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Thirsting for Persecution

In the United States of America today, Christianity, and specifically right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, is enjoying a resurgence. The religious right controls all three branches of the federal government, commands the allegiance of tens of millions of followers, broadcasts their message constantly on TV channels and radio stations that they exclusively control, and operates thriving tax-free megachurches across the land that draw thousands of worshippers every week. They possess enormous wealth and influence, probably unmatched by any other interest group or segment of society.

And yet, to hear the hysterical rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the religious right, one would think Christianity is a beleaguered minority teetering on the brink of extinction. Such was the theme of a right-wing conference, titled by its organizers "The War on Christians", that was reported on by the Washington Post in two recent articles, here and here. Some of the over-the-top claims made at this conference have to be heard to be believed, such as this introduction by conference organizer Rick Scarborough of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

"I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ," Scarborough said, introducing DeLay yesterday. When DeLay finished, the host reminded the politician: "God always does his best work right after a crucifixion."

In case you were keeping track, Scarborough in that quote compared DeLay's indictment for violation of money-laundering laws, and subsequent resignation from office, to the crucifixion of Jesus. He also argued that DeLay was being persecuted for his outspoken religious beliefs. The fact that two of DeLay's top aides, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, as well as DeLay's close associate Jack Abramoff, have already pled guilty in a widening investigation into corruption, embezzlement and bribery charges did not even seem to be on Scarborough's radar; as far as he was concerned, DeLay was being persecuted for his faith and nothing more.

Some other remarks from the article are also worth commenting on:

"We are after all a society that abides abortion on demand, that has killed millions of innocent children, that degrades the institution of marriage and often treats Christianity like some second-rate superstition. Seen from this perspective, of course there is a war on Christianity," [DeLay] said.

I would very much like to know what society DeLay is talking about, because it is not the one I live in. In the country where I live, the media and politicians cannot possibly pay Christianity any more fawning respect and deference than they actually do. Politicians expressing their faith loudly, publicly and often is practically a prerequisite for office, and just about every TV show that touches on Christian beliefs in any even tangential way goes out of its way to point out that in the end it is always a matter of faith, lest someone be offended. Any even brief appearance by nonbelievers in popular culture is met with contempt, insults, and threats. As for his other comments, it is true that our society's laws are not exactly as DeLay and his ilk would prefer; but then again, no one is forcing Christians to have abortions or marry gay people. Apparently, in DeLay's mind, the fact that other people of different beliefs are not forced to live under Christian law constitutes a "War on Christianity". This is logic roughly comparable to Adolf Hitler's claim that Germany's invasion of Poland was an act of self-defense.

Another notable instance of this persecution fantasy can be found in a right-wing ministry's response to a pro-atheist documentary, The God Who Wasn't There, released by filmmaker Brian Flemming:

Will Christianity be outlawed in America? If atheists are successful at removing God from America's public life, the answer is "yes". Find out how American Vision is going to answer a major atheist propaganda DVD called The God Who Wasn't There and how you can help!

Notable here is the assumed link between "atheist propaganda" and the outlawing of Christianity, which seems to be taken as self-evident. For whatever reason, these Christians interpret any criticism of their beliefs as the spearhead of an attempt to ban their beliefs. They seem incapable of comprehending the idea that atheists would want to foster a debate about religion for its own sake, rather than as a prelude to stamping out religion by force.

Part of this tendency may be due to apocalyptic beliefs. People taught by their scriptures to expect a repressive, Antichrist-led totalitarian state just before the end of the world naturally become paranoid and begin to see the first glimmerings of that state everywhere they look. However, it is tempting to speculate that a more important cause is psychological projection. It would seem that many right-wing Christians will never be happy until they completely control society and force everyone to live according to their preferences. DeLay said as much above - if the mere availability of abortion, gay marriage or divorce represents a "war on Christianity", then clearly that war will not be ended until those things are outlawed. No peaceful coexistence is envisioned here. Perhaps, then, these Christians are unable to conceive of people less fanatical than they themselves are, and so they assume that all other groups want what they want: to gain secular power and use it to write their opinions into law.

And of course, we should not forget the chief purpose of right-wing cries of persecution: convincing the flock to open their wallets. As far as the religious right is concerned, fostering an atmosphere of perpetual outrage is good for business. Theists who believe their faith is under attack from all sides will pour out their money to support it, regardless of the relationship of those claims to the truth. The only depressing thing is that the lay believers do not seem to have caught on no matter how many times this trick has been played on them.

In reality, the manifest absurdity of American Christians claiming persecution should be obvious to every observer. Christians in America today are less persecuted than they have ever been at any other time or place in history. To compare their experiences to the suffering of the genuine victims of religious persecution around the world is arrogant and insulting. The only thing that causes some of them to complain about persecution is that they are not allowed to force their beliefs on others - it is the whine of a bully who cannot have everything his own way. A progressive minister from the Washington Post article puts them in their place:

"This is a skirmish over religious pluralism, and the inclination to see it as a war against Christianity strikes me as a spoiled-brat response by Christians who have always enjoyed the privileges of a majority position," said the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, a minister in the Church of God in Christ and professor of social ethics at Emory University.

Finally, consider the "Night of Persecution", an event staged by a Christian youth ministry to give believers "a chance... to experience a small sample of what believers in persecuted nations endure on a daily basis". Participants in the event role-play converts in an oppressive regime, where they must hold prayer meetings in secret and are "forced to give account for why they believe in Jesus Christ". (One is inclined to doubt that this process involves any real discomfort, much less the actual tortures used by repressive regimes against minority faiths.) If young believers really want to experience persecution, I suggest they instead try to role-play an atheist living in the Bible Belt.

It is harder to decide how to view this event. If it helps American Christians realize that claiming victimhood is ridiculous, and that the citizens of repressive regimes around the world - not just Christians - are the true victims of persecution, then I hope this project is a success. However, I am inclined to be more pessimistic: I suspect it will instead encourage delusions of persecution among the far-right set that already tends to view the world in this way. There is probably no hope in persuading these people of the obvious truth that Christians are not being persecuted, but I do not think it is too much to hope for that atheists and other nonbelievers can find common ground with progressive religious believers to work against these dangerous and self-deceived ideologues.

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