Persecution has an allure for many evangelicals. In the Bible, Christians are promised by Saint Paul that they will suffer for Christ, if they love Him (Second Timothy 3:12). But especially in contemporary America, it is not clear what shape that suffering will take. Narratives of political, cultural, and theological oppression are popular in evangelical communities, but these are sometimes fiction or deeply exaggerated non-fiction—and only rarely accurate. This is problematic: If evangelicals want to have a persuasive voice in a pluralist society, a voice that can defend Christians from serious persecution, then we must be able to discern accurately when we are truly victims of oppression—and when this victimization is only imagined.
There are some understandable reasons for this exaggerated sense of persecution. Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by the ISIS, a jihadist group. Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as part of a persecuted people in the 21st century.
In the United States, evangelical values have often been in tension with public policy and cultural mores, especially in the last several years; this includes recent debates over contraceptives coverage, abortion rights, and the rise of same-sex marriage. Some Christians anticipate major restrictions to religious liberty in the future as a result of these tensions, a concern that is not unfounded. But in anticipating such restrictions, it is easy to imagine, wrongly, that they are already here.
Evangelical sub-culture plays a huge role in this perception. The “Jesus Freak” movement of the mid-1990s, started by the popular musical group DC Talk, made martyrdom and exclusion hip—these were signs that someone was a “true” Christian. Teens were encouraged by youth-group leaders to read historical accounts of Christian martyrs and reflect on how they could be Jesus Freaks, too. Being a “loser” in the world’s eyes for the sake of Jesus was, paradoxically, cool. But the emphasis, perhaps unintentionally, was on being a “freak,” rather than following Christ and accepting the consequences.
The wildly successful Left Behind books tell a similar narrative of persecution. Published between 1995 and 2007, the epic novels tell the story of the biblical end times through the lens of certain Christian traditions: the rapture, the church’s persecution at the hands of the anti-Christ, and its ultimate triumph upon Christ’s return. Like the “Jesus Freak” movement, these books seemed to glorify persecution—the kind that Christians in other parts of the world have long experienced, but is unheard of in the U.S.
Even in the last year, two films have been released which depict brave Christians standing up against a hostile, violent, and corrupt world. God’s Not Dead tells the story of a Christian college student who is forced to sign a paper declaring that God is dead or debate his arrogant, atheist philosophy professor, played by Kevin Sorbo. The student accepts the challenge and debates the professor for three classes, eventually forcing him to admit that he really hates God because of his mother’s death. The rest of the students then stand up and declare that “God’s not dead,” driving the atheist professor from the room. This film made $62 million at the box office.
Even more explicit is the recently released Persecution, a thriller about a pastor who is framed by the government for murder because he tries to stop the passage of a federal bill to restrict religious freedom.
The Christian church itself has a long history of telling stories of martyrdom and persecution. The stories of saints’ lives often center on their sufferings for Christ. For example, Fox’s Book of Martyrs is a popular and classic text recounting notable martyrdoms throughout church history. The purpose of these stories is to inspire and strengthen Christians, particularly those who will later face persecution. But they were not designed to function as aspirational fantasy. And that is the real problem with many persecution narratives in Christian culture: They fetishize suffering.
These narratives appeal to broader audiences, too. Several major conservative political pundits and organizations have made a name for themselves by selectively highlighting cases of alleged persecution of Christians. The most well-known example is the so-called “war on Christmas,” which is predicated on the claim that the holiday has been secularized by retailers’ marketing choices. FOX News has a reputation for running these sensationalized stories of suspected or alleged discrimination.
For example, Todd Starnes, a popular commenter on the network, recently published God Less America, purporting to expose the “Attack on Traditional Values.” Starnes has built a career almost exclusively based on reporting alleged incidences of Christian and conservative persecution. But his work almost always offers a skewed vision of religious liberty in the U.S.—he often exaggerates or omits facts. Earlier in his career, he was fired from the Baptist Press for reporting “factual and contextual errors.” Yet, his continues to be enormously influential—as I wrote last year, “Starnes sells us what we want to hear. We want to believe that we are the underdog. And Starnes sells us that story, wrapped in language of patriotism and faith.”
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.
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.