Myths of Christianophobia Part 2 – It is about Persecution

This is my second post dealing with the myths surrounding Christianophobia. In my last blog, I dealt with the myth that Christianophobia does not exist and/or has no impact on American Christians. The next myth I will tackle may be a natural outcome of researching the problem of Christianophobia. Whenever we start exploring attitudes of bigotry and bias there is the possibility of individuals reading more into the work than it is intended. Some people have taken my research and used it to talk about anti-Christian persecution. Some have accused me of promoting the idea that Christians are being persecuted in the United States. I have never used the word persecution in discussing the plight of Christians in the United States and the notion that Christians in the United States are being persecuted is the second myth I will tackle.

This issue became clear to me after I did an interview for the Christian Post. During the interview I wanted to illustrate the intensity and irrationality of the anger some individuals had towards Christians. In my book there is a quote from a respondent in my research who stated that Christians should be eradicated. I think it was the next day when I saw the headline, “They should be Eradicated”, for a story in the Blaze that was based on that article. I was not contacted ahead of time and disliked the headline as it implied that violent killing of Christians was a major focus on those with Christianophobia – a totally incorrect conclusion as anyone who read my book would see. This brought home to me the point that some conservatives and Christians would take my findings much further than they should.

In the past I have blogged about how unwise it is for Christians to talk about being persecuted in the United States. In comparison to real persecution Christians in certain countries face, it was almost insulting for American Christians to complain about facing persecution. Furthermore, I have admonished Christians about looking at the Charleston shooting as an example of religious bigotry when clearly it was driven by racial animosity. While I maintain the conclusion in my last blog that Christianophobia is real and has an impact on Christians in society, I also have a track record of pushing back against efforts to promote an anti-Christian persecution narrative. Despite my efforts I have read comments about my work from irritated individuals who state that I advocate the idea that U.S. Christians are being persecuted. Whenever I hear someone make such a claim I know that they have not bothered to read my books or blog writings where I have clearly made the case that Christian persecution in the United States is a myth.

Why are Christians so eager to embrace the mantle of being persecuted? The initial answer is that Christians are similar to a lot of other social groups in that they want to use claims of victimhood to increase their ability to gain social resources. I am not proud of this tendency within Christians and it is especially problematic because such desire for victimhood inhibits our ability to accurately assess the way Christianophobia impacts our society. But if we are honest this is not a tendency limited to Christians as many social groups seek out an image of being victimized as a way to gain social power.

Beyond this tendency to use a victim status to gain social resources, there is also a history within Christianity that feeds into a willingness to take research like mine to justify claims of being persecuted. Historically, it was fairly common for one segment of Christianity or another to face real persecution. This means that they were vulnerable to being thrown in jail or killed because they believed the wrong thing. Sometimes other Christians were the culprit, but this was not always the case. Furthermore, the origin of Christianity occurred in a society where Christians faced persecution for following a “discredited” Messiah. So from the very beginning there is a cultural understanding that to be a Christian is to face persecution. I suspect that Christians who have grown up with this general understanding about their faith are especially sensitive to detecting potential persecution, even when it does not exist.

This is not an excuse for some of the persecution claims made by Christians. However, it is an explanation that helps show why Christians are quick to use the results of research on Christianophobia to validate their own presuppositions about social reality. In the United States individuals with Christianophobia are no more likely to show violent tendencies towards the eradication of Christians than Christians are to show violent tendencies towards setting up a theocracy. The fear of both possibilities is irrational and supply reasons for Christians and those with Christianophobia to hate their religious out-groups. Christians would do well to recognize what those with Christianophobia want to do, such as keep Christians out of the public square, rather than become concerned about persecution.

A great example of a tendency for Christians to seek out persecution often occurs when making complaints about being wished “Happy Holidays.” I agree that there is likely a certain level of symbolic hostility by some people who do not want to wish others “Merry Christmas.” I will go as far as to say that some individuals have Christianophobia which motivates their hesitation to say “Merry Christmas.” Okay, but so what? As long as people are not compelled to wish others “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” then this is not a big deal and it is definitely not persecution. If someone wished me “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” then I have a two word answer for them – “Thank you.” If someone gets mad at me for wishing them a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” then that indicates their lack of maturity rather than an attack on my Christian faith. Christians seeking to turn such occasions into opportunities to complain about persecution trivialize real persecution.

What would real persecution look like? According to Webster’s online dictionary to persecute is: to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs. So in the context of Christianophobia, actual persecution would be to punish someone directly for being a Christian. I acknowledge that there is an unreasonable anger and/or fear of Christians exhibited by some members of our society. But they rarely, if ever, directly advocate throwing Christians in jail or fining them simply because they are Christians. They want to use measures with disparate impact that hamper the ability of Christians to have influence in the public square. They promote dehumanizing stereotypes about Christians. Are these things wrong? Yes. Are they examples of persecution? No. The day may come when there is real persecution against Christians in the United States. If that day comes I hope to be brave enough to speak against it. But for now, given how persecution is defined, there simply is not credible evidence of anti-Christian persecution in the United States today.

Some may argue that stating that future anti-Christian persecution in the United States is possible is an example of being paranoid. Of course those making such claims are also claiming to know what is going to happen in the future. None of us can say with certainty that we know future events. Groups that at one time were quite powerful in a society may eventually fall into such disfavor that members of those groups face persecution. In communist countries many religious groups that were once quite powerful found themselves persecuted when communism became the dominant cultural ideology. So it is not unreasonable to consider that there may be a future where Christians truly are persecuted in the United States. My guess is that this will not happen in the United States but I consider it foolish to dismiss such an occurrence as impossible. Unfortunately, silly articles like this one can feed into fears about persecution as this author basically advocates labeling religious individuals “insane” – a policy straight out of the anti-religious persecution that occurred in the Soviet Union.

But for now I make a strong plea to Christians to stop talking about being persecuted in the United States and instead to focus on the real issues that have developed due to Christianophobia. There are some individuals who will always deny the existence of Christianophobia and others who already know it exists. However, a yet undetermined number of individuals are open to learning that Christianophobia is a problem. They will not be influenced by an excessive crying of wolf. Honest appraisals of anti-Christian bias, and an acknowledgement of the advantages that Christians still enjoy, will present a much better case.

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.