The Great “Persecution of Christians” Myth

EARLY IN THE FOURTH CENTURY, the Roman Emperor Diocletian issued an edict barring Christians from meeting for worship. Christian scriptures were ordered destroyed, and all citizens of the empire were compelled to sacrifice to traditional Pagan gods. The penalty for refusing was death. Diocletian’s actions are called the Great Persecution, and for a good reason: It was a real persecution.

Here’s something that’s not persecution: expecting a person who runs a for-profit business to serve all members of the public, including those who may be gay, atheist, or Muslim.

We hear the term “persecution” tossed around a lot these days. It’s a serious word that shouldn’t be so lightly thrown. Yet it happens, and the people doing the tossing are just about always right-wing, fundamentalist Christians. If they had any sense of their own history, they’d know better.

The latest spin on this long-running story comes from Rod Dreher, whose book, The Benedict Option, is just out. The book argues that a rising tide of secularism in the United States has created a climate hostile to traditional Christians. Dreher’s answer is for Christians to turn inward and focus less on the outside world and more on their own communities.

In a sense, fundamentalist Christians are already doing this. They long ago created parallel structures—private fundamentalist academies to take the place of “godless” public schools, Christian rock instead of Satan-glorifying heavy metal, and Christian fiction to read in lieu of worldly secular novels (which often have—eek!—sex in them).

Dreher seems to be advocating for an additional step. The problem is, his entire premise rests on shaky ground. There simply is no great persecution of Christians in the United States—or even a not-so-great one—nor is any expected. If anything, President Donald J. Trump, a great hero to the religious right despite his lack of personal piety, is trying to hand them much of what they want.

Far from being persecuted, religious groups in the United States enjoy great privilege. A few years ago I wrote a book titled Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do. In that book, I listed some of the privileges US religious groups get. Tax exemption is one example, with special laws making it next to impossible for the IRS to audit churches. Others are exemptions from lobbying disclosure laws, exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, exemptions from laws designed to protect employee rights, exemptions from many forms of oversight that are applied to comparable secular institutions, and even exemptions from laws intended to protect employees’ pensions. (This is a partial list.)

Turn on your television and start flipping channels. Chances are, you won’t have to go far to hit a TV ministry. Spin the radio dial and you’ll hear lots of preaching. Drive through the streets of any town, even a small one, and you’ll pass numerous churches. Websites? Twitter accounts? Facebook pages? Publishing arms? Door-to-door proselytizers? Overseas missionaries? Schools and colleges? Religious groups have them in spades.

What sort of treatment do religious lobbyists receive in Washington, DC, or in your state capital? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s deference.

As for that rising tide of secularism that’s going to wipe out religion? It exists only in the fevered dreams of the right wing. Most polls say Christians account for about 75 percent of the population. Yes, there has been some slippage, but that’s still a hefty majority. And many of the people who did leave are practicing a DIY faith; they’ve hardly jumped ship to humanism.

Fundamentalist Christians have been carping that they are besieged and that society has reached a nadir and can’t get any worse pretty much since the founding of Christianity. Early Christians were certain things were so bad that Jesus would soon return to put a stop to the whole shebang.

We’ve since had 2,000 years of that refrain, over and over again. I recall once strolling along the National Mall in Washington, DC, on a warm spring day. A fellow handed me a crudely printed flier. It proclaimed that we were so wicked that the end was near. God would soon wipe us out (fortunately, there was still time to get on the right side!). This was in 1988.

The simple fact is, the persecution narrative and its accompanying “end-is-nigh” nonsense serve important purposes for the religious right. For starters, they enable conservative Christian groups to raise money. By portraying themselves as the bold protectors of “traditional” (read: regressive) values in a world gone mad with hedonism and secularism, religious right groups justify their continued existence. They meet their payrolls by shaking a few bucks from fearful fundamentalists still smarting over the fact that public schools are teaching evolution, birth control is widely available, and marriage equality is the law of the land.

But clinging to the myth also allows fundamentalist Christians to view themselves not as what they are—forces working to drag us backward—but as protectors of a mythical Golden Age during which everything was just peachy.Peachy for white, conservative Christians, anyway.

In a nutshell, the Golden Age myth goes like this: Yes, it used to be great here in the USA, but then liberals, secularists, women’s libbers, gay rights activists, and others came along and tore down our glorious “Christian nation” and look where we are now! Kids are shooting one another in school!

Put aside the fact that this “Christian nation” did, at various times, tolerate and encourage slavery, oppression of women, official policies of racism, denial of rights to non-Christians and so on. (See, it was only “golden” if you were privileged enough to be sitting on top of all the gold.) What these people are really pining for are the days when they called the shots.

But those days are gone, and they aren’t coming back. So every now and then, someone on the far right gets the bright idea to suggest pulling out and leaving the nasty secularists to their own devices. Their corrupt, amoral society will soon collapse on its own, right?

The problem is, it’s all just talk. The idea might attract a few followers, but groups like the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, and others aren’t about to endorse it. That would mean the end of their power and their efforts to force their dogma onto as many people as possible.

How I wish it weren’t just talk! I really wish they’d try it. Go ahead and disengage from politics, I say. Run off and focus on prayer and contemplation. Let the secularists try their hand at things. Far from collapsing, I suspect everything would turn out just fine.