The Christian Sects Who Protest at Conventions

Those who demonstrate at the RNC and DNC have extreme views within their faith. But they are increasingly mistaken for the mainstream.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

PHILADELPHIA––If a visitor to the DNC judged Christianity by the most visible adherents on the streets of this city, or their analogs at the RNC in Cleveland, rather than the few preachers who took the stage as part of the official proceedings, they might mistake it for a hateful faith obsessed with visions of fire and brimstone.

The Christians most motivated to turn out with signs and aggressively proselytize emphasized neither love nor forgiveness nor food for the hungry nor clothes for the naked.

Instead they touted the vengeance of an angry God.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

For passersby who live in secular enclaves or subcultures, these may well be the most consequential “real life” encounter with Christians they will have this year. And that is a shame.

I haven’t been a regular church attendee since childhood. But by virtue of 13 years of religious schooling I know a great many Christian families and individuals. And they could not be more different than their most vocal co-religionists. Their Christian faith causes them to be more kind, loving, forgiving, and guided by their consciences than they would otherwise be. They are far more concerned about helping and loving their neighbor than condemning him. They are horrified by the claim that God intended AIDS as a judgment against gay people.

They are, however, less visible in the public square, especially for those who don’t live near where they live and worship.

Conor Friedersdorf / The Atlantic

This gulf between what’s visible and what’s true is hardly unique to Christians. Muslim Americans are constantly frustrated by the fact that the vast majority of news about their coreligionists focuses on the infinitesimal percentage who perpetrate acts of terrorism. Police officers are frustrated by the fact that the average citizen sees news or YouTube clips of the most egregious abuses by cops, and almost never sees the encounters where volatile situations are handled professionally. In Cleveland and Philadelphia alike, the vast majority of leftist protesters were peaceful and friendly, but you’d never know it from the New York Post’s coverage.

What’s perhaps distinctive about Christianity is that the gulf between the typical believer and the street-corner fundamentalist is less evident to the average American today than it was in years past. There are now more enclaves and subcultures where people are never exposed to typical believers in childhood, and are therefore less able to recognize outliers when they see them.

I wonder if members of the Christian mainstream will decide, in future years, to be more present in the public square, or if forces like the Westboro Baptist Church will cause typical Christians to shy away from overt displays of faith even more for fear that, without context, they will be regarded as hateful or divisive. It isn’t ultimately up to me to chart the course that the Christian faithful will take. But I hope that if I return to the RNC and DNC in 2020 or 2024 or 2028, the religious presence there better represents the more loving strain of Christianity I’ve long witnessed.