Everywhere I look lately, I’m assaulted with reoccurring updates, tweets, and political stump speeches about the “criminalization of Christianity.”
The right seeks to strengthen their base with a narrative of fear. Senator Cruz, echoing the language of Mike Huckabee recently said, “Unequivocally. I stand with every American that the Obama Administration is trying to force to choose between honoring his or her faith or complying with a lawless court opinion.”
There needs to a point where Christ followers of every political persuasion refuse to allow themselves to be manipulated by pundits ringing the persecution bell.
Faith and power
While I don’t subscribe to the “Christian nation” view of American history, Christianity has definitely enjoyed a place of privilege in our history. Many of our laws and moral ideals have been drawn from our cultural Judeo-Christian values. However, these values have not always been present in our policies and behaviors as a nation.
Having the government so closely aligned with with faith-based morality has created serious problems. For instance, when you can convince Christians that God has ordained them with a manifest destiny, then native Americans stop being people and start becoming obstacles.
When the faith that originally spoke prophetically to power becomes aligned with power, it turns on the people it should be protecting. This isn’t an anomaly; we’ve see this every single time religion and power have become enmeshed. From divine kingships in Europe, to the caste systems of India, to modern Islamic caliphates, when public policies are driven by the faithful, the results can be atrocious.
Some would argue that good has been done by faith aligned with power, and that might be true. But I would argue that the most good done by any people of faith has been done without top-down legislation.
At its best, Christianity has always spoken truth to power. It aligned itself with people and found itself at odds with governing and even ecclesiastical rulers. Whenever it has whispered in the ears of magistrates or has picked up power’s scepter, people have suffered. With the best of intention, they’ve created rules intended to enforce their understanding of God’s will—they “tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4)
When the church consorts with power, it makes compromises. These compromises begin to rot the church from the inside, eventually creating an entirely new culture that’s an amalgamation of the two. This isn’t a problem specific to America; it was the same problem Catholicism had in the middle ages and the reason America’s forefathers fled the Church of England. Eventually power-centric Christianity becomes suspicious and even aggressive toward many postures associated with true cross-centered faith.
American Christianity values and prioritizes many things antithetical to Christ-centered Christianity: nationalism, prosperity, comfort, individualism, reprisal, celebrity culture, and self-empowerment.
We’re not being persecuted
Christianity has held a place of privilege in the west for so long that any adjustments to the balance of power feels like persecution. So when people who aren’t Christians don’t want religious themed accouterments in their halls of government or fight for what they feel are rights despite faith-based objections, Christians somehow feel as if they’re the ones being oppressed.
With over 60 million self-identified evangelicals, this is still one of the largest voting blocks in America. It’s no wonder that every single pundit tries to play to this crowd in their platform. How a group that’s courted so heavily can see themselves as put upon or marginalized is completely beyond me.
Out of those 60 million evangelical voters, pollster George Barna says that 39% are not showing up in the polls. This is the reason that you are hearing so much of the persecution rhetoric—it’s intended to rally the troops and turn out the vote. Sadly, instead of inspiring civic participation, it’s encouraging fear, suspicion, and entrenchment.
Even if we were being persecuted . . .
The greatest puzzle to me in this whole discussion is the emotional response we evangelicals have toward the idea of persecution. Not only is persecution promised for followers of Christ, we’re given explicit instructions for how we are to treat those who revile us.
“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”—Mark 13:9–13
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”—Matt. 5:11–12
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .”—Matt. 5:44
These three passages give a distinctly different picture of persecution than the one we see played out in the media.
First of all, the persecution Jesus is talking about here seems to be from the top down. Religious and civic authorities are the ones oppressing believers. . . to the point of death. This is quite different than the current situation. As I said, we’re being courted in halls of power. We’re not being turned away from them. In many ways, we are the power and religious institution. The kind of suppression that Jesus is talking about is the kind that tends to come from a people diametrically opposed to religious and governing power structures; it doesn’t come from aligning ourselves with them.
It’s important for us to understand that, just because certain groups revile us, doesn’t mean that we’re being persecuted “in Jesus name” or “for the Gospel’s sake.” It’s entirely possible that we’re not adored because we tend to be cultural bullies. Imagine any other faith than yours trying to place their religious opinions between you and your civil liberties. If women were required to wear a hijab because Muslims were controlled congress or we were all expected to eat kosher because of Jewish influence on domestic policies.
Winston Churchill famously said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” That’s all fine and good, except sometimes you have enemies because the stands you’ve taken have been mean, questionable, or downright abusive. Being reviled is not a sign that you’re on the right side of the issue, and can’t be confused with religious persecution.
Christ’s expectation that we’re supposed to rejoice at persecution and love and pray for those who who are mistreating us is much different than we’re hearing in this current discussion.
Serving the oppressed
For me, the greatest frustration in this whole discussion is that there are actually people being persecuted for their faith. We have seen the Christians trotted by ISIS in their orange jumpsuits to be beheaded. This is a pretty stark contrast to someone being arrested in Kentucky because she refuses to do her job.
Before we glibly throw around words like persecution, we should remember all of the nations where people are actually experiencing religious oppression. In fact, if you’re seriously concerned about persecution, then start making writing letters to governments on behalf of oppressed believers or send them letters of encouragement. Voice of the Martyrs is a fantastic resource for learning about what persecution really is.