The Evangelical Persecution Complex

Being a “loser” in the world’s eyes for the sake of Jesus was, paradoxically, cool.

A number of other news organizations and Christian groups are also guilty of this. Take a recent story covered by CitizenLink, the “public policy partner of Focus on the Family,” a highly influential, socially conservative advocacy group and ministry. The story is 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. After unsuccessful attempts at changing the zoning laws, the church sued the town on claims of religious discrimination—a community center and Girl Scout camp were allowed in that area, but not a church, they said. When CitizenLink reported on the lawsuit, it framed this as a fight against “anti-religious discrimination.” But the minutes from a local town council show that residents opposed rezoning because they were concerned about the noise and traffic the church and school would bring to their quiet neighborhood.

Without digging deeply into CitizenLink’s story, readers will be left to believe that this small Texas town is intentionally targeting Christians for persecution. As the public-policy arm of one of the most powerful evangelical organizations in the U.S., CitizenLink’s influence is considerable. If an evangelical Christian reader chooses to get her news from CitizenLink and similar sources every day, it’s easy to see why she would believe that there really is a war on Christians in this country.

All of these cultural factors are framed in a deep theological conception of persecution. Traditionally, Christians have had a very broad view of what it means to suffer for Christ—broad enough to include everything from genuine martyrdom to mild ridicule by nonbelievers. Behind this is an essential part of the faith, which says that every Christian will be persecuted by the world: True believers will lose jobs, face exile, and suffer from violence.

The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted—at least not in comparison to early believers or even what Christians in places like Iraq face today. So, the question for American Christians is what to make of the Bible’s warning that we will be persecuted. For many evangelicals, the lack of very public and dramatic persecution could be interpreted as a sign that they just aren’t faithful enough: If they were persecuted, they could be confident they are saved. This creates an incentive to interpret personal experiences and news events as signs of oppression, which are ostensibly validations of our commitment to Christ. The danger of this view is that believers can come to see victimhood as an essential part of their identity.

Believers can come to see victimhood as part of their identity.

Other Christians would argue that these biblical warnings are not intended to mean that victimhood is a sign of salvation. Instead, they are meant to assure believers that suffering in life is not a sign that God has abandoned the faithful, or that the Gospel is not the truth. This is a radical thing about Christ, and, coincidentally, the reason why Nietzsche called Christianity a “slave morality”: Christ’s suffering on the cross is an inversion of worldly conceptions of success and power. His model is of sacrifice and selflessness—persecution is a constituent part of his divinity, not a sign that he was defeated.

That’s 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.

As evangelical morality increasingly comes into conflict with dominant cultural mores, evangelicals need to be even more careful about the debates we chose to engage in, the rights we chose to assert, and the hills we choose to die on. 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. At times, even legitimate offenses should be overlooked, when they are petty. By focusing attention on real and substantial incidences of persecution, evangelicals will be much more effective at educating their neighbors and fighting for truly important matters of religious liberty.

And this has implications for those outside of evangelicalism, as well. It’s a challenge of tolerance: Just because some claims of persecution are contrived doesn’t mean actual persecution doesn’t exist here and elsewhere. And even though the traditionally powerful influence of evangelicals in America is waning, that doesn’t mean it is just to infringe upon our rights.

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.

Presented by

Alan Noble is the managing editor and co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture. He is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University.

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