Vice President, and fundamentalist Christian, Mike Pence recently told the predominantly white graduates of Liberty University (a fundamentalist university run by Jerry Falwell, Jr. who is a vocal Trump supporter) that they should be prepared to be ridiculed and shunned for holding what he calls “traditional Christian beliefs.” In his view the “voices for tolerance” are intolerant of those beliefs, and therefore Christians are being persecuted in America by the “secular left.” Let’s examine those claims, because fundamentalist and many conservative evangelicals have a serious persecution complex that is not rooted in actual reality.
Dictionary.com defines persecution as, “a program or campaign to exterminate, drive away, or subjugate people based on their membership in a religious, ethnic, social, or racial group.”
Based upon that definition, Pence is completely incorrect in intimating that Christians are being persecuted for being Christians. There are however, Christians of Pence’s ilk doing a great deal of persecuting of others themselves, as evidenced by the multi-decades long campaign to legislate women’s reproductive health which has seen a new surge of horrific legislation in certain Bible Belt states within the past few weeks. It’s also seen with the rampant, and dangerous Islamophobic rhetoric of people like Falwell, Jr. It too is on display with the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric of so many self professed Christian politicians. This rhetoric has devolved into violent hate speech as was witnessed at a recent Trump rally in Florida when a person in the crowd responded to Trump’s query about how to stop the migrants crossing the border by yelling out “Shoot them!” This prompted the current occupant of the White House to chuckle and pander to his crowd of racist followers. The laughter of the crowd actually increases dramatically at the thought of shooting human beings who are fleeing violence, persecution, and extreme economic hardship due to U.S. meddling in their nations of origin. (1)
There are instances of Christians being persecuted in the U.S. These people are not being persecuted for being Christians though. Rather, these people, who happen to be Christians, are being persecuted by people on the far-right (some of whom proclaim themselves to be Christians) for other reasons. Black churches have been burned in recent months by a racist extremist in Louisiana. Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine people because of the color of their skin. Given that the largest denomination in the country was founded on white supremacy (the Southern Baptist Convention) it’s not a surprise that so many white nationalists and other white supremacist groups espouse some perverse Christian ideology. Just this month, a city councilman in Georgia said his blood boils because of interracial marriage being depicted on TV because “that’s not the way a Christian is supposed to live.” (2) It’s safe to assume that he has never read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. (See Galatians 3)
It may come as a surprise to some people, but there are many people who are in the LGBTQIA community who are Christians. One of my pastors, the best preacher I’ve ever heard, is gay and clearly called by God to be a pastor for example. Some fundamentalists’ heads have been exploding since a mayor from Indiana entered the presidential race for the 2020 election. Why? Because “Mayor Pete” as he is known is both gay and a Christian. People like Mike Pence however, hold to the view that being gay or transgender is a choice, and not only a choice but a sinful one at that, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, be it scientific or anecdotal in nature. Fundamentalist politicians apparently spend a great deal of their time concerned about what goes on in America’s bedrooms, and in crafting legislation to subjugate and make second class citizens of people who God created differently than their ill-informed ideas of normalcy are. (3) They’ve cried “Persecution!” when people have stood up to their attempts to legislate their version of morality upon all citizens. The cry “Persecution!” as they deny for others the very rights that they vociferously demand for themselves. That’s not what persecution looks like.
Persecution, specifically religious persecution, looks like a white terrorist killing people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Persecution looks like another gun wielding maniac killing and wounding people in the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, CA with an AR-15, thus adding to the long list of murders committed by white male terrorists with unfettered access to assault weapons. Persecution looks like Rep. Ilhan Omar receiving death threats because she is a Muslim woman who has spoken out against the the campaign of genocide that the Israeli government and U.S. backed military is carrying out in Palestine. In a powerful repudiation of many Christians denouncing her, many Jewish groups and individuals have stood in solidarity with Rep. Omar saying that her views are not Anti-Semitic. (4) Because Omar is a Muslim however, in post 9/11 America and in the age of Trumpism, she and other Muslims are targeted by people from the White House all the way down to main street with hatred, ignorance, and sometimes the threat of, or enacted violence. Jews are being targeted more often as well. Since 2017 Anti-Semitic incidents have risen 57% according to the Anti-Defamation League. (5)
Actual, violent and dehumanizing religious persecution of Christians does happen outside of the United States, and it is tragic when it does, just as it is tragic when anyone is persecuted for their faith. Being held accountable for maintaining bigoted, authoritarian beliefs is NOT persecution even when those beliefs are “Biblical.” For those that equate the insistence that we as a society give full rights to LGBTQIA people with being persecuted, I ask, “Should we bring slavery back?” Slavery after all, is a tradition frequently mentioned in the Bible. Jesus in fact never condemns slavery. In fact, he told parables using enslaved peoples as characters. Whoever wrote Ephesians, and scholars are nearly unanimous in saying it was definitely NOT the Apostle Paul, told slaves to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5, NRSV). The writer of 1 Peter 2:18-20 goes even further, telling those enslaved by others to, “accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (NRSV) It’s right there, in the New Testament, a traditional Biblical view, so according to Pence’s logic, as I understand it, we should start enslaving others again, and not only that, those people should just meekly accept that enslavement and the inevitable beatings that ensue. Tell me, Vice President Pence, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., et al, should we bring back slavery? Were the abolitionists persecuting the slave-holders for being Christians with “traditional Christian beliefs”? Or am I, and many other critics of fundamentalism just misunderstanding you? I don’t think we are…
I live in Lancaster, PA, an area known for its plain communities, the Amish and certain Mennonite sects, who eschew many modern conveniences, dress in plain clothing, and use horses for transportation and farming operations. These people live out their traditional faith in the Bible by living simply, and in many ways apart from broader society. There are many unique aspects of their faith that they live out without interference from the outside world. For example, Amish children only go to school through 8th grade, and gender roles are clearly defined by their Biblical understanding. They are legally protected as well so that they cannot be forced to serve in the military or do other things that would violate their beliefs. Despite their “traditional Biblical faith” there is no campaign of persecution against them here in Lancaster county, either real or imagined. Perhaps that is because the Amish don’t try enforce their beliefs upon the broader population by demanding that high schools be abolished and enforcing their dress code upon everyone, as the fundamentalist do with their beliefs. The Amish choose their faith consciously prior to officially joining the Amish church. They don’t force it on people. It would be a good thing for America, if fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals would follow suit in letting people choose whether to become adherents of their version of the Christian faith and practice it accordingly, instead of attempting to foist it on everyone.
Christianity is not a monolith that is devoid or varying viewpoints, theological assumptions, and rich traditions that look nothing like the authoritarian, fear based, Christianity that characterizes American fundamentalism. It’s imperative that Americans of every background understand this. The Pences, Falwells, and Grahams of the world DO NOT speak for Christianity as a whole, nor should they be allowed to perpetuate bigotry in the name of religious freedom. White, conservative evangelicals are not being persecuted and should stop pretending that they are.
(3) It’s again not shocking that “whiteness” and “maleness” are hugely important in the ideology of what is “normal” according to fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.
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