In the past few years a number of films represent Christian believers opposing a hostile, anti-Christian world. The film God’s Not Dead (see my review here), for example, has a brave young Christian college student opposing his atheist philosophy professor. The film seems to give viewers the impression that universities are undergirded by anti-Christian sentiments and agendas. It also suggests that university professors are out to disinvest young Christians of their faith. Similarly, the film Persecution has a theme telling of a pastor who is framed by the government for murder. Why? Because he tries to stop the passage of a federal bill to restrict religious freedom.
Claims of persecution extend beyond the Christian entertainment industry. CitizenLink, an influential, socially conservative advocacy group and ministry, covered a story about a small Texas church that acquired an old community center in a residential area and turned it into a church and school, which violated local zoning laws. The church tried to change the zoning laws but their attempts were unsuccessful. As a result, the church sued the town on claims of religious discrimination, and CitizenLink framed this as a fight against “anti-religious discrimination” (1). However, quite to the contrary as came out of the hearing, it was the residents who were opposed to the rezoning because they were concerned about the noise and traffic the church and school would bring to their neighbourhood (2). But taken on face value, CitizenLink would lead its readers to believe that a small town was intentionally targeting Christians and a church for persecution and discrimination. And given that so many people, evangelical Christian readers especially, receive their news from CitizenLink, it is hardly surprising why so many believe that there really is a war on Christians in America.
Statistical evidence lends some support to the persecution complex. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that white evangelicals protestants believe they endure more discrimination than Muslims (3). Among this group, 57% said there is a lot of discrimination against Christians in America today, and only 44% said the same thing about Muslims. Consider the words of Derek Penwell, a Christian minister from Kentucky,
“The time has come to prepare ourselves for persecution. Our identity has put us at odds with the culture, which is now going to do everything in its power to punish us. Our commitment to living authentically is going to cost us - perhaps everything - because we refuse to compromise what we believe to be the truth. The dominant voices in our culture hate us, and will stop at nothing to eliminate us. Our jobs, our families, even our lives are now in jeopardy because of who we are” (4).
Opposing voices, however, accuse Penwell and company of gross exaggeration. In fact, some have suggested that Penwell’s words are far more suggestive of the experiences of Christians living in countries where serious cases of persecution that threaten physical and mental wellbeing really occur on regular occasions (like in China, India, North Korea, and other countries). However, if one were to detach Penwell’s name from his quote and read it anonymously on a blank piece of paper, America would likely be the last country to spring to mind where Christians are at risk of experiencing “hate,” “punishment,” and “elimination” that so threatened families and put their lives in jeopardy. Such overly exaggerated rhetoric is the reason why a number of Christians are attempting to engage and challenge the false persecution complex embraced by those within their camps (5). We will return to these voices in a moment.
It is clear, however, that Christianity does not have the power and influence that it once had when most people were Christian, and those who were either homosexual or non-Christian often hid in the corners of society. Those were much easier times for Christians, although today Christianity is no longer the unspoken cultural norm of American society (6). Law is uncompromising in providing rights to those who were previously denied them, such as homosexuals. Others such as agnostics, atheists, and Muslims too enjoy rights afforded to them in America. Christianity is now on equal turf with other ideological worldviews, hence it can no longer claim the privilege it once enjoyed. It seems plausible that this cultural shift has resulted in the persecution complex. Tension has arisen between Christian moral values and the values held by non-Christians within society, as is the case with cultural shifts pertaining to abortion rights, the rights of homosexuals, and the rise of same-sex marriage. Many Christians now experience discomfit given that no longer are their ideological and doctrinal views unquestioned and necessarily held by all within society. There are opposing voices that have been given the right to oppose and suggest alternative views.
All this said, this is not to say that American Christians have never faced some level of persecution for their convictions. Smaller and sporadic cases of persecution against Christians exist. However, there is absolutely no parallel between the persecution of American Christians and the experiences of their peers in places like Afghanistan, India, Syria, or Pakistan. For many onlookers, this can result in contempt and dislike for American Christians who suggest their persecution is the same or for using manipulative rhetoric to somehow suggest that it is. In fact, the exaggerated and inaccurate claims of persecution from American Christians have been said to take the attention off of those really experiencing legitimate persecution (7). In 2016, 90 000 people in the world were killed for believing in Jesus with a third of those being at the hands of Islamic extremists (8). The same study found that a further 600 million more were prevented from practicing their faith “through intimidation, forced conversions, bodily harm or even death” (9). Legitimate persecution really does exist.
