Christian Persecution – Fact or Fiction

“Persecution!” is the cry that we hear from some Christians today. Detractors of those individuals complain about a “wahbulance” attitude these Christians have. Supporters of these individuals point out ways in which Christians have faced discrimination or are victims of unfair measures. The historical persecution of Christians is not an illusion. Knowing that Christians in the past have been tortured and killed for their faith may make it easier for Christians to see themselves as victims of persecution. There is need for a level-headed assessment of the question about contemporary Christian persecution. Hopefully, I can provide some perspective that may aid such an assessment.

The basic definition of persecuting is “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict” and specifically “to cause to suffer because of belief”. So the question becomes – Are Christians being harassed or punished because of their belief? We know that this sometimes happens internationally. Youcef Nadarkhani is sitting in an Iranian jail over his refusal to recant his Christian faith. He clearly is being harassed and injured because of his Christian belief and has every right to complain about being persecuted. All of us, Christian or not, should be willing to speak on the behalf of men like Nadarkhani.

But when Christians talk about persecution, they do not limit themselves to international persecution but they imply that Christians in the United States are being harassed or punished for their faith. It is a given that there are certain countries where Christians face persecution but the real question is whether persecution of Christians occurs today. When I read other Christians referring to persecution, they tend to fall into one of two schools. Either they see Christians as always wrong and thus are just crying wolf about persecution, or they believe that just about every slight Christians suffer from are examples of persecution. Yet, there is a more reasonable middle group position.

Are Christians consistently harassed and punished in the United States because of their faith? My short answer is no. We are not subject to arrest, to firing, to violence simply because of our Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Christians do not face discrimination. My previous work (Compromising Scholarship - Baylor University Press) documents discriminatory attitudes some academics have towards conservative Christians. There is other research, such as Inbar and Lammers (2012), documenting the propensity of academics to discriminate against Christians. There are practices such as Vanderbilt’s insane policy about student group leadership being open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs that institutionally discriminate against Christians. So yes, Christians face discrimination just as other religious groups in our society can face discrimination. But this does not rise to the level of persecution.

If we had real Christian persecution then we would see authority figures attempting to find Christians in an effort to jail them. In countries where there is real persecution, believers have to meet in underground churches because their actual churches are often burned or closed down by the government. These things are not happening in the United States. To be sure, there are individuals who hate Christians and often that hatred is at an unreasonable level. But if Christians decide to quietly sit in their churches and homes, then nobody will bother them. This is not to deny the right of Christians to participate in society beyond their churches and homes, but if Christians were being persecuted then they would not be able to stay safely in their own spaces.

When Christians in the United States cry that they are being persecuted then they are making claims not evident in reality. They are taking incidents of unfairness or discrimination and claiming that these are  an examples of persecution. This cheapens the language of persecution and makes the individuals making the claim look foolish. The Vanderbilt policy forbidding religious student groups from having religious requirements for leadership is idiotic and unfair. The enforcement of the policy appears to be disproportionately aimed at conservative Christian groups. But this is not persecution. Vanderbilt is not throwing Christians off campus for their Christian faith. When the Christian leaders complain about persecution, people rightly see them as trying to play the role of the victim, rather than honestly pointing out real problems. Arguing that Christians face discrimination is more sustainable than attempting to provoke images of a Nazi-like persecution.

Some Christians are hesitant to discuss discrimination as an issue. Christianity is the majority religion in society, and it may seem rude to compare the discrimination of Christians to that of other religious groups. But, given what we know from current research, it is highly likely that discrimination occurs in segments of society where Christians do not have majority group power, such as academia. Even with the reality of discrimination some may argue that our duty is to ignore this discrimination and turn the other cheek. But while Christians have a duty to make sure that those in other faiths are treated fairly, so too should we make sure that those of our faith are treated fairly. It is not any less unjust if a Christian is discriminated against instead of a Muslim. Furthermore, the failure to acknowledge anti-Christian discrimination is a factor that drives some Christians to make unwise claims about persecution. When Christians who face discrimination are ignored, they may naturally make more extreme claims of that discrimination in hopes of drawing attention to the problems they face. Christians who simply tell other Christians to be quiet do not help us achieve a comprehensive state of religious fairness in our society.

In my life I have learned that a sense of balance is one of the most important qualities we can develop. This is true when it comes to the idea of Christian persecution in the United States. The answer is not to see persecution in every slight. Neither is the answer to ignore the reality of discrimination against Christians. Finding ways to address real issues of misunderstandings and discrimination without resorting to wild charges of persecution is the type of balanced approach we need to develop.

