The False Narrative of Christian Persecution

Yesterday I engaged in Tweet-off with Adrian Warnock, fellow new-resident at Patheos. He blogs from a Christian perspective, as a preacher at Jubilee Church London.

I had noticed Adrian, in his introductory post at Patheos, claims that “There is real hatred for Christian values in our culture today”. I was astonished by that statement, and tweeted him for clarification: can he truly believe this? Adrian has helpfully compiled the resulting discussion here.

With the greatest respect to Adrian, I do not believe it is remotely plausible to maintain that Christians are persecuted, far less hated in the UK. Let’s look at the gross facts: Christianity is the state religion and the head of state is the head of the Church; Christians can freely practice and promote their faith, in churches and in public; Christians hold numerous respected positions in public and political life – the Prime Minister is a Christian, as are many members of the government, of Parliament, leaders of industry and the arts etc; Christianity still has massive cultural power, and the history of the UK is inextricable from the influence of Christianity.

Consider this, from the website of Christians in Parliament, “an official all party group with a clear vision to encourage and support all Christians who work at Westminster, whether elected or not”:

there is more Christian activity in the Palace of Westminster than generally assumed and we aim to work out our faith in these corridors of power in a way that serves the nation as a whole and supports all those who work here. There is no single blueprint for a Christian working at Westminster…There are informal prayer and Bible study groups, and formal services in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, Methodist and Roman Catholic as well as Anglican. Both Houses of Parliament begin each day with prayer, led in the Commons by the Speaker’s Chaplain and in the Lords by a Bishop…Each year Westminster Hall hosts the National Prayer Breakfast, with the kind permission and active support of Mr. Speaker. We are also linked with other groups of Christians in the workplace, and overseas, often struggling in an environment more hostile to an open expression of faith than our own. [emphasis mine]

There seems to me no sense in which this describes an environment of persecution of Christians and hatred of Christian values. Could Christians in Parliament simply have missed it? If anything, what you see here is Christianity being privileged, through the Christian morning prayers, the active support of the authorities. And, generally, I think that as in parliament, so in UK life in general. Christianity is doing ok.

So what evidence does Adrian offer to defend his view? His tweets put forward a number of points:

“Many Christans I know are afraid to admit their faith becoz they will be mocked with the hostility modelled by e.g. Dawkins”

Mockery of ideas, even hostility, by an author in a popular book, is clearly not the same as persecution and hatred. In a free society ideas must be open to stringent, hostile, mocking critique by those who disagree. On occasion forms of mockery and hostility can constitute persecution or may be driven by hatred, but merely fearing your belief might be ridiculed is not the same as being subject to hatred. To equate mockery and hatred is to diminish the notion of hatred to a dangerous degree: Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder was hatred. The God Delusion is not.

“As an example of an issue that can spark the kind of animosity I am talking about check out link

Adrian links to an article about the issue of equal marriage to support his case, in which he claims:

“we have a problem where quite frankly extremists on both ends of the spectrum seem to hate and reject each other, and would in some cases ideally like to use the strong arm of the law to punish one another.”

Putting aside the rather disturbing way Adrian talks about gay people (“homosexuals”) in his post (almost as if we’re a monolithic interest group rather than full individuals with complex ideas and differences of opinion) I simply reject this analysis as non-factual. As a gay man I am deeply concerned that I gain fully equal rights alongside my fellow citizens. But I do not wish to hate, reject or punish those who disagree on this issue, and I know of no major advocate for gay rights who wishes to do so. Indeed the most sophisticated advocates of equal rights understand that were gay people to gain full recognition and equality it will be of benefit to those who oppose us – because we all are elevated when we create a more just society.

A full analysis of the piece would take a whole post, but Adrian’s claim that “Some who hold [the] traditional view of sex today already live in fear that even if they were to say to someone, “Well, personally, I am trying to live by what I believe the Bible teaches about relationships,” this could be enough to get them fired from their jobs, or worse” is absurd. I know of no case when anyone has been fired from their job because they simply expressed their personal desire to live according to a “traditional Christian” sexual morality. This is a fantasy, and if some truly do fear such an outcome, it is because people like Adrian paint this picture as a scare-tactic to galvanize them to action.

Registrars who felt they couldn’t perform civil union ceremonies [lost their jobs]

Let us say for the sake of argument that this is true. Does this equate to persecution of and hatred toward Christians? No. Registrars are agents of the state and are required to abide by its laws when they carry out their work. If – for any reason, religious or not, they decide they cannot fulfill their responsibilities, then they cannot continue in that job. What Adrian seems to desire is that Christians be allowed both to keep the status of a registrar and to disobey the law as it pertains to their particular duties. This is a dangerous view to take: how far should we extend such privileges based on religious conviction? Should Catholic registrars be allowed to refuse to remarry divorcees? Would Adrian object if an individual who refused to do so was told they cold no longer be a registrar? Or would he assert that every religious public official must be allowed to make their own law?