But what about America? In 2013 a particular cake shop owned by Christians found itself in hot water after the owners refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. The business was penalized and slapped with a hefty fine (10). Although we could debate who between the Christian owners and the gay couple are the actual victims of discrimination or persecution here, we might wonder if this is the experience of a large number of American Christians? It is not. According to Professor Alan Noble, the co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, we need to look at the bigger picture. As he explains, this is,
“not to say there aren’t very real incidents of discrimination and even hatred toward Christianity in the United States. But as members of the largest faith group in America, Christians are relatively well-protected and more often accommodated than actively harmed” (11)
Similarly, theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig agrees “that the kinds of persecution that we might experience here in the United States is trivial compared to what our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya are experiencing where they and their children may be brutally murdered for their faith in Christ as well as displaced and discriminated against. So the kind of persecution that we endure is really, really very trivial compared to what they endured” (9).
Christians in America are protected by the same Constitution that protects every other belief, non-belief, religion, faith, identity, race, and sexuality. Churches aren’t being burned to ash, Christians aren’t being imprisoned, Christians need not meet in secrecy or fear harassment for what they believe. In fact, Christians still can, and do, preach the Bible and their ideological and doctrinal convictions with passion. Rather, the Constitution protects the rights of others within society to not believe what the Bible says (or what Christian believe it teaches) and this means that Christians cannot impose their beliefs on others or restrict the rights that are, for instance, conferred on to marriages by the government. In a secular state, such as America, the right to religious freedom and freedom of belief does not trump the rights of others, such as homosexuals or anyone else. Christian writer Seth Hurd explains, “Persecution is not someone saying something negative to you, being forced to attend school or work with a person of an opposing viewpoint or a general anti-religious sentiment. Persecution is real, tangible harm inflicted on a person or group, and white Protestants seem to be holding a permanent hall pass” (10). Noble concludes saying that,
“Tensions between Christians and non-Christians are likely to grow in the coming years as cultural mores shift, and out of this tension will come negotiations, dialogue, lawsuits, ignorance, and conflict. For evangelicals, preparation for this must begin in our own house, as we learn to better discern good theologies of suffering, edifying stories of persecution, and distorted reports of discrimination… Too much is at stake for evangelicals to waste our resources and credibility on frivolous and occasionally self-provoked “injustices.” Imagined offenses drummed up by sensationalists and fear-mongers should be exposed and denied.”
1. Citizenlink. 2014. Texas Church Fights Towns Anti Religious Zoning Ordinance.
2. Minutes of the Public Hearing and Regular Meeting of the Board of Alderman Town of Bayview, Texas. Available.
3. Green, E. 2016. Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination. Available.
4. Nuemann, S. 2015. The raging hypocrisy at the center of the Christian right’s persecution complex. Available.
5. Green, E. 2016. Ibid. Also see Randal Rauser’s article Learning in a Time of (Cultural) War for the Christian Scholar’s Review for alleged persecution in school curriculum.
6. Burton, T. 2017. The age of white Christian America is ending. Here’s how it got there.
7. Noble, A. Ibid; Dixon, B. 2015. Please Stop With The Christian Persecution Complex. You’re Embarrassing The Faith. Available.
8. Chiaramonte, P. 2017. Christians the most persecuted group in world for second year: Study. Available.
9. The Journal of CESNUR. Available.
10. Blake, A. 2015. Bakery owners: Same-sex wedding cake ruling is ‘persecution of Christians.’ Available.
11. Noble, A. 2014. The Evangelical Persecution Complex. Available.
12. Craig, W. 2015. Do Christians Have A Persecution Complex? Available.
13. Hurd, S. 2017. The American ‘Christian Persecution Complex’ Gets in the Way of Loving Our Neighbors. Available.