Is This What Religious Persecution Looks Like?

Is This What Religious Persecution Looks Like? October 28, 2015

Sometimes reading two very different articles in conjunction with each other can be fascinating. Take this article about Christian homeschool leader Kevin Swanson’s persecution complex, on the one hand, and this article about Boko Haram bombing mosques in Nigeria, on the other.

First, Kevin Swanson:

Swanson told host Tim Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, that persecution in America is “happening all over the place,” lamenting that now “accountants who refuse to submit forms for homosexual couples” are facing persecution.

“We’re looking at a massive increase in persecution,” he said, warning that religious radio stations will soon be taken off the air if they “refuse to give equal time to homosexuals on the basis of sexual orientation.”

He continued: “We’re all at stake. If you don’t want your pastor in jail, if you want your religious radio station still broadcasting, if you want your job and if you’re a Christian, you had better take this matter seriously in the 2016 elections.

Next, Boko Haram:

Two bomb attacks in north-eastern Nigeria have left at least 42 people dead and more than 100 injured, officials say.

At least 27 people died when a bomb targeted a newly opened mosque in the town of Yola.

Earlier, 15 people were killed in a suicide bombing in Maiduguri.

It is not clear who carried out the bombings but the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has carried out many attacks in the area.

The group has targeted both Christians and Muslims who do not adhere to their ideology.

. . .

Thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to leave their homes by Boko Haram violence in recent years.

Just as I don’t like the “oppression olympics”—arguing over what oppressed group is most oppressed—I have no desire to engage in some sort of “persecution olympics.” And yet, the problem here is less varying degrees of persecution than it is Swanson mistaking a complete lack of persecution for, well, persecution.

Some of what Swanson describes in various media forms is indeed happening—government officials are required to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and in states that include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination clauses, bakers are required to bake cakes for all weddings, and not just those for heterosexual couples—and other parts of it are not happening—religious radio shows are not required to give equal time to LGB individuals and pastors are not jailed for calling homosexuality sin. But what is happening is not persecution.

We as a society are capable of protecting LGB individuals’ civil rights and protecting individuals’ right to hold bigoted religious beliefs. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. We know this because we’ve done this before. Take race, for example. Historically, many Christian sects believed that interracial relationships were against the will of God, and some Christians continue to believe this today. Pastors are not required to marry interracial couples and individuals are not required to approve of interracial relationships—but businesses are required to provide services to interracial couples.

Your right to religious freedom does not extend to violating others’ civil rights. This is the bargain we have struck. Your religious beliefs are protected, but your right to discriminate is not. After all, what is the alternative? Allowing evangelical Christians to discriminate against gay individuals violates the civil rights of gay individuals, just as allowing white supremacist Christians to discriminate against interracial couples would violate interracial couples’ civil rights. We live in a society where rights must be balanced, but that balance is not persecution.

There’s another reason these paired stories struck me. Individuals like Swanson center Christian persecution to the point that it would be easy to forget that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and atheists also face religious persecution across the globe. We see this in U.S. evangelicals’ focus on ISIS’ persecution of Christians when in fact both Yazidis and other sects of Muslims face persecution, death, and slavery—and in the case of Yazidis, only higher levels of brutality. Our focus should be on religious freedom writ large—and on civil rights as well, for all individuals.

We have our work cut out for us, and we don’t need Swanson’s faux persecution claims muddying the waters. Can you say counterproductive?

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