The central idea in the Christian movie God’s Club, which we reviewed recently and have been discussing off and on, is a very common talking point believed by right-wing Christians all over America: that they are facing unprecedented levels of persecution in this country, and thus are in great danger of losing their religious liberty–and from there getting imprisoned and even executed for their beliefs. Non-Christians may well feel baffled about why so many Christians cling to this idea as hard as they do–and why they seem to genuinely think that they are in real danger.
Today, because I’m feeling helpful again, I thought I’d share where Christians are going wrong with this cherished illusion, and why they keep pushing the idea despite its laughable and rather obvious errors.
Christians are having a meltdown these days over “religious liberty.” It’s one of their most important dogwhistle terms, one that carries an entire symphony of meaning behind just a few notes. Even non-fundagelical Christians often buy into the idea that somehow American Christians are in dreadful danger of losing their “religious liberty.” They spin elaborate fantasies about the persecution they imagine is coming their way after their religious liberties get destroyed–with many of those fantasies showing up in movies like God’s Club, God’s Not Dead (1&2), Persecuted, Chased, A Matter of Faith, Do You Believe?, and a host of others that detail a world where Christians face vicious abuse for no reason other than their deep, heartfelt beliefs. Christian audiences eat these movies up with a spoon.
Books like the Left Behind franchise, as well, describe in lurid detail the persecution of Christians after the Rapture has come and gone–and they are bestsellers commanding the attention of millions of Christians. Pastors and laypeople alike, meanwhile, swap stories and urban legends with breathless titillation, often using them as an excuse to overstep their bounds or justify something terrible they’ve done (or want to do) to others.
Sometimes this loss of “religious liberty” is tied up with fundagelical fantasies about the end of the world (the “Endtimes,” or the “Rapture/Tribulation,” or, if you’re trying to sound very knowledgeable, eschatology). The endgame of these pipe dreams is always, of course, the martyrdom or imprisonment of Christians like themselves–who we will refer to as TRUE CHRISTIANS™, since I assure you that is absolutely how they think of themselves.
The one thread tying all of these fantasies together is not that they are all of exceptionally poor quality, objectively speaking, though they most certainly are, but that they are all based in a universe that does not actually exist.
A Not-So-New Phenomenon.
Everywhere we look nowadays, wild-eyed Christians whine, bellow, thump their chests, and wring their hands about “religious liberty” and “persecution” as if they fully expect to be frog-marched to the gulag next week and then guillotined the week after, all for (sing along with me now!) jus’ bein’ Christian. Thanks to their disgracefully irresponsible leaders, Christians are getting more and more frightened of what their neighbors are going to do to them once their tribe no longer controls American society–a time they see approaching with dreadful haste.
I have not seen this level of unwarranted panic since the 1980s Satanism scare. You would think they’d have learned from that humiliation, since this new panic is just as obviously manufactured, flimsily-supported, and blatantly opportunistic and self-serving as that one was. But if you try to tell them that being able to learn from one’s mistakes is a good trait, then you’ll soon discover that you’re talking to the wrong audience.
A year ago I wrote about how I saw fear as being one of the two main components of fundagelicalism (along with greed)–and since then, Christian leaders have been making matters worse for their gullible flocks by fanning their panic and stoking their greed with this twaddle about “religious liberty.”
It’d be one thing if they actually were using the term accurately, but they’re not. They’re saying “religious liberty,” but what they mean is “fundagelical dominance,” with an added dash of “… like it used to be, back in the Good Ole Days,” and a sprinkling of “…before all those meaniepie atheists and Civil Rights people and feminists wrecked everything!” They want to return to the past, to a time when they think Christians ruled uncontested across the breadth of American society–and to a time when dissenters and critics didn’t dare to speak against their overreach and control.
America’s always had an uneasy relationship between its most zealous Christian citizens and its ideals of liberty and freedom for all. Thanks to a run of good luck, demographic shifts, and really dirty backroom politics, toxic Christians had settled themselves comfortably atop the heap of people’s rights–and probably expected to stay there. They became accustomed to being the country’s Designated Adults. They crawled into the nation’s highest offices, infested school boards everywhere, infiltrated the leadership of our military, and took it upon themselves to
strong-arm “advise” politicians about how best to advance right-wing Christians’ agendas. And most of those politicians were quite happy to pander to a demographic that reliably produced electoral victories.
