Win McNamee/Getty Images
Opinion
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The bitter tears of the American Christian supermajority

Why Christians — America’s most populous religious group — feel so victimized

March 30, 2014 7:00AM ET

The most persecuted minority in the United States is not Muslims, African-Americans or immigrants. It’s our Christian supermajority that’s truly oppressed.

Verily, consider three anecdotes from the past few weeks.

On March 2, three Baptist ministers in Akron, Ohio, arranged for the local police to mock-arrest them in their churches and haul them away in handcuffs for the simple act of preaching their faith. A video was posted on YouTube to drum up buzz for an upcoming revival show. A few atheist blogs object to uniformed police taking part in a church publicity stunt, but far more people who saw the YouTube video (24,082 views), in Ohio and elsewhere, took this media stunt as reality — confirmation of their wildest fears about a government clampdown on Christianity.

On Feb. 26, Arizona’s conservative Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse services to people who violate their sincerely held religious beliefs — for example, gays and lesbians. Fox News pundit Todd Starnes tweeted that Christians have been demoted to second-class citizenship in Arizona, an opinion widely shared on the right-wing Christian blogosphere, which sees Brewer’s veto as a harbinger of even greater persecution to come.

And the feature film “Persecuted,” a political thriller about a federal government plan to censor Christianity in the name of liberalism, is due out in May. Featuring former Sen. Fred Thompson and Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, the movie received a rapturous reception at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 10 and is of a piece with other Christian films such as “God’s Not Dead,” about a freshman believer bullied into proving the existence of god by an atheist professor.

Far from reality

Needless to say (or maybe not) this news ticker of persecuted American Christians floats far and free from reality. More than 75 percent of the United States identifies as Christian; 57 percent believe in the devil, and nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe the Bible to be either the “inspired word” or literal word of God. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, the government began under President George W. Bush to outsource social welfare programs to faith-based organizations (more than 98 percent, according to one 2006 study, of them Christian churches), and schools with religious ties (mostly Christian) in several states are now well fed by direct public subsidies. But then, American places of worship (again, most of them Christian) have long enjoyed a de facto public subsidy as tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations funded by tax-deductible contributions. Last month President Barack Obama himself held forth at National Prayer Breakfast about the importance of Jesus in his life.

To be sure, there are Christians in the world who face persecution, from Copts in Egypt to Catholics in northern Nigeria. But in the U.S., the Christian faith and its institutions have never been more pampered by the state.

And yet the persecution complex of American Christianity blares its sirens, well beyond the surly hype about a “war on Christmas” that has become as much a part of the yuletide season as eggnog. Take the Catholic bishop of Peoria, Ill., Daniel R. Jenky, sermonizing in 2012 against the Affordable Care Act, blasting it as of a piece with governments that “have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide within the confines of their churches,” not skimping on comparisons to Stalinism and Nazism. Texas Gov. Rick Perry asserted that “Satan is attacking the great institutions of America” and vowed to “end Obama’s war on religion” during his 2012 presidential campaign. Another former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney also accused Obama of waging a war on religion. Right-wing Christians have even had the gall to conscript anti-Nazi Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer to their cause, comparing his persecution to their hysterical simulacrum. 

Overdogs

What accounts for this orgy of self-pity? Part of it is hard-wired into Christianity itself, says Candida Moss, a biblical scholar at Notre Dame University and the author of the recent book “The Myth of Christian Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.”

The persecution of Christians is the historical equivalent of a false memory, she argues. Early Christians were persecuted by Rome only sporadically, less for religious heterodoxy than for political insubordination in an empire that was draconian across the board. Early Christian writers Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Tertullian chronicled such incidents as proof of the faith’s righteousness, laying a scriptural basis for a self-image of eternal persecution.

But it was Eusebius, bishop of Caesaria and the first important historian of the church, who “encoded the understanding of the church as persecuted into the history of Christianity itself.” His martyrdom stories and those of other fourth century hagiographers were written to shore up orthodoxy (writers used martyrs as sock puppets to denounce heretics) and drum up tourism for local shrines. These tales of persecution — full of blood, cruelty and dodgy “facts” — were enjoyed at the time, Moss writes, much in the way that modern audiences take in horror movies, and the lowbrow gore has long been justified by embarrassed exegetes as a response to the strain of persecution. Except, as Moss argues, the textual evidence indicates all these tales of persecution were composed after, not before, Christianity had become the favored religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. In short, they belong to an invented tradition of victimization. 

With mass alienation from both major political parties and a labor movement that appears to be expiring, the only institutional outlet for the shared grievances of millions of Americans is their church.

Historical record aside, who can resist the deliciousness of having both the upper hand of power and the righteousness of the oppressed? Such persecution mania is dangerous, writes Moss, because “martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful to cast themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others,” as freshly empowered Christians swiftly proved by trashing pagan temples and punctuating the centuries since with internecine bloodbaths and the odd crusade.

Moss’ study has earned favorable reviews for its scrupulous scholarship; it has also aroused much nastiness from Christian critics. Even before the book was released, she told me via email, it was denounced by conservative Christian commentators and she has since received hundreds of angry messages, letters and phone calls. She wrote:

Most of these people appear not to have actually read the book but, rather, have heard about it and see it as a further example of persecution. Many of them write to the university and ask it to fire me. An alarming number think that I deserve to be beaten, raped or killed (although blessedly very few of them threaten me directly). Many of the comments are about my character and appearance, but I hear that’s very common for female writers. I’ve been called a “female Judas Iscariot”, a “demon,” possessed by Satan, evil, the Antichrist and a Holocaust denier. 

All of which only confirms Moss’ point about how belligerent some Christians can be in their dealings with heterodoxy — always under the pretense of a righteous response to an alien threat.

Apart from its roots in church history, this persecution complex also stems from day-to-day experience in 21st century America. The United States is, after all, a frequently humiliating place to work and live, with fewer social protections and weaker labor laws, compared with other rich countries, and an increasingly thuggish criminal justice system. “If all the cross marked was someone’s humiliation, then the pavement would be so thick with crosses, there would be no space to walk,” as the parish newsletter of St. Brigid’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., once put it — and quite accurately too.

With mass alienation from both major political parties and a labor movement that, bright spots aside, appears to be expiring, the only institutional outlet for the shared grievances of millions of Americans is their church. A great many Christian churches and other places of worship channel these social energies into mutual support and good works that add to the commonweal. But some of these energies also find expression in a centuries-old persecution mania, with its distinctly belligerent edge.

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower” (Verso, 2013).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter