I have had a number of conversations with theists in the last couple of months who, at some point in the conversation, brought up the notion of Christian persecution. Now, in this case I’m not talking about historical persecution, or persecution of Christians in other countries, both of which are real, though occasionally exaggerated by some believers. No, in this case I’m talking about Christians who claim they are being persecuted right here in the U.S. for their beliefs.
Now, while I ultimately conclude that there is no real persecution of Christians in this country, I do want to treat the idea fairly. I want to acknowledge how the idea, though false, can, at least to Christians, seem quite reasonable.
Christians, especially fundamentalist ones, often have a martyr complex. It’s not really their fault; they came by it quite naturally. Christians revere martyrs from church history, and the bible is chock full of passages telling them to expect persecution and even rejoice in it, essentially because such persecution means you are on the right track and serving god’s interests. The persecution comes because the “world” is against the things of god.
A short sample of such passages:
Matthew 5:12 : Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
John 15:18 : If the world hate you, you know that it hated me before it hated you.
John 15:20 : Remember the word that I said to you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.
1 Peter 4:16 : Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.
So Christians are often actively told by the bible and their preachers to expect persecution, this primes the pump in a psychological sense; it makes them see persecution in the same way a person who is told that their lucky number is 3 by a horoscope will suddenly see 3 everywhere. The incidences of 3 are likely no higher than any other number, they are just looking for that number and not others.
This is not simply a guess on my part either. In moments of openness several ministry leaders in my campus ministry expressed conflicted emotions on a number of occasions about their martyr complex, and about how they were secretly elated when they felt as if someone was persecuting them for their beliefs. Certainly Christians have been more openly criticized in this country in recent years; however, the martyr mentality often tends to make people mistake legitimate criticism of their position for persecution.
Of course, to be fair, Christians complain not just about the criticism but also about the vitriol with which it is delivered. A common complaint that is leveled is that they are routinely maligned as bigots for their positions on gay marriage and other major topics. In this they have something of a point, though it isn’t the point they think it is.
For one thing some people just like to argue and don’t seem to know how to do it civilly, especially on the internet. It is not just atheists or others who are antagonistic; there are Christians who also act this way. On the other side, I’ve spoken to Christians and Muslims online who have flown into a frothing litany of swear words at me for politely disagreeing with them.
But we don’t even have to get into religion; just take a look at articles about computer operating systems sometime. You will find fans of other operating systems posting comments explaining how everyone who uses this OS is completely stupid for not using their preferred OS. This isn’t Christian persecution, we are just witnessing a psychological phenomenon known as tribalism. People have a tendency to join groups and then, unfortunately, shun anyone who doesn’t conform to that group. Should it be this way? Of course not. Should we try to rise above our tendencies here? Absolutely. People should be more civil, and within atheism and skepticism I’ve tried to criticize such behavior when I notice it. However, if being maligned in this way actually amounted to persecution then we might conclude that Justin Bieber is the most persecuted person in the history of the world.
On the other hand, I am also of the opinion that people often have legitimate reasons to be angry, even if they present their positions poorly as a result. Yes, I will happily agree that sometimes these people allow their anger to cause them to make points poorly, or make personal attacks. Heck, I try to be civil as much as a can, but I’m human and I’ve been one of these people from time to time. If Christians spend all the time they spent complaining about persecution trying to understand WHY these people are angry perhaps they would not feel so persecuted or find themselves so bewildered by the anger from this group.
In any case, I can hardly think it is reasonable to feel your group is persecuted by people who voice, even angrily, their disagreement with your group’s beliefs. Particularly when those beliefs, when applied to law, have a direct effect on other people’s rights. Furthermore, Christianity is still, in many respects, viewed quite favorably by society at large. However, even if it lost a lot of that popularity would that mean it was being persecuted then? Christians will no doubt rail at the comparison as more proof they are being persecuted, but the KKK’s views on race are not exactly popular either, is that lack of popularity proof they are being persecuted? Members of the KKK probably think so. However, my point is that it is not rational to claim your group is being persecuted just because beliefs popular with your group have lost ground in society at large. To do so is to insinuate that ANY disagreement with you will be viewed as persecution.
I’m sure that Christians don’t like being criticized; let’s be honest, no one does. To a certain extent I actually feel badly for them, because most Christians are, of course, decent people. Outside of the issues we strongly disagree on most are quite nice, but I could say that about a lot of people I disagree with. Anti-vaccination people are mostly nice too, it doesn’t change the fact that discouraging vaccinations has a clear and negative impact on the overall health of the country. Do we keep out mouth shut because we might hurt the feelings of these people? Perhaps some people answer that question with a yes, I, however, do not. Of course, when I do not let my anger get the better of me I attempt to voice my criticism as constructively as possible, but my conscience will not allow me to keep my mouth shut on such important issues just because someone might get their feelings hurt.
So the real question here is have Christians in the United States been subjected to anything more than criticism? In truth I can think of a few examples. I know several years ago a group of people (presumably atheists) painted graffiti on a church, but I mostly remember this because Hement Mehta over at Friendly Atheist helped to raise money to fix the church up, because he (like myself) doesn’t believe vandalism is a good way to deal with the issues. On the other side it should be noticed that Christians groups regularly deface atheist billboards and posters and I have yet to ever see a church offer to pay to clean those up. Usually they just say we had it coming. Though to be fair I haven’t looked very hard, perhaps a church has helped clean up such vandalism before.
I’m sure this is not the only legitimate case of Christians being mistreated, however many of the examples I regularly see brought up by Christians are not actually persecution in any real sense. For instance I’ve seen many cases where someone has claimed a teacher was fired from public school for being a Christian, yet when these cases are examined closely it always turns out that the teacher was doing something they should not have been doing, like trying to evangelize to their students or telling gay students that homosexuality is a sin. Of course evangelism is practically a sacrament to some versions of Christianity so they feel they are being persecuted if anyone suggests that a work place or school is not an appropriate place for this behavior, but it isn’t actually persecution because it isn’t directed at Christians, if you were a Muslim, atheist or anyone else doing such things you would be rightfully fired too. So while I do acknowledge that Christians face criticism for their beliefs, (I’m one of the criticizers after all) and sometimes such criticism is perhaps meaner than it ought to be, the number of Christians in the U.S. who have actually faced any real persecution is vanishingly small.