So yes, there was a point when Christians in America had a hell of a lot of power. It was unearned, undeserved, and exercised at the expense of the rest of the population, but it was power nonetheless, and to someone locked in a dysfunctional social group (a “broken system,” one might even call it!), that’s all that matters.
But Then, the Unthinkable Happened.
People began pushing back against Christian domination.
Suddenly people were leaving the religion in droves–or else never joining at all, and also refusing even to pretend to agree anymore with the religion’s goals and desires.
Catholic and mainline Protestant groups began losing people earlier and faster than did the rest, but soon enough every denomination was suffering. The Gospel Coalition (TGC), that fundagelical group that so impressed our visiting Christian on the last post, performed some rather impressive sleight of hand to make their own group sound like it was actually doing comparatively well, but actual statistics experts are clear on this point: As catastrophes go, the churn that Christian groups (including fundagelicals) are facing is right up there with that meteor that some scientists think caused all those extinctions 250 million years ago. What we’re seeing here is an unprecedented game-changer in their history, and nothing less.
Little wonder their reactions have not been, shall we generously describe them, helpful.
At first the resistance was a mere trickle and the defections slow and quiet, and then suddenly the floodgates seemed like they opened out of nowhere.
Just like that, it was on.
Their leaders were no longer universally praised and admired (or at least humored). They were no longer given leeway when they did or said hypocritical or otherwise awful things. Skeletons began tumbling out of the closets of prominent Christians who’d obviously previously considered themselves untouchable. Criminals in the clergy began sometimes facing the same penalties that laypeople did. People began openly examining, criticizing, and discussing Christianity–and Christians themselves–in ways that most people would not have dreamed of doing just a decade or so earlier.
It’s got to be downright bewildering and embarrassing for someone to go from the top of the heap to
the bottom –well, to a few inches lower down on the heap, anyway. Nobody likes losing power, especially not people who have built an entire system upon the idea that they deserve power and are best-suited to wield it out of all people possible. Indeed, their leaders have gone into overdrive to try to reclaim that lost status and power, going to lengths that look positively Machiavellian.
(As just one example, daytime Christian talk radio hosts appear to have absolutely no boundaries or limits about how far they will go to rile up their listeners with the most horrifying rhetoric and lies. The mere existence of these programs ought to make every single Christian in the world hang their head in shame or roar in outrage or both–yet somehow their hosts not only find audiences, but expand those audiences year after year. And Republican/fundagelical candidates for the highest offices in the land do an elaborate mating dance every few years to court the favor of what amounts to a pack of domestic terrorists.)
Bear in mind that modern Christianity is noted more for ignoring its mission directives than for keeping them. Feeding the hungry, comforting the mourning, tending the sick, clothing the naked, and doing other acts of extreme charity might be what Jesus is supposed to have flat-out told them to do, but the more fervent the Christian, the less that person usually gives a shit about any of that boring stuff. And it’s a pity, really, because if they spent more time doing that stuff, nobody’d have much room to object to Christians or Christianity.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see Christians ignoring those boring tasks in favor of clawing for power as if it is all they have ever done. In a very real sense, that’s exactly the case. People in a broken system center their entire lives around gaining and retaining power. This religion is no exception to that rule.
And even when they are making a movie that is clearly meant to show how totally unfair and meeeeeeean the secular world is to TRUE CHRISTIANS™, even in a storyline that is tilted 100% in favor of the fundagelicals and that is meant to portray them in completely sympathetic ways, that power-lust and dishonesty and opportunism and grabbiness comes through loud and clear.
We Are Squinty’s Complete Lack of Self-Awareness.
The entire way through God’s Club, the hero of the movie (and his wife, before her death) are presented as suffering from Christian persecution. The two of them both seem to completely believe that what they are doing is simply being Christian. They regard it as their duty to save everyone they possibly can in any way they can, even if it means stepping on a few toes for their victims’ own good. The movie’s creators take for granted that every bit of pushback that the two characters receive happens because non-Christians ache to persecute Christians.
When other parents in the movie resist the idea of starting a religious club in the school, Squinty and his wife
Jesus Sue Christine whine about feeling “singled out,” as if their blatant attempt to proselytize and indoctrinate the students of that public school system should be totally fine and they just don’t understand why anybody would ever object to such activity.
