Thirsting for Persecution

In the United States of America today, Christianity, and specifically right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, is enjoying a resurgence. The religious right controls all three branches of the federal government, commands the allegiance of tens of millions of followers, broadcasts their message constantly on TV channels and radio stations that they exclusively control, and operates thriving tax-free megachurches across the land that draw thousands of worshippers every week. They possess enormous wealth and influence, probably unmatched by any other interest group or segment of society.

And yet, to hear the hysterical rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the religious right, one would think Christianity is a beleaguered minority teetering on the brink of extinction. Such was the theme of a right-wing conference, titled by its organizers “The War on Christians”, that was reported on by the Washington Post in two recent articles, here and here. Some of the over-the-top claims made at this conference have to be heard to be believed, such as this introduction by conference organizer Rick Scarborough of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

“I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ,” Scarborough said, introducing DeLay yesterday. When DeLay finished, the host reminded the politician: “God always does his best work right after a crucifixion.”

In case you were keeping track, Scarborough in that quote compared DeLay’s indictment for violation of money-laundering laws, and subsequent resignation from office, to the crucifixion of Jesus. He also argued that DeLay was being persecuted for his outspoken religious beliefs. The fact that two of DeLay’s top aides, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, as well as DeLay’s close associate Jack Abramoff, have already pled guilty in a widening investigation into corruption, embezzlement and bribery charges did not even seem to be on Scarborough’s radar; as far as he was concerned, DeLay was being persecuted for his faith and nothing more.

Some other remarks from the article are also worth commenting on:

“We are after all a society that abides abortion on demand, that has killed millions of innocent children, that degrades the institution of marriage and often treats Christianity like some second-rate superstition. Seen from this perspective, of course there is a war on Christianity,” [DeLay] said.

I would very much like to know what society DeLay is talking about, because it is not the one I live in. In the country where I live, the media and politicians cannot possibly pay Christianity any more fawning respect and deference than they actually do. Politicians expressing their faith loudly, publicly and often is practically a prerequisite for office, and just about every TV show that touches on Christian beliefs in any even tangential way goes out of its way to point out that in the end it is always a matter of faith, lest someone be offended. Any even brief appearance by nonbelievers in popular culture is met with contempt, insults, and threats. As for his other comments, it is true that our society’s laws are not exactly as DeLay and his ilk would prefer; but then again, no one is forcing Christians to have abortions or marry gay people. Apparently, in DeLay’s mind, the fact that other people of different beliefs are not forced to live under Christian law constitutes a “War on Christianity”. This is logic roughly comparable to Adolf Hitler’s claim that Germany’s invasion of Poland was an act of self-defense.

Another notable instance of this persecution fantasy can be found in a right-wing ministry‘s response to a pro-atheist documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, released by filmmaker Brian Flemming:

Will Christianity be outlawed in America? If atheists are successful at removing God from America’s public life, the answer is “yes”. Find out how American Vision is going to answer a major atheist propaganda DVD called The God Who Wasn’t There and how you can help!

Notable here is the assumed link between “atheist propaganda” and the outlawing of Christianity, which seems to be taken as self-evident. For whatever reason, these Christians interpret any criticism of their beliefs as the spearhead of an attempt to ban their beliefs. They seem incapable of comprehending the idea that atheists would want to foster a debate about religion for its own sake, rather than as a prelude to stamping out religion by force.

Part of this tendency may be due to apocalyptic beliefs. People taught by their scriptures to expect a repressive, Antichrist-led totalitarian state just before the end of the world naturally become paranoid and begin to see the first glimmerings of that state everywhere they look. However, it is tempting to speculate that a more important cause is psychological projection. It would seem that many right-wing Christians will never be happy until they completely control society and force everyone to live according to their preferences. DeLay said as much above – if the mere availability of abortion, gay marriage or divorce represents a “war on Christianity”, then clearly that war will not be ended until those things are outlawed. No peaceful coexistence is envisioned here. Perhaps, then, these Christians are unable to conceive of people less fanatical than they themselves are, and so they assume that all other groups want what they want: to gain secular power and use it to write their opinions into law.

