This past weekend as I was exiting my local movie theater, the poster for the latest installment of the God’s Not Dead franchise stopped me dead in my tracks. I just stood and stared at it for a full minute, trying to process what I was seeing.
The poster features the movie’s star and producer, David A.R. White, standing amidst the ruins of a sanctuary reduced to rubble by a fire of as-yet-unknown origin. Pure Flix, the religious film production company co-founded by White, has carefully avoided disclosing the source of the fire, although it’s fair to assume it owes something to the escalating persecution his character was facing for standing up for his beliefs at the end of the last installment.
My first thought when I saw the poster was, “Ah, yes. The long and storied plight of white churches being burned to the ground by…uh…well, they were usually burned by…uh…”
Wait a second. I do recall churches being burned. A LOT of them, in fact. But they weren’t white churches. Come to think of it, as a native Mississippian, I can tell you that many of the church bombings that happened over my state’s sordid racial history were likely organized by people gathering inside the walls of the white churches on the other side of town. That was the easiest (and safest) place to meet for such things.
The irony of inverting these circumstances should make you sick to your stomach.
In what alternate universe are white churches getting fire bombed for their beliefs…in the Deep South, of all places?
Reverend White and the multimillion dollar entertainment company he headlines keep raking in the cash by feeding evangelical consumers a steady diet of the anti-Christian dystopian futures their persecution fantasies make them crave. Real life keeps failing to deliver, but thankfully for White and for Pure Flix, there’s always the magic of cinematic fiction.
To figure out what’s going on here, let’s take an example from real life and break it down to see if we can better understand the mindset that produces this phenomenon. If you’ll bear with me for just a moment, you may find it illuminates a recurring theme in the culture wars that continue to divide American public life.
Who is Persecuting Whom?
Earlier this month, FOX News commentator and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee lost his spot on the board of directors for the Country Music Association Foundation less than 24 hours after the appointment was announced.
Those who protested his accession to the board clearly stated the reasons for their disapproval, citing his trenchant opposition to the equal rights of LGBT people as well as his unquestioning alignment with the NRA in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida just two weeks earlier, killing 17 and injuring 14 more.
What did I miss? Cowardly corporations punish NRA because FBI failed to act on info re: shooter and FL Sheriff had 4 deputies who stood outside and hid during gunfire that killed 17 innocent kids. How many NRA members did mass shootings? ZERO.
— Gov. Mike Huckabee (@GovMikeHuckabee) February 24, 2018
But that’s not why Huckabee thinks he lost his spot. He believes he’s being persecuted because of his faith. It’s because he’s a Christian, you see. That’s why they hate him, those…country music…people. You know how vehemently anti-Christian they are, amirite? And also anti…guns. Yeah.
Remember when the Supreme Court decided in the summer of 2015 that it’s unconstitutional to deny people the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation? Huckabee bitterly denounced the decision, arguing that such things should be left up to the states. He soon began referencing the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857 to illustrate how Supreme Courts can make mistakes, leaving us with little choice but to engage in civil disobedience.
What the seminary dropout failed to understand was that in Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court kicked the issue of basic human rights back to the states, which allowed states the ability to continue discriminating against an entire class of people. That’s what was wrong with their decision, and that’s exactly what Huckabee was arguing the current SCOTUS should have done about gay marriage. He seems to lack the ability to see how the comparison undermines the very point he was trying to make, placing him squarely on the wrong side of history.
Two months later, when Kentucky clerk Kim Davis did what Huckabee encouraged all good Christians to do by refusing to issue marriage licenses to people she deemed unfit to have them, he was among the first to visit her in jail. He also made sure he was there for a melodramatic photo opportunity to hand her a microphone on the day she was released (to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” as you may recall).
Governor Huckabee used every tool at the disposal of a man in his position of power and influence to disallow same-sex couples from having the same rights as, well…Mike Huckabee. And what is the nature of that position?
For more than a decade he presided over the very state in which two of the three God’s Not Dead films have been shot, even making a cameo appearance in the second film. As a regular FOX News contributor who used to have his own syndicated show on the network, the two-time presidential candidate whose daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, currently serves as President Trump’s press secretary never lacks a public platform from which he can express his opinion and influence millions.
But when a country music foundation decides he’s not a good fit for their board of directors, Huckabee cries persecution. In his mind, he’s the little guy with the slingshot and everyone who opposes him is the giant Philistine warrior. Side note: Guess which biblical story Pure Flix is producing next?
[Related: “Samson: An Evangelical Hero in the Era of Trump“]
Then just this past weekend, comedian Jim Carrey tweeted an unflattering painting of Huckabee’s daughter, accusing her of making her living by lying for Donald Trump, insinuating this made her devotion to Christian principles suspect. Instead of addressing what Carrey was actually saying—claiming that she is being inconsistent with what Christians say they believe—Huckabee fired back that Carrey is a “Pathetic BULLY, sexist, hater, bigot & ‘Christaphobe'[sic]…”
Those are strong words coming from a man who once defended Trump’s snubbing of Ted Cruz at the 2016 Republican National Convention, arguing that “if you can’t support Trump, you don’t deserve a microphone.” Never mind the fact that the reason Cruz refused to endorse him was that Trump had used Twitter to bully him and his family, calling Cruz’s wife ugly and accusing his father of conspiring to assassinate John F. Kennedy. The hypocrisy never ends.
