveal to her Muggle husband that she was a witch until after they were married! (via aveleyman)

In the rare cases where a Muggle is allowed to know about magic, it’s because they or someone they’re related to has magic, and they’re not allowed to know until it’s absolutely unavoidable. The Ministry of Magic keeps a record of Muggleborn children so that they will be invited to Hogwarts, but doesn’t come for them until they’re eleven and about to start school. It’s obvious here that wizards believe that they are inherently superior to Muggles, because it’s not like the Muggleborns are given a choice about the whole thing. Congratulations, yer a wizard, Harry, and you’re going to magic school now whether you like it or not. Admittedly, Harry discovering he had magical powers and getting to leave his abusive household was fucking awesome, but that’s part of why we never question this behavior. What if some other Muggle kid was from a perfectly loving home and wanted to be an engineer? They don’t teach math at Hogwarts. But somehow I doubt this hypothetical student would be allowed to attend the wizarding equivalent of Sunday school to learn magic on weekends while still pursuing a Muggle education. In being gifted with magical ability, one is expected to leave one’s entire Muggle culture behind as a lesser thing, and to then thank the wizarding world for the privilege of doing so.

Whether this mentality was intentionally included or just snuck through Rowling’s unconscious biases, it’s constantly supported by the narrative. The mentality that the wizarding world is better than and knows what’s best for Muggles is so pervasive that even characters who are portrayed as heroic still maintain it. Arthur Weasley disdains the actively anti-Muggle sentiments of the wizarding community, but gushes over the quaintness of Muggle technology with all the enthusiasm of a white church lady reaching to touch a Black woman’s hair. Even Hermione, a Muggleborn herself and the closest thing the series has to a card-carrying SJW, opts to Obliviate her parents before sending them into hiding, rather than bothering to let them in on the fact that Wizard Hitler Part Deux is on the loose in Britain.

We are told about this in order to better understand how self-sacrificial and heroic Hermione is, but it’s kind of gross. What’s more, the only Muggles we meet and really get to know over the course of the series are, of course, the Dursleys, who are proof positive of why Muggles oughtn’t be allowed to know about magic. (Fantastic Beasts’s Kowalski is a more model Muggle, who is appropriately awed by magic and helpful to his wizarding superiors but who also understands his place in the hierarchy and dutifully Obliviates himself when his allotted time in the wizarding world is over.)

While the treatment of Muggles by wizards does in many cases actively parallel historical racist Christian paternalism, and while J.K. Rowling is notorious for using magical metaphors to represent real issues of marginalization without ever representing the real-life people that marginalization affects, I doubt she intentionally set out to parallel such a nuanced historical issue in her books. An obvious support for this is that many of the heroes of our story, even those who have demonstrated both considerable empathy and considerable critical thinking ability, unthinkingly accept this mentality; presumably, they would reject it if JKR wanted to show it was bad. However, unconscious biases can be reflected in one’s creative work, and in the end Rowling has created a story with a message about the importance of love that nevertheless still reflects a religious worldview that devalues a whole group of people as lesser and marks them as worthy of mistreatment and reeducation.


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2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Legacy of Christian Paternalism in the Harry Potter Universe

  1. An interesting analysis…thank you for this!

    It has been even worse historically–have you heard of the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” that is still in Papal bulls that have never been rescinded (despite calls to do so) and are, thus, still technically Catholic doctrine? Horrific stuff for indigenous people worldwide…and as these allowed people to consider the African slaves not only non-Christian, but non-human, the enslavers initially didn’t convert/baptize the slaves because that would have required the masters to treat them as at least human. The upshot of the latter, of course, is that some African religious traditions were preserved in the Caribbean and the Americas and formed the Afro-Diasporic religions (e.g. Vodou, Candomble, Umbanda, Santeria, etc.), and later were also incorporated into Black Christian churches (e.g. the African Methodist Episcopal Church, etc.); but, that was something the masters never foresaw nor intended by their error…they thought themselves so superior that they assumed the slaves would not be able to form themselves religiously without priestly leaders. They were so incredibly wrong it’s not even funny, but anyway…

  2. I could never finish the Harry Potter series. My experience with them can summed up like this:

    Books: “Oppression is BAD! That’s why the heroes will have to save all the helpless Muggles!”
    Me: “Your good guys are still pretty shit to them though. They don’t get a cookie for being the lesser evil.”
    Books: “Don’t worry your pretty little head! If we lived in that magical world you, dear reader, would surely be one of those special magical people!”
    Me: “Aaaaaand we’re done.”

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