I have largely written this blog for the sake of other Christians. Part of the need of addressing this topic is because we have a more multicultural, multireligious society than in the past. Christians used to have a certain level of social control through their religious identity, but now they have to find ways to deal with this new reality. But as Christians lose power as a group, they can be vulnerable to religious discrimination in ways that escaped them in the past. Thus, just as they have to adjust to a new culture where they do not have complete dominance, so too do non-Christians have to learn about using their enhanced status to create a culture where everyone from the most conservative right-wing Christian to the most radical atheist have maximum freedom to live out their beliefs.

  • candeux

    Thank you for this balanced approach to the issue of religious persecution in the US. You hinted at this, but it probably bears emphasizing: we also need to distinguish between being persecuted (or discriminated against) for our *faith* and being persecuted for promoting a particular peripheral viewpoint (e.g., anti-gay, “God is judging tornado victims”, etc.).

  • Darren Blair

    Sadly, there are individual incidents that actually *could* count as persecution.

    To begin with, consider the wake of Proposition 8. Donors who supported 8 were coerced into quitting their jobs and/or moving away because they found themselves constantly harassed by “No” voters. The Knights of Columbus and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (re: “The Mormons”) were victims of anthrax scares. A video circulated of an elderly woman being assaulted and her cross ground underfoot simply for trying to cross a street that protestors had tried to block off. IIRC, we even had someone try to set fire to one LDS temple and leave burning scriptures on the front door step of another. (and people wonder why we Mormons have taken to building gates around them…)

    From there, we also need to consider sectarian (re: Christian-on-Christian) strife. For example, the LDS chapel where I attend services at has been vandalized, entered, and even desecrated so often that the cops are on speed-dial now.

    So yeah – there are individuals who do have grounds to complain.

  • Dorfl

    I agree with your goal of attempting to be balanced, but I think you’ve fallen for the golden mean fallacy. The concrete example of discrimination of Christians you cite is this:

    “There are practices such as Vanderbilt’s insane policy about student group leadership being open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs that institutionally discriminate against Christians.”

    I agree that the policy is fairly silly. I think it’s obvious that they should have put in a footnote somewhere saying “Unless the group has an explicitly religious purpose, in which case use common sense when deciding whether to apply this rule.”

    I think it’s just as obvious that it’s not discrimination against Christians. The rules, as they are written, affect all religious groups equally. There is nothing in them that inconveniences a Christian group more than it does a Muslim group or Bahá’í group. This seems to be obvious to everyone except Christians who – even while consciously attempting to be balanced – end up seeing equal treatment as discrimination against themselves.

    If the policy is unequally enforced, then that is a problem. But since you specify it as being directed against ‘conservative Christian groups’ rather than ‘Christian groups’, it seems to be more a case of ideological discrimination than religious.

    In short: Sometimes reality just isn’t balanced. It is possible for the persecution narrative to be complete nonsense, without any grains of truth in it worth taking into account.

    • georgeyancey

      Vanderbilt is almost exclusively going after Christian groups so it is unequally enforced. I would put the rule under what is called symbolic discrimination. There are theories in race/ethnicity that policies that are on the face of it seem to be color-blind but tend to have disproportionately effect against certain racial groups can symbolize ways people can exhibit racial animosity without being called racist. A highly punitive immigration policy comes to mind. In the same manner I think there is a reasonable case that the Vanderbilt policy is symbolic animosity towards Christians. Nevertheless if that example does not suffice then check out “Compromising Scholarship” for more evidence that discrimination against Christians does exists.

      • Dorfl

        I’ve put “Compromising Scholarship – Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education” on my reading list. From the description it still sounds like it’s more a matter of ideological discrimination than religious, though.

        • georgeyancey

          Hope you enjoy the book.

  • egads9

    Please. Christians who claim they are “persecuted” in the United States are an affront to followers of religions who are actually persecuted for real in other countries. Muslim persecution of Baha’is, for example, is particularly brutal in Iran. I don’t think American Christians have to worry about being denied access to college, having their businesses burned down, having their land confiscated, having their cemeteries bulldozed, or being imprisoned, tortured, and executed, simply for their religious beliefs, do they? All of these things happen to Baha’is in Iran.

  • Dwight Huthwaite

    I am not sure I understand the argument. Does persecution mean “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict” or does it mean to imprison, burn down one’s house, or punished for their faith?

    • georgeyancey

      The definition is one from the dictionary but definitely one is harassed or punished when imprisoned or having one’s house burned down.

      • Dwight Huthwaite

        Yes, of course. It seems that the argument is based primarily on the latter to rule out the possibility that Christians are persecuted in the US since we’re not yet seeing houses burned down, people raped or tortured or imprisoned….or at least not exactly imprisoned. They have certainly been litigated against for expressing their faith, and fined and even temporarily jailed in some cases, mostly in accordance with Hate Crime legislation used against them. If it includes harassing in a manner intended to grieve, then the door is much wider.

        • georgeyancey

          I do draw distinctions from discrimination and mistreatment and persecution. Discrimination is wrong and should be challenged. But I do not see discrimination in and of itself as harassment or injury.


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