For many American Christians—evangelicals and conservative Catholics among them—differences over flashpoint issues like abortifacient contraception and same-sex marriage signify a much more fundamental disagreement over the nature of religious practice itself, specifically how people ought to practice their “private” faith publicly. When this disagreement plays out in the public sphere, these Christians find some of their convictions to be increasingly out of favor with the secular world.
But is “persecution” the right word for what some American Christians have experienced? With horrific examples of persecution occurring in the Sudan (with the ordeal of Meriam Ibrahim), Iraq (the destruction by ISIS of the Christian community in Mosul) and elsewhere in the world, is the word too strong to use in reference to, for example, a Colorado bakery?
Many certainly think the word is apt, perceiving in cases such as the bakery and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that their religious freedom is under attack. Look no further than the existence of the movie Persecuted for evidence of this point of view. Such events may even reinforce expectations. Jesus himself warned that conflict with the world should not surprise his followers: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” he said to his disciples in John 15:18 (NIV) just before his crucifixion. Throughout the New Testament, followers of Jesus are promised difficulties, including persecution.
“I would consider it ‘persecution’ if someone was intentionally setting up a Christian for a fall, like what happened to Daniel when his enemies had him thrown into the lion’s den [the story told in Daniel chapter 6],” comments Ron Clegg, pastor of Parkview Church (PCA) in the Lilburn, Georgia. “They knew his faith was the way to get to him.” Absent such malicious intent (of which there appears to have been none in the aforementioned Colorado case), Clegg prefers to characterize conflicts with the world simply as the cost of living as people of faith in a secular society.
Regardless of the terminology used, the challenge for Christians is clear. “We’ve got to figure out how to live within a pluralistic society and be willing to pay the cost Christ requires,” says Clegg. “Whether or not we use the word ‘persecution,’ there is no question this is becoming more difficult.”
Coming in the final installment of this three-part series: How should Christians respond in the face of secular antagonism?