American Christianity has a martyrdom complex. Much of the White Conservative Evangelical Church sees themselves as a persecuted group. If you grew up Evangelical in the 90’s, you probably remember the DC Talk song Jesus Freak. The band went on to produce a book, Jesus Freaks, about Christian martyrs throughout history.
The feeling of being persecuted for their beliefs is not new. White American Christianity has been pushing back against the changing culture for decades. Christianity has been the majority religion in America since it’s foundation. But as the melting pot continues to simmer, the religious makeup has started to change.
This identity is not limited to religion. The persecuted Christian in America also tends to be part of a majority White Church. When we look back into the history of the nation, we can see several turning points in the Christian culture. These touchstones were critical in the shaping of the persecution complex of the White American Church.
Civil Rights and Backlash
The Civil Rights Movement was a divisive period in America, and this was even more true in the Church. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the most segregated time in America was Sunday mornings. Having the racial separation grafted in the Church led to the racial importance in each American’s identity.
As the Civil Rights movement started gaining favor with the population, White Christians found themselves using the Bible to justify their racism. In the same vein, Conservative politicians twisted Christianity to gain supporters. As the Black population began to finally have the rights they were owed, this felt like persecution to the White population.
The Southern Strategy was a political move to use this fear to motivate the White voter base. Nixon’s 1968 campaign successfully moved much of the White Southern vote to the Conservative Party. This paved the way for the Moral Majority movement in the 1970’s and 80’s. By harnessing the power of the rising White Evangelical Church, Conservative politicians shifted the talking points from racism to morality. Abortion and welfare were major topics for the White Evangelical Church through the 80’s and 90’s.
After the Towers
With the attacks on 9/11, the White Evangelical Church made another huge shift. While not pacifists, the Evangelical Church was not a war hungry denomination. While the Church was generally supportive of the Conservative agenda, September 11th changed the way the Church mixed with politics.
The Islamophobia was rampant throughout America and the White Evangelical Church started becoming more patriotic – American flags in the sanctuary. Supporting the troops was a test to see how Christian you were. By the mid-00’s, the Tea Party started to find footing in politics. This libertarian group focused on limited government and personal liberty. However, they used the Moral Majority-brand Christianity as their compass. Soon, being Conservative and being Evangelical were synonyms.
Obama’s run and election for president sparked new outrage. He was ‘unpresidential’, ‘immoral’, and he was ‘socialist’. These attacks – coming from both political and religious leaders – were built on deep-seeded racism in the country. After 8 years in office, the White Evangelical Church overwhelmingly voted for Trump – unpresidential and immoral, a liar with no empathy.
I think having the recent history of the White Evangelical Church explained broadly (very broadly!) can be helpful. If you didn’t grow up in Evangelical or Fundamental churches, it might seem like it came out of nowhere. However, our current Christian climate has been growing for the last 75 years.
As White and Conservative American Church denominations continue to become more conservative, their cry of persecution grows louder. Hard stances against LGBTQ+ communities are not shared by the boarder public and access to abortion is supported. Conservative Christianity sees these as moral issues that they’re being persecuted for. But what they consider persecution is nothing compared to the martyrs they liken themselves to.
Jesus said those who follow him would be persecuted, but this was said in a context much different than our own. Can we claim this verse to still be authoritative today? Do Christians in America use this as a cover to act out uncharitably? Persecution for Jesus is putting the marginalized needs before our own. Jesus calls his people to follow him. We can do that by working for justice in America for those who cannot fight for themselves.