Virtually every affinity group in America, whether structured on economics, race, geography, ethnic group or sexual orientation seems to think it is in some way persecuted or oppressed by the larger society. Not to make light of it – in some cases they are absolutely right, to varying degrees – but it seems to be endemic. It’s hard to find a group that doesn’t make the claim.
Lately a great deal has been made about “persecution of Christians”. Statements like this, or perhaps a bit more muted, are a common from talk show hosts, preachers and Christian leaders:
Whether or not there is such “a war”, or persecution of Christians in America, the perception is widespread enough, and public policy being made on that basis, that the reasons for the perception seem worth examining. At a minimum, they seem to be:
1. Sense of entitlement. Christian commentators frequently claim that “America is a Christian Nation”, and just as frequently take the wrong message from their claim. The important point, for purposes of the “oppression” claim, is that many Christians feel that their religious views should be given a privileged position in society and by the government. When there is resistance to that, they feel that their rightful place is being taken away.
2. Efforts to reduce apparent support of Christian symbols by government. Attempts to keep government sponsored prayer or Christian symbols out of schools and government buildings, coupled with that sense of entitlement, fans the flames of “oppression” feelings.
3. Increase in vocal criticism of Christians and Christianity. It used to be people encountered relatively little caustic comment about Christianity or religion in general. That has changed. Mass media are now available to anyone with access to a keyboard and the Internet. Ever since the Supreme Court overturned blasphemy laws in 1952, religious criticism has largely turned from the genteel prose of Bertrand Russell to confrontational polemics by Christopher Hitchens and many others. It used to be that Christians could profess their faith with little fear of contradiction or ridicule; that is no longer the case.
4. Inflammatory rhetoric and mischaracterization of events by Christian leaders and writers. If anti-theists have raised the level of confrontation, their counterparts among, especially, conservative religious leaders have raised their rhetoric as well. All the tricks of debate, including a variety of mis-statements of fact, half-truths and emotion-laden scare tactics have been fed to congregations hungry for understanding.
5. Changes in demographics. Increased immigration by non-Christians, especially Muslims, have given some excuse for claims that society, or elements of it, is turning against Christians. That these claims, while based on a nugget of truth, are vastly overblown by some Christian commentary does not seem to matter much – the perception is the thing. Of more concern is the rise of the “nones” – people with no church affiliation, of which about a third are atheists or agnostics. This group has been rising quickly in numbers – now near 20% of the American population, and as much as a third of young people. In most churches attendance is falling, and it is difficult to recruit priests and ministers. The tide of history, at least for the present, seems to be turning against Christianity. Christians have less right to speak for the American people, and it is diminishing year by year.
6. Reaction to perceived Christian hatred campaigns, or laws restricting freedom based on Scripture. Many people, both secular and more liberal Christians, feel that the legislative initiatives of the Religious Right infringe on their civil liberties and personal freedoms. Attacks by Christians on whole classes of people, such as homosexuals, are not well received in those communities, and by those who accept them. Predictably, there is pushback, often quite virulent. A secular cry of “don’t take away my rights” or “Treat me equally and with respect” is interpreted as an attack on Christian values.
7. Ignorance. A major problem a vocal minority of Christians has is belief that society is trying to keep God out of public life. The fine distinctions between “keep the government from appearing to endorse religion” and their fear that we are asking them to refrain from any public display of religion is lost on all too many of them. Moreover, they do not have a realistic appreciation of what the laws actually do allow, and do prohibit. They view it as far worse than it actually is.
When a survey asked if they were aware that the Supreme Court had ruled that a public school teacher could not lead a class in prayer, 89% of Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) knew of it. The number was even higher for white Evangelicals: 93%. (By comparison, 95% of atheists/agnostics were aware of the restriction.) That is, when a Court ruling was “bad,” they all knew of it. But when it was “good” - that is, when government was NOT prohibiting something related to religion, they were unaware of it. Only 22% of Protestants, 18% of Catholics knew that it is legally permissible to read from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 33% of Protestants and Catholics knew that it was permissible to teach a class in comparative religions in public schools. (The comparable percentages for atheists/agnostics were 40% and 62%.)
That is, Christians feel the jack boot of atheists on their necks, taking away their civil liberties, out of proportion to what is really happening. Not only are those latter two activities legal, there is no serious attempt to make them illegal.
8. Market economics. Regardless of how a need arises, and whether it is real or illusory, there will be an industry which grows up both to fan the flames of that need and to offer –for a price – to fix it. Churches whip up hatred and fear of “persecution” even as they pass the collection plate; media figures watch readership and ratings rise as they exaggerate both the problem and the likely success of their proposed solutions for a clamoring throng that they help create. Institutions are formed to provide education – again for a price – in “the truth” that will counter the claimed rising flood of Christian oppression. It is made into a war, with entrepreneurs recruiting an army to come over to their side and, incidentally, contribute to the cause. Some of these people may be quite sincere, although history offers abundant counter-examples.
A later series of articles will examine in some detail a video produced by one of these Christian entrepreneurs: “The Thaw”, which spends half its time on falsehoods, half-truths and emotional rhetoric, the other half on appeals for people to join them in “the war”.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, offers wise advice on the subject of “Christian persecution” in the UK and US:
"Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers. I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We're made to feel as if we're idiots - perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up. You have to earn respect if you want to be taken seriously in society.”