Are Christians persecuted in America? For most of us this seems like a preposterous question; a question that could only be asked by someone ginning up anger with ulterior motives. No doubt some leaders do intentionally foster this persecution narrative for their own purposes, and it’s easy to dismiss the rhetoric as hyperbole or demagoguery, yet there are conservative Christians all across the country who genuinely believe they experience such persecution.
Those Christians comprise a core constituency, driving efforts to expand religious exemptions to government policies and civil rights laws (to protect themselves against the perceived persecution), so it may be worth understanding how this narrative functions as part of their identity, as Christians.
We can’t overestimate the central place of persecution and martyrdom in Christianity as a whole. After all, the Savior himself was a martyr. Several of the apostles were martyred; the Old Testament/Hebrew bible tells of numerous prophets who were persecuted for speaking the truth. The New Testament warns repeatedly that those who would follow Jesus would be despised by the rest of the world.
This is, however, a prime example of how you can never understand a religious community by merely looking at its sacred texts as though they exist without interpretative frameworks. In the historic context of those New Testament warnings that all Christians would have crosses to bear, Christians were a counter-cultural minority; a sometimes illegal sect. Being “despised by the world” meant being despised by those in power for challenging their lack of justice; not being despised for trying to hold others to their own standards of morality that focus overwhelmingly on issues of sex and gender. Being despised by the world meant putting oneself at risk for persecution by siding with the persecuted.
But religious traditions are not static and the question of which faction(s) can claim to stand in the narrative space of the ‘persecuted’ is a contested matter. For the most part, modernist, mainstream versions of Christianity don’t forefront persecution but for Christians who do, it’s a powerful narrative; powerful in terms of shaping the structure and character of the Christian subculture.
Conservative Christians are committed to the idea that the degree to which they are in conflict with the larger world is a measure of the degree to which they are ‘getting it right’. If there is no persecution they must, ideologically speaking, manufacture it. Moreover, for contemporary American conservative Christians, the persecution narrative exists in the context of a broader commitment to apocalypticism, an emphasis on the culmination of history resulting from a conflict between the forces of good and evil, not as abstractions but as warring factions of human beings arrayed against each other. The combination gives us, effectively, a persecution narrative on steroids.
It seems undeniable that the next front in the culture wars is the issue of ‘conscience causes’ or religious exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws. There were skirmishes between same-sex couples planning weddings and private business such as photographers and florists, who sought exemption from nondiscrimination laws. Under the argument that conservative Christian opponents of same sex marriage were being “persecuted” for their religion, several states explored constitutionally questionable exemption laws and beefed up religious exemption clauses in existing anti-discrimination laws. North Carolina has now passed a law that allows public officials to refuse to participate in marriages to which they are personally opposed and the Southern Baptist convention is training churches schools and other organizations in ways to maximize the so-called ministerial exemption from civil rights laws.
Conservative Christians often couple the sense that we are seeing the culmination of a conflict between good and evil, embodied as “good guys” and “bad guys,” with anticipation that the “good guys” will be persecuted (indeed, that’s how we will know they are the “good guys”). This is what is behind the escalating rhetoric about a perceived conflict between LGBT rights and “religious freedom.”
Featured image: Cross by Snapographic_com. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.