In short: to be denied unreasonable privilege is not to be oppressed, to be treated the same as everyone else is not to be hated.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Adrian Warnock

    Thanks for this interaction, James. The UK is a very complicated place. Nominally we are a Christian nation, but as I said, people are strongly encouraged to keep their faith out of their workplaces and out of the public square. If you are an evangelical it is very hard to get public office as I know from a personal friend of mine who found herself at the center of a vilification campaign. I think we are at a tipping point, or possibly beyond it on both sides of the Atlantic, where what was once the majority perspective and unfortunately did oppress others, is no longer in that privileged position. For sure nominal Christianity may still be privileged, but if you dare to put your head above the parapet these days you will be admonished pretty quickly. It does seem likely to me that unless we can somehow get to the point where we can all get along without forcing people to agree, then the group that once did the oppressing, will itself be genuinely oppressed. You are quite right that there is a massive challenge for us all in figuring out what is reasonable accommodation for those of religious perspectives. When the Abortion law was passed, for example, it was made clear than nobody should be forced to participate in Abortion as part of their job. As a junior doctor I took advantage of that “conscientious objection” clause as many have. There have been moves recently in the UK to look at whether that concession should be removed. If so, evangelicals like me will be left with a choice: violate your own conscience or don’t work as a doctor. To me that is a fairly stark choice. Every Christian will draw the line in a different place as to what they feel they cannot do. Some will have no problems with a lot of things that violate their own personal convictions. But surely whether someone is a Muslim or Christian we have to ensure that in the future world of tolerance for all they can fulfill an active full role in society. These questions are complex and difficult to answer. Should for example the Government have allowed the catholic church to continue to screen married couples to adopt children, while perhaps funding other agencies to screen homosexuals? Were they right to say to the Catholic Church, thanks for your help all these years in adoption, but we don’t want you any more. And before you too quickly jump to say they were right, sadly since the Catholic Church has stopped being involved in this process the numbers of adoptions in the UK has plummeted. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I can tell you this, as an evangelical in the UK today, despite this somewhat prominent blog, I tend not to “out” myself in the workplace. Ironically someone I knew in a work context once came out to me as homosexual, and I am glad to say that things have moved on so much in the last 50 years that neither he nor I felt awkward as far as I could tell. It really wasn’t an issue. I didn’t feel I could come out to him as an evangelical, however, so did not share that. I know that part of the reason for that I was concerned about some of the “baggage” I might carry with me. How he would react to me as an Evangelical is of course at least in part because of the unfortunate way many of my tribe have vilified yours in the past. I do hope that there is some way that we can all figure out of getting along together, as the trend to me at least does not look that way.

    • James Croft

      Thanks Adrian – I’ll respond ASAP!

    • Baal

      Wall-of-text(tm) crits me for 9000! (I’ll wade through it though, I’m pleased and surprised to see actual engagement from a Christian.)

      • James Croft

        Adrian has posted this on his blog too, complete with paragraphs and everything! ;)

        • Adrian Warnock

          Sorry for the lack of paras here! It was something I wrote in a flurry, and I don’t think I realized how long it was when I hit return!

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  • ImRike

    It really shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how to get along. I suggest that nobody should be forced to DO anything that is against their moral beliefs (be they religious or secular). For example, I agree that a doctor should not be forced to perform abortions, if that would be an action contrary to his/her religion. However, for a pharmacist to refuse to sell birth control pills should not count, since religion really does not forbid to sell stuff – selling the pills is not the same as being forced to TAKE them. Registrars have no reason to refuse to perform civil union ceremonies, as long as it isn’t their own, which they don’t need to do! There is no good reason for the catholic church to refuse to place children with a gay couple – they’re not making a judgement about gays in this instance but rather they are giving a home to a child.
    I just cannot see the difficulties, other than as usual – religion wants to be in power. If “we all want to get along”, religion needs to realize that the 21st century is no longer representative of the dark ages when everybody had to bow to them. Nobody is forcing anybody to get married against their will, to take pills against their will, to have an abortion against their will – where is the persecution? Oh, the persecution is when the churches are trying to force me to live my life their way rather than mine!

    • Nalé

      this is hardly about ‘regilion being in power’ you sounded reasonable until that point…

    • Nalé

      any genuine christian isn’t about forcing people to live their way it’s about introducing them to Jesus not because of any moral superiority but out of love for their fellow human (not saying all do this). However no one should be forced against their conscience to perform a gay wedding… it is marginalisation for not fitting in the way ‘the culture thinks’ your comment about ‘regilion’forcing you to live there was is very unfounded, christians have no say in everyday culture anymore anyway???!

