Religious Persecution in the US

According to a Washington Times article, a recent survey shows that 63% of respondents to a LifeWay research survey said that persecution of Christians is increasing in the US. Could that survey be biased? On the LifeWay web site, they describe their business as follows: “LifeWay is one of the world’s largest providers of Christian resources.” That does not mean they are biased, but it makes one wonder about their sample selection.

Some evangelical Christians think the so-called “War on Christmas” amounts to Christian oppression, as does the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Religious leaders claim that certain provisions of Obamacare oppress the exercise of their faith. 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went even further, claiming that President Obama had “declared an all-out war on religion in this country.” In fact, Obama expanded the funding of faith-based charities established by George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian. But that didn’t stop the Religious Right from accusing Obama of being a “weak President, a dictator obsessed with his power, a communist, fascist, atheist, Muslim…and to top off that list of mutual contradictions…Satan himself! A Muslim atheist Satan! It boggles the mind.

Sorry about that little digression. The devil made me do it. Back to business.

Old guard evangelicals such as the founder of the Focus on the Family movement James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority founder and current president of Liberty University, are warning of dire consequences for the U.S. if Trump is not elected. According to Dobson, without a Trump presidency, the U.S. will “see a massive assault on religious liberty,” which would “limit what pastors can say publicly,” and would “severely restrict the freedoms of Christian schools, nonprofit organizations, businesses, hospitals, charities, and seminaries.” Needless to say, there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton has any plans to do any of that. It’s just political rhetoric designed to motivate Christian believers to vote, using scare tactics about the oppression of Christians.

In much of the rest of the world, religious persecution involves forced conversion, mob attacks and genocide by violence or by neglect. In America, a fundamentalist business owner feels persecuted if his employees are able to use their health insurance to get birth control pills, even if government picks up the tab. American conservatives who inveigh against the erosion of their religious liberties are crying that they’re the oppressed minority, not because they face forced conversion or death, but because they’re not getting their own way on same-sex marriage.

The exaggerated sense of victimhood was on full display recently in Washington DC when former presidential candidate Rick Santorum debuted the “documentary” video “One Generation Away.” It uses interviews with dozens of prominent Christian conservatives, from staunch Catholics to evangelical Protestants, to make the case that religious freedom in America is on the brink of complete destruction.

One particularly startling quote came from Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, who said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” Oh, really? When did that happen?  Was it during the murderous Crusades, or the cruel and barbaric Inquisition? Or maybe during the Salem witch trials? Back in colonial days, only Christians were allowed to hold office and Catholics had to renounce their religion before they could run for any position in government. It was founders like Jefferson and Madison who defined the secular republic that we have. They are the ones who rebuilt the violently intolerant Christian theocracy of the colonies into the civilization of a secular nation. Religious leaders and their followers fought it every inch of the way…and are still fighting it today.

These Christians screaming about being oppressed equate not being able to impose their religious views on others, using the force of law, with persecution. As America becomes more diverse and less religious than ever, white conservative Christian men are losing their disproportionate influence on politics and, because they think of themselves as the natural and deserving custodians of that power, having to share it feels like a shocking injustice to them.

Part of the justification for their victimhood claim is theological: The Bible predicts that Christians will be persecuted, so by believing it, they fulfill Biblical prophecy in their mind. Acknowledging the extent of both their current and historical power and influence would generate an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. They rationalize it by promoting the absurd fiction that they are a persecuted minority in a country where the vast majority identify themselves as Christians. It makes a mockery of the true victims of religious oppression all around the world. The absence of privilege is not oppression. It’s called equality.

There is religious oppression in this country, but it is not the religious believers who are oppressed. They are the oppressors. It is the nonbelieving minority who pay higher taxes because churches are tax exempt, and whose members get a tax deduction on their contributions to the collection plate. Those tax exemptions and deductions are a tax on everyone else, because they represent tax revenue that the government does not collect, and must therefore be made up by other taxpayers and businesses who don’t get those tax breaks. The funding of faith-based charities frees up money that churches would otherwise spend on charitable work to do religious proselytization…in effect, funding those sectarian activities. Why aren’t these things violations of the Establishment Clause? Nonbelievers are persecuted by pharmacists who won’t dispense contraceptives to them, and gays are persecuted by businesses who refuse to provide services to them. The list of oppressions goes on and on. Why aren’t these violations of the Equal Protection Clause?

It is a sad and cruel irony that those who claim to be persecuted are the persecutors. Even more outrageous is the fact that the persecution myth is cynically used to mobilize political power among the Christian majority to ensure that those privileges remain entrenched in our society.

An article at a Christian web site[i] puts this in perspective:

“Overall, America is shifting to include more religious minority groups and more people who self-identify as atheists or religiously unaffiliated. Our laws are also shifting to reflect this mindset. While more traditional or conservative Christian views no longer dominate American lawmaking to the same degree, that isn’t the same thing as saying the American government, which is still primarily filled with Christians, has any designs to eliminate the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.”

There is hope that, as the secularization of the nation continues, the vast privileges that Christians enjoy will be eliminated, and we will achieve the equality in our nation that the writers of the Constitution envisioned.

[i] http://www.christiantoday.com/article/the.damaging.myth.of.religious.persecution.in.america/95416.htm

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