And of course, we should not forget the chief purpose of right-wing cries of persecution: convincing the flock to open their wallets. As far as the religious right is concerned, fostering an atmosphere of perpetual outrage is good for business. Theists who believe their faith is under attack from all sides will pour out their money to support it, regardless of the relationship of those claims to the truth. The only depressing thing is that the lay believers do not seem to have caught on no matter how many times this trick has been played on them.

In reality, the manifest absurdity of American Christians claiming persecution should be obvious to every observer. Christians in America today are less persecuted than they have ever been at any other time or place in history. To compare their experiences to the suffering of the genuine victims of religious persecution around the world is arrogant and insulting. The only thing that causes some of them to complain about persecution is that they are not allowed to force their beliefs on others – it is the whine of a bully who cannot have everything his own way. A progressive minister from the Washington Post article puts them in their place:

“This is a skirmish over religious pluralism, and the inclination to see it as a war against Christianity strikes me as a spoiled-brat response by Christians who have always enjoyed the privileges of a majority position,” said the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, a minister in the Church of God in Christ and professor of social ethics at Emory University.

Finally, consider the “Night of Persecution“, an event staged by a Christian youth ministry to give believers “a chance… to experience a small sample of what believers in persecuted nations endure on a daily basis”. Participants in the event role-play converts in an oppressive regime, where they must hold prayer meetings in secret and are “forced to give account for why they believe in Jesus Christ”. (One is inclined to doubt that this process involves any real discomfort, much less the actual tortures used by repressive regimes against minority faiths.) If young believers really want to experience persecution, I suggest they instead try to role-play an atheist living in the Bible Belt.

It is harder to decide how to view this event. If it helps American Christians realize that claiming victimhood is ridiculous, and that the citizens of repressive regimes around the world – not just Christians – are the true victims of persecution, then I hope this project is a success. However, I am inclined to be more pessimistic: I suspect it will instead encourage delusions of persecution among the far-right set that already tends to view the world in this way. There is probably no hope in persuading these people of the obvious truth that Christians are not being persecuted, but I do not think it is too much to hope for that atheists and other nonbelievers can find common ground with progressive religious believers to work against these dangerous and self-deceived ideologues.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Montu

    These people will NEVER understand what it means to be persicuted. These people should try being an Afghani student in NYC on 9/11, and being asked to defend an entire people infront of their class, THEN talk about being persicuted for thier beliefs. This is what happened to a friend of mine, she was asked by her professor, almost FORCED to stand infront of her class and tell them that not all Muslims or Arabs hate Americans, and then she had to explain her faith. I know that moment still haunts her. And after that moment, she then had to watch her home counrty, a place where she still had family, get invaded. And DESPITE this, she still thinks that America did the right thing, and she would stand up for ANYONE to have the right to free speach and to choose their religion.

    These Christian fundimentialists make me sick. To them it’s all fun and games, a way to make money and sell air time to the gulable. They have no comprehension of what it really means to have to stand in the face of the majority and defend their beliefs. Or perhaps they really do want another crusade, either way, the more I hear about this crap the more it makes me hate them.

  • Archi Medez

    Montu,

    It was a poor judgement for the professor to ask your friend to explain, on behalf of an entire religion, that not all Muslims hate Americans, and to explain her faith. Although this was obviously an insensitive blunder on the part of the professor, can you really call this a significant act of persecution? It seems to me that the professor had good intentions, i.e., (ironically) to reduce potential bigotry and potential misunderstanding during a tense time. I mean, when you set up the “These people should try being an Afghani…,” I was expecting something pretty horrendous (e.g., something like the Meher Arar case http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/arar/). You say she was “asked” to defend an entire people in front of the class, but then you say “almost forced”…but it doesn’t sound to me like she was forced. It’s something for which the prof should probably apologize, yes, but when I hear the term persecution, I’m thinking denial of basic rights and freedoms, imprisonment, torture, threats, ostracism, financial loss, killing, etc. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with your friend. Rather, the magnitude of the offence in your example–and I am going by why you’ve described above–doesn’t reach the level of something I’d call persecution.

