I want you to know how valiantly I fought writing anything about this today. I’m not big on writing about current events or “trending” subjects because that’s not what this blog is really about. I was already tired of this particular subject before it even blew up on Facebook and Twitter. Reading my news feed, you’d think nothing today was more important than the suspension of one of the stars from a wildly popular TV show. After witnessing several hours of angry digital protests streaming through my phone and computer, I checked three different international news sites only to discover they had nothing about this story. What a shocking oversight! All those sites seemed to want to talk about was AIDS and polio and Southern Sudan and Russia. Didn’t they realize there were more important things happening in the only country that really matters? During my time on Facebook today I learned that nothing matters more, at least right now, than the slight decrease of Christian privilege happening in popular American life. This, it seems, signals the end of life as we know it. It might even be worse than someone trying to force affordable healthcare on the entire nation against their will. I dunno. It’s hard to say. They’re both so…so…evil.
And yes, that is sarcasm dripping from my keyboard this evening, and I want to tell you why this whole fiasco irks me so. There are many things I could touch on, but I want to focus on only one aspect of the public outrage swirling around me. For the moment, I’m going to pretend that Phil Robertson’s comments about the pre-civil rights era South were not egregiously dismissive of the plight of blacks during the days of Jim Crow (did the news reports you saw even include that part?). I’m also going to pretend that labeling an entire sexual orientation as invalid isn’t a form of bigotry, and that suggesting homosexuality leads to bestiality isn’t disgustingly dehumanizing. Incidentally, bigotry hides behind many disguises—none more ingenious than religion. But America is a country that prides itself on the freedom to say whatever you want to say, no matter how offensive it is to the person sitting right next to you, so that’s not what I’m criticizing right now. It seems to me a “reality TV” show centered around the peculiarities of a colorful Southern family should showcase their personal and cultural biases, because isn’t that part of their charm, their appeal? But the executives at A&E decided Robertson would be more of a liability than an asset, and since they are a business, they made their decision, and conservatives everywhere—if they are to be consistent, that is—should respect that for-profit company’s right to do as they please. They certainly wouldn’t want other people telling a company how to run their business in other ways, like telling them whether or not they had to cover their employees’ contraceptive costs.
No, what irks me tonight is the growing persecution complex among American Christians, as exemplified by this image passed around today on Facebook:
Now some Christians would argue that condemning same-sex relationships as “sinful” is non-essential to the core of the Christian message. Some would even argue that it is contrary to the message of Jesus. It’s a subject Jesus actually never spoke about, per se. But quite frankly, I don’t really care. That’s no longer my battle. As we would say down here, “I don’t have a dog in that fight.” For my purposes tonight, I would like to pretend that opposing homosexuality is somehow a fundamental, integral, mission-critical facet of the Christian faith. You’d certainly think it is, to hear some people talk, so let’s grant that for the sake of argument. Condemning homosexuality is certainly a part of the version of the Christian faith which the Robertson family inherited, so arguing about whether or not this is True Christianity™ is beside the point as far as I’m concerned. It is a part of their faith, so it’s relevant. I do think it’s worth noting that I haven’t heard them argue his dismissal of the mistreatment of Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era was somehow a part of his faith, nor are they admitting that his words about that subject could be part of why he fell out of favor with his employer. But I digress, and again, I’m willing to do what they’re all doing and pretend none of that really matters.
What matters to my family and friends here in the Deep South is that their faith is increasingly earning the disapproval of the larger American culture. Many of them even fell for the (incorrect) report that the network wanted the Robertson’s to stop praying on the show. More persecution! More evidence that American culture is turning against them! Fine. Despite the fact that many of their complaints are based on a misunderstanding of how the First Amendment works, and despite the fact that for many of them religious liberty means being free to push their religion on everyone else, I am even willing to grant them that they are beginning to experience the disapproval of the larger American culture. Let’s grant for the moment that they are being persecuted, not because of bigotry or homophobia or racism, but because of their loyalty to Jesus.
American Christianity is an odd duck, if you’ll pardon the pun. Here we have a religion which was forged in a context of persecution, born among the poor and marginalized within the ancient Roman empire. It was built around a man who was crucified for the things he said and did, and his message (as we have it today, anyway) expressly calls upon his followers to imitate his example, embracing the shame and disapproval of the world as a part of their calling.
Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.
But over time the Christian faith came to be championed by those in power, first by Constantine and then later by the Holy Roman Empire. When the United States was first founded, the Christian religion was clearly the dominant one and that remains true still today. When one wants to run for the highest office in this country, you have to outdo the other candidates in your identification with the Christian religion or else you will lose your chance at the job. In the Deep South, it’s not even enough to say you’re a Christian; you have to make your devotion to your faith a central campaigning point to really be competitive. So in the end we have this odd mix of a religion founded in a context of persecution now being championed in a culture in which the Christian religion still enjoys a large dose of (albeit fading in some places) social privilege. You get a bizarre situation in which people used to pushing their religion on other people, even in government-sponsored places where the Establishment Clause really should govern what is said and done, suddenly find themselves increasingly looked down upon for holding to views no longer popular among the larger culture. This disapproval, they say, is persecution. I’m not even going to argue here that it’s silly to cry persecution when it’s your bigotry and racism that’s making people disapprove of you. I’m asking: Even if you are being persecuted, why are you acting like this isn’t what’s supposed to happen to you? Don’t you follow the man who said, “Take up your cross and follow me?” Is that really what you’re doing right now?
I’m going to level with you. I don’t believe that Jesus really wanted to be persecuted, and I don’t think you do, either. It did happen to him, though, and in time that treatment came to be a cornerstone of the Christian identity. Now you are faced with a choice of your own. Is this really a religion you want to follow? Are you prepared to embrace the disapproval of your surrounding culture and not cry foul, not whine, not fight for it to go away? Are you really up for that? In all honesty, I think that’s insane. I was once taught to think of that as healthy, but I no longer think such a fundamental denial of life and liberty is really such a healthy thing. But perhaps you disagree with me. Perhaps you want to be faithful to the version of Jesus you received, and that’s a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. That’s your call. But don’t say you follow this man and then turn around and do the opposite of what he says his followers are supposed to do. Or at least don’t expect the rest of us to take his message seriously, if you don’t either.