Her whining is dishonest, however, and the way the movie handles the creation of the club reveals both its creators’ profound ignorance of reality and their eagerness to set up a persecution fantasy.
The idea is that all the mean ole atheists are totally being mean to her and persecuting her for wanting to have a Christian club on campus, and that they are persecuting her from the very beginning of the club’s existence.
According to American law, which Christine must follow just like everyone else, religious clubs have some special rules around them that are meant to protect students from being coerced into participating. A Christian club is not like a science club, and the laws’ creators–and Christians themselves–know that perfectly well. It’s not as simple as the adults in the movie parroting “attendance must be voluntary!!!” every five minutes as if all someone has to do in order to remove the spectre of coercion is tell kids that oh you can totally leave if you want. Anybody in a marginalized group knows exactly how disingenuous that facade is.
I know the movie’s creators added those lines to cover their asses–pointing at that dialogue by way of saying see? SEE? TOTALLY VOLUNTARY! Those kids totally want to be there because they’re totally enthralled by Squinty’s JESUS POWER!, but all it does is make the Christians’ trampling of those schoolchildren all the more repugnant. As we’ve seen many times before, Christians who are trampling other people pretend to think that if nobody’s fighting them tooth and nail or screaming bloody murder, that obviously means everybody is happy and their rulebreaking is totes okay–and as we’ll see soon, this attitude is present in the movie because it’s pervasive in real life.
Consent is about more than the absence of a no; it is, as I have noted, more of an enthusiastic yes. And true consent requires the capacity to make an informed yes, not one based around duplicity and omission of important details.
This movie’s creators don’t know any of that, and so neither do Squinty and Christine. Worse, neither they nor their target audience are going to care.
The Opposite of Persecution.
Christine is not being “singled out,” as she whines in the school board meeting. She is being asked to abide by a standardized set of rules that are meant to protect the children at public schools from being preyed upon by any religious fanatics, because there are a lot of religious fanatics from several different religious traditions who think it’s okay to coerce kids into participating in their rituals and grandstanding.
So what’s happening here is actually the dead opposite of being “singled out.” She’s being told that she will not be getting any special perks because of her religious affiliation. It doesn’t get much less singled out than to be forced to follow exactly the same rules as everyone else who wants to start up a religious club at a public school.
And nowhere do we get a clearer demonstration of Christians’ sense of entitlement than a scene that occurs right before Squinty’s first meeting of “God’s club.” He meets with an administrator who cautions him in the sternest possible way that attendance at the club must be voluntary and that he cannot give the impression in any way that the school is sponsoring his club.
He squints and smirks and pouts at her in the most disdainful and contemptuous way possible, then says only in this really sullen way, “Is that it?”
(Yes, that’s the photo at the top of the post. I’m at a total loss as to why this movie’s creators thought this scene and their actor’s way of handling it were good ideas to include in their beast of a plot. I truly have no idea what good they thought was being accomplished or what Squinty was intending to convey.)
He never actually agrees to her requirements. And because this movie is made by fundagelicals and for fundagelicals, the next scene is not the administrator demanding an answer and telling him he’s welcome to run his proselytization camp out of his own home instead of on school property if he’s got so many issues with the rules because she refuses to spend any of her tiny school’s money on stupid, pointless, wasteful, lame lawsuits caused by doofus fundagelicals who consider sneaking around trying to proselytize kids to be more important than doing the jobs they were hired to do.
Instead, we cut to Squinty and a few kids in what appears to be a library on-campus. Yes, that photo there is him leading the new club in a Bible study. And yes, that sign says God’s Club, not Bible Club. (And yes, the logo does kinda look like Goatse.)
The sheer lack of empathy and self-awareness here is just staggering to me. Little wonder that people are losing patience with fundagelicals generally! He’s doing something really wrong here, and he is too much of a lump to understand that–and the movie’s creators think he’s some kinda Big Damn Hero for standing up to the meaniepie atheists who even this movie admits just want their kids to be able to attend school and learn without worrying about anyone being preyed upon by religious nuts.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ll be talking next time about the mechanics of a Christian persecution fantasy, so I’ll just note here that this movie is a perfect representative of the breed, and I had no idea when I picked it how absolutely perfect it was going to be for the topics I had planned. Sometimes life just works out that way, doesn’t it? See you Saturday! Be good, and if you can’t be good, take pictures.