    In regard to Adam’s examples, it is true that the dominant Christian majority has little to truly fear in terms of real persecution in America. And I’m as cynical as the next person about the true motives of some of these groups (read $$$$$). But I think that the role-playing exercise is a good way to get those who might not understand persecution to get some sense of what it is like for those actually going through it. Recently, there was the well-publicized case of Abdul Rahman, 41, a Muslim Afghan who became a Christian about 16 years ago. Just weeks ago, he was being prosecuted for apostasy. He was facing the death penalty simply for having left Islam. He refused to revert back to Islam (or declare having done so), putting his own life on the line to defend his own personal choice of belief. (He was, with pressure from the western governments, removed and relocated to relative safety in
    Italy. The Afghans, who wanted him executed, declared him insane and therefore were able to save face).

  • Montu

    Archi, perhaps you’re right, but at the same time, I have a very hard time (personally) seperating both the emotion and intensity in which she tells the story from the situation, and the fact that she was shunned from the rest of the class. Yes, the professor had good intentions (perhaps), but at the same time, in that moment, by pointing out the fact that she’s Muslim, Afghani at that, to the rest of the class, simply helped to ostrisize her from her peers. There were many in her class that were very angry (rightfully) by the situation, and no one was thinking straight at that moment. It was an increadibly DANGEROUS thing for the professor to do, expessially sense Muslims were disappearing from the streets and being found dead. The professor put her life in danger by singling her out. On a normal day, I’d completely agree with you that this wasn’t really a moment of persicution, but 9/11 wasn’t a normal day, and being Muslim in New York City was a very frightening thing.

  • andrea

    Archi, I think the Afghani woman was “almost forced” because what would have happened if she would have refused the professor’s “request”? Stupid people would have assumed that she did agree with the murderers. It’s that simple.
    All religions have martyr complexes built into them. Nothing is better than suffering/dying for the faith ’cause it shows how “strong” you are. IMO, that’s nonsense since it’s too easy to die. It’s not hard to see that descendants of the medieval flaggelants(sp?) are alive and well. And the “night of persecution” is pathetic, quite like the “houses of horror” that some “good” Christian churches do on Halloween. It’s even more pathetic since we all know that 90% of Christians would rollover and convert as soon as anyone threatened them over their religion. Sure was a whole lot of Christians in Germany and Europe in the 30′s and 40′s and we saw exactly what they did.

  • andrea

    an addendum – the “role-playing” exercises about persecution amuse me to no end since that’s the same evil role-playing that people who play that “satanic” game Dungeons and Dragons do. such hypocrites:)

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yes, I have to agree with Montu; that’s certainly persecution. Just because one can think of a worse example means nothing. We could say, with that logic, that the Japanes Americans in WWII were treated perfectly alright, since those forced internment camps with the horrible conditions were nothing compared to the GERMAN camps. But that’s irrelevant; good morality demands we attempt to reduce all suffering, not just the really really bad examples. And in the US, anyway, we don’t have all that much danger to life and limb from the religious right; but that doesn’t mean we should let them do as they please.

    However, Adam, I think you have somewhat exagerated the power of the religious right. They don’t control all branches of government, or the media, or anything else in anything near total control. If the major religion in this country was atheism, congress would follow their whims. They have little loyalty except to their jobs. And the religious right also isn’t very large. All they are is a small, rich, loud group of people, so Congressmen show them SOME favoritism for votes (just like democrats show some to the environmental left, and republicans to businessmen) and the CEOs and the media give them some special treatment because they want their cash. I don’t think the focus should be on any group AFFECTED by the right; just the right itself. We need to work on getting people in that mindset out of it, and getting the moderate christians to stop playing both sides and to call out the right for being the prejudice and dangerous people they often are.