A Persecuted Majority?
In every fight there is a power dynamic which may not always be obvious to the people involved. The reach of a person or group can be difficult to quantify but, more often than not, in any given fight someone has the upper hand. We hold most responsible those people who wield the most power because they have the greater ability to do damage to the other party. That just makes sense.
When the rich and the powerful attack the poor and the weak, we call that “punching down” because they have all the most meaningful leverage. The deck is stacked significantly in their favor, whatever the fight may be. When the weak fight back, we call that “punching up,” and generally speaking it does far less to change the way things are because their reach is less.
Huckabee sees himself a part of a persecuted minority even though he professes the same religion as roughly 80% of his home state and about 70% of the nation as a whole. Like most politicians across the country, he has found that wearing his religious affiliation on his sleeve gives him a distinct advantage over anyone who fails to do so, and for decades now it’s been customary for leaders of our country to begin every important meeting with a public prayer and to end every important speech with the words “God bless America.”
We hold national prayer breakfasts to allow ministers a platform to express their greatest concerns, and we even look the other way when tax-exempt entities like churches openly campaign for Christian candidates for public office, an activity prohibited by a provision in the national tax code, a provision which Huckabee wants to do away with, flooding churches with untrackable cash since in our system churches are exempted from reporting their financial particulars to the IRS.
Huckabee’s no shepherd boy at this point, no matter how humble his beginnings. But he is unable to see the many ways he enjoys advantages over others who are not like him because in the narrative that frames the way he sees himself, Christians will always be the persecuted minority. That makes everything he does “punching up.”
As I said upon surviving a painful viewing of God’s Not Dead 2:
Evangelical Christians want to be persecuted. At some level, they need to be persecuted.
It’s woven into their central narrative. It is a part of how they were taught to understand themselves.
The Christian message was predicated upon a martyrdom, and it was fashioned by a people suffering from persecution. Because of this, it will always make the most sense among groups of people who are similarly persecuted and underprivileged by their surroundings.
But put this same message into a subculture in which its adherents actually wield the positions of greatest civic and economic power and you get a grotesque monstrosity which goes around bullying others, then claiming victimhood every time the targets of their abuse try to defend themselves.
We call this “privilege blindness,” when you cannot even see the ways that the world gives you an upper hand. Or in this case maybe we should call it privilege projection. You take those inequities for granted because it’s the way things have always been. Once you become accustomed to a steady diet of such regular privilege, the slightest reduction in the inequality leaves you feeling utterly persecuted.
Longing to Be Crucified
Imagine how the above dynamic plays out inside a mentality which predisposes large groups of people to seek out persecution because without it, they aren’t legitimate followers of the Object of their Affection. Remember what Jesus said:
“A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
So what happens if they’re not persecuting you? What happens if the world just shrugs and finds you mostly irrelevant, uninteresting? Wouldn’t that lead you to worry you’re doing something wrong? Is it really that difficult to imagine that such a mentality could cause people to go out looking for trouble?
That’s not so hard for me to imagine at all. I’ve been a parent and a teacher for nearly two decades now, and I know good and well that human beings are weird like that. We often do things that don’t make sense. We lash out at people without obvious provocation, and other times we make decisions that seem calculated to sabotage our own life situations. But why? Why would we actually go out looking for trouble?
Sometimes we make messes for ourselves because we’re unhappy with the way things are and we’re desperate for a way to change them. After we’ve exhausted all the more sensible routes to accomplish the things we want to see happen, we turn to less rational courses of action which may even come back to bite us in the end. Like the much better movie Annihilation so hauntingly illustrates, it seems that self-sabotage is wired into us at the cellular level.
Christianity just takes that impulse and deifies it. It channels all our self-loathing into a twisted search to be punished at some level for who we are, for all the ways we fall short of our own goals. Sometimes it even leads us to hurt others in a desperate attempt to feel relevant to the larger world around us. And that goes double for anyone raised in a religion which glorifies persecution as if it were a emblem of spiritual accomplishment.
But therein lies the greatest problem with the Christian persecution complex. It keeps people from seeing the real reasons for the troubles they encounter because it paints them the perpetual victim in every conflict they face. This dynamic then works the same way that championing other noble causes does, which Frederica Mathewes-Green once compared to donning a superhero cape:
It’s an intoxicating costume. For one thing, the…cape works like an invisibility cloak in reverse: Put it on and you can’t see your own faults. Instead, you see everyone else’s with lightning clarity and assume the authority to judge them…
I suspect hanging a cross around your neck can work the same way. Since you’re the one the world is out to get, you are invariably the victim, and you can do no wrong. Every swing you take is “punching up,” no matter what the social dynamic surrounding it.
[Read: “It’s All About the Cape“]
People like Mike Huckabee and “Reverend Dave” think they’re being persecuted whenever they get pushback from people whose rights they are actively trying to limit. They cannot see the resistance they encounter as the self-defense that it really is, nor does their worldview allow them to think of themselves as anything other than sacrificial lambs being led to the slaughter.
As long as that’s the case, they will never be able to see the ways they are hurting others. They will always be the ones who are getting hurt.
NOTE: No sooner had I published this than someone shared an article on FOX News (link here) just this morning about how atheists are the real bullies.