      • smrnda

        Should I be permitted, as an agent of the state, to refuse to sign a building permit to a house of worship since I do not believe in its particular style of religion? The person in charge of permits should not be forced to attend, but signing a piece of paper is just granting that something is permitted. An agent of the state ought to recognize what is legal. I’m not sure how it works in the UK, but the county clerk who signs a piece of paper is not in any way ‘performing’ a ceremony.

  • Brad Haggard

    James, I think you make a good point about this. The persecution narrative rings hollow for me when I think about Christians targeted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. I think you would rightly call that hatred and persecution. Matthew Shepherd was also certainly a hate crime.

    However, it seems to me like your distinction makes the use of “hate” and “bigot” by many in the gay rights movement is misplaced. Are you willing to discourage the use of the term “homophobia”? Also, I think the tone from leaders such as Dan Savage, if not hate, is certainly disdain and possibly bullying.

    Also, simply calling ministers agents of the state and forcing them to act against conscience is very dangerous. The Christians arrested in Iran and many other persecuting states are arrested on charges of crimes against national security.

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  • Nalé

    James Croft unfortunately this is very naive article, you are totally unaware of the marginalisation of christians in the UK. i wouldn’t go as far as to say we are persecuted but very much marginalised and mocked, atheists are given a lot more freedom to express their views in the media on TV etc. A christian couldn’t have a TV show called ‘the atheist delusion’ like the shows Dawkins had there would be outcry!
    Lets not pretend about the christian state thing we no full well most of the population aren’t christians so a label means nothing, as a christian i am under no delusion that christianity is struggling in this country, so how come you aren’t?

    The problem here is you are unable to see the difference between cultural christians and genuine ones, there are many MP’s and elite who attend high anglican church but when pushed on there views don’t really believe it and go as some kind of cultural ritual. Christianity isn’t about just a few rituals it’s about following Jesus Christ believing he is the son of God. So this is where the issue comes in for christians who genuinely believe the Bible is true and express that public they are pushed out of the public square as far as possible and rejected by friends and work colleagues (i know people who have experienced this). I myself know how hard it is to tell friends i have become a christian, because there is a genuine fear of being marginalised, stereotyped and loosing friends, this of course is secondary to what i believe is true and i guess comes with it.
    As a gay man i would think you would be able to relate to this marginalisation, which fortunately is a lot less common for the gay community. But unfortunately is and more more common for the genuine bible believe Jesus following community, please don’t pull the wool over your eyes, i certainly havent about the ill treatment so called christians have done towards the homosexual community.

    • eric

      I think you mistake ‘no longer popular’ with ‘persecution.’ If you tell someone what you believe, and they no longer want to hang out with you or they mock you, that’s a loss of popularity. If you tell someone your sexual orientation, and you are at risk of being beaten to death for it, that’s persecution.

      there is a genuine fear of being marginalised, stereotyped and loosing friends, this of course is secondary to what i believe is true and i guess comes with it.
      As a gay man i would think you would be able to relate to this marginalisation, which fortunately is a lot less common for the gay community.

      Oh you must be joking. One group has been a dominant political and social group thorughout western Europe for approximately the last 1,700 years. The other has been burned at the stake for much of that same time when discovered. With Christians doing the burning.
      Again, you need to maybe rethink what you consider to be ‘persecution.’ Losing friends is not really it.

  • ImRike

    Nalé, but of course religions are about power – aren’t your gods also called a “higher power”? Isn’t that why religions have shepherds (ministers, priests, popes, imams…) that “guide” the sheep? And if you stray from the path, you go to hell. Oh, I know, nowadays the power is a bit diffused, not quite like in past centuries, when not only did you go to hell, but you might go by expedited way of burning at the stake or hanging from a rope or being slowly dismantled limb by limb… So yes, I can see where the religious today might feel disadvantaged since their power has been cut back a bit, but they still try to spread their godly laws onto everybody. And no, not for a minute do I believe that that’s out of love for their fellow humans. If you really love your fellow humans, you want them to be happy and able to live their life as they see best for themselves, not as directed by some imaginary higher power that they cannot perceive.
    You know, most atheists that I know have nothing against religious people as long as they don’t force us to participate in their – well, let me call it – malarkey. But it seems, no matter where we go, we have to sit through prayers (at town hall meetings, i. e.) or have psalm signs waved around us (at ball games…) or have to run into huge 10-commandment displays at city halls. Why is that? Why can’t the religious keep their thing at home and in their churches like their number 2 higher power told them to (Mat 6:5,6)?
    Well, here you go – I very seldom post at any blogs, but I guess I had to get that off my chest. Maybe I should mention that I grew up in Germany where almost everybody went to church on Sunday (I was catholic); but outside church, religion was a private thing that nobody talked about. And that’s how I think it should be.

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