    And I have to agree that the role-playing is pretty one-sided. Even if you are supposed to be the lone christian in a group, it still helps to know that hey, there’s a whole society of over 1 billion people on your side, and big brother, and heaven, etc. I think people should try role-playing as atheists; try to imagine that you don’t have a guardian angel, or guardian diety, and that you are very much alone in this, then deal with persecution.

  • Archi Medez

    Folks,

    I will revise my opinion of my previous post to the extent that this young woman was possibly in danger by being singled out. What was the baseline probability of her being attacked without the professor singling her out? Was she singled out already? Is it possible that the professor’s singling her out, and asking her to give some educational statements, etc., actually reduced her chances of being attacked? Until you or I have answers to those questions, as well as questions that would need to be answered to address several of the other points raised above, and until we have the professor’s side of the story, I think we should not be too quick to judge. Yes the prof overstepped boundaries and made an error in judgement. It was a risky thing to do, because we can’t be sure whether his suggestion improved matters or made them worse.

    Was it persecution? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But again, I’m sorry, this just does not fit my idea of what the word persecution means. It doesn’t quite reach the threshold where I say “That’s persecution.” Maybe minor persecution. This is not to trivilaize it, just to put it into perspective, or put it on a scale. If she had been attacked, okay, that’s persecution. If people had verbally abused her, that’s persecution. If the prof would have let his evaluation of the student be influenced in any negative way had she refuse his request for her to talk, that’s persecution. To my knowledge, none of those things happened. Ultimately, though, this is (or was) up to the young woman to pursue a complaint and for some kind of impartial body, with all the facts and both sides of the story, to render a judgment.

    Andrea, in regards to the recent apostasy case in Afghanistan (Mr. Abdul Rahman), by standing up for his beliefs in the way that he did, may have contributed, with his one small step, to improved religious/ideological freedom for all people living in Afghanistan, whatever religion, or non-religion they may hold. Currently in Afghanistan, if you leave Islam, regardless of what ideology you change to, you must be executed. If the state doesn’t do it, a mob of your neighbours would be more than eager to oblige. Mr. Rahman’s bravery benefits anyone who wishes to exercise freedom of conscience and switch away from Islam. I should add that this man was not necessarily going out of his way to be a martyr. His own family turned him in to the authorities and they found evidence such as his Bible, plus the fact that he worked for a Christian organization in Pakistan years earlier, so he was not exactly in a position where he could deny the fact that he’d left Islam. Upon being arrested and detained, he basically had these options: Act crazy and get off on insanity (and possibly spend the rest of his life in a mental institution in Afghanistan–and that is not pleasant); pretend to repent and claim to return to Islam (and maintain this act for the rest of his life, without slipping up); or else hold to his beliefs and hope for some kind of intervention. Afghanistan has a long way to go, but this case was a wake-up call for some of our leaders, so perhaps now there will be international pressure to make modifications to the transitional Afghan constitution.

    Blackwizard,

    Indeed we need to deal with all forms of persecution, big or small and everything in between, but we need to pick our battles. One consideration in making moral decisions is deciding which problems should be tackled. Because of time and resource limitations, basic facts of life, it is not possible to deal with every problem. Therefore one must prioritize. One must have some threshold where one says “We have time and capacity to solve A, but not B.”

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    I’m not sure I have a problem with this woman being asked to talk about her country and faith. Hasn’t this been a topic here lately – that religion should not be off limits to analysis and critique? In this case a number of people, with support from the officials in her home government, flew jets into buildings in the name of her god. I don’t see how a discussion about this in an academic setting is persecution. I would have wanted to ask her a number of questions.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Yes, but the message was to FORCE her, right in the middle of class, to come up, admit her nationality and attempt to defend her religion. It’s no different than an atheist in almost any part of the country being called out; “Bob Jones here is an atheist. Bob, get up here and try and defend your beliefs”. What the hell is that? Why is any “defense” neccessary? She wasn’t a scholar or anything, she was just a student, who may not even have been all that familiar with the nuances of her own religion. To be asked by a friend is one thing, but to be brought up like a spectacle is another.

    Archi; but there is no reason we have to ignore this. Yes, we have to choose our battles, but we have the capacity to solve this. The battle in Afghanistan is, frankly, in Afghanistan, not here. We can do little about that, even if it happens again. We can request our government pur pressure, but that’s all. However, here in our own country, where we should be more concerned, we can do alot against religious bigotry. If we HAD to choose, I’d pick the battles in the US and leave the Middle East alone.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    However, Adam, I think you have somewhat exagerated the power of the religious right. They don’t control all branches of government, or the media, or anything else in anything near total control.

    As far as the government – well, they certainly control the presidency, and they have a majority in both houses of Congress. (The Republican party is now, by default, composed wholly of the radical religious right; all the moderates and fiscal conservatives have been forced out. Even John McCain is kowtowing to the fringe by giving the commencement speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University this year.) As far as the Supreme Court, with the recent resignation of O’Connor and appointments of Roberts and Alito… well, maybe the religious right doesn’t fully control that branch, but draw your own conclusions.

    I don’t think the religious right directly controls the media (except for Fox News), but on the other hand, they have become so influential that media organizations are now too afraid to air views that disagree with them. Coincidentally, this is the topic of my latest post.

    If the major religion in this country was atheism, congress would follow their whims.

    All the more reason for us to get busy organizing!

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I don’t think they control the Congress even. Again, many people are swinging in that direction for the time being, but mostly, I think, it’s who is the loudest. Yeah, we need to quiet them, but I think if we look at it, it’s not that the Republican party is overly zealous in it’s entirety, but that they are just concerned with votes. Like you’ve pointed our in your latest post, the networks and the other theists won’t speak up, not because they are controlled.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Since this took place in a classroom I assume she could have said no? Does being made to feel uncomfortable rise to the level of force? It’s likely the instructor was not going to threaten her with physical violence, this after all took place in academia. Sometimes being made to feel mentally uncomfortable is not such a bad thing.

    The analogy of the atheist being called on to speak I think does not equate, unless you add conditions, such as – the hijackers had been extremely influenced by the tenets of atheism, and were actively supported by other atheists who wanted to violently propagate atheism. Then I would indeed expect questioning about it.

    But I am coming at this as one who feels that we would all be better off with more open questioning and critique of beliefs and positions, and that people should at times be moved out of their comfort zones in this regard.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I, for example, if I was still in college, would gladly step up to defend my own beliefs. But not everyone is. And, exactly; some hijackers supposedly of the same faith just killed ALOT of people, so why call out some girl who doesn’t even fully know what’s going on (this was before things had settled; everyone was shocked except those who did it) and scare the daylights out of her? Like I said, I know this isn’t anything like threat of death, but it’s something we shouldn’t have. No one should be forced to do that when it COULD be dangerous.

    But anyway, I feel like we got this off on a minor detail. I didn’t mean to make this a tangent.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    I was interested in the girl’s situation mainly due to an earlier discussion which touched on the extent to which religious moderates should be held accountable for the actions of fundamentalists, and was thinking of how some of the views expressed would apply to this girl’s situation, given her religion and government affiliation. But I agree it’s nothing to spend a lot of time on. I don’t know all the facts of this case, and would never condone her being treated poorly by the class.

  • Montu

    Thank you BWM, that was pretty much the case, from what I understand. There was another aspect that I didn’t mention that may help illuminate the situation. My friend is very americanized, and most people mistake her for Latina, so it probably came as a surprise to at least a few of her classmates that she was Afghani. When she was “asked” to stand before her class and talk about her religion, it wasn’t a friendly situation, the prof. pretty much interrogated her, not to mention that he asked her right in front of the class, not really giving her the option to say no. She understands her religion very well, but that doesn’t mean that she should have to stand in front of her class and explain it, regardless of the fact that Muslims threw three planes into a building. Bottom line is this, the prof. should have asked her before hand if she would do it, and allow it to be completely optional, and honestly, I think that’s even pushing it. She’s completely American, and was every bit as shocked and terrified by the attacks on 9/11 as any other American. Why should she be singled out just because they share the same god? She hadn’t lived in Afghanistan sense she was three!


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