Did you hear about the pastor who was arrested for not marrying a same-sex couple? What about the publisher that got sued for refusing to censor anti-gay verses from the Bible?
Both of these stories have been exposed as fakes of course, but that didn’t keep hundreds of thousands of conservative Christians from sharing them online this week. When I pointed out to a friend that the story he had just shared on social media wasn’t true, he replied, “well it might as well be. Christians in this country are under attack.”
It has become a familiar refrain. We hear it every Christmas when an unsuspecting store clerk wishes the wrong Christian “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We hear it whenever a high school drops its traditional pre-football game prayer out of respect for those students who may be Jewish or Muslim or non-religious. An entire industry of books and films has blossomed in the red soil of the American Christian persecution complex, with the first “Gods’ Not Dead” installment caricaturing and vilifying atheists and the second set to expose liberal efforts to “expel God from the classroom once and for all.”
Now, most of the time, this phenomenon falls into the frustrating but relatively harmless category of culture war posturing, but lately, as the apocalyptic, fear-based rhetoric continues to ratchet up in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriage, and as that rhetoric continues to target and demonizes LGBT people, it’s been doing some real harm. Just last week I received at least a dozen messages from friends and readers who told me the response from Christians to the Supreme Court ruling confirmed for them what they’ve known in their hearts for a while: they don’t want anything to do with Christianity anymore, not if this is what it’s all about.
So what I’d like to suggest to my fellow Christians is that perhaps taking up the cross means laying down the persecution complex. A spirit of fear and entitlement does more to obscure the gospel than elucidate it. Here are some reasons why:
The persecution complex is not based in reality.
Not only do American Christians experience complete religious freedom in this country, we also enjoy tremendous privilege. More than seventy-percent of the population identifies as Christian, as do the majority of our representatives to congress and every single U.S. president. Our churches, whose steeples dot every cityscape and small town in the land, are exempt from paying taxes, and unlike many people of other faiths, we don’t have to worry about fighting with our employers to take time off to celebrate our religious holidays as they are largely taken for granted.
In spite of all this, many Christians like to imagine themselves as the scrappy underdogs, bullied and oppressed for their faith yet bravely standing for their beliefs. Former pastor Mark Driscoll made news a few years ago by accusing the Orange County City Council of religious discrimination for not allowing him to convert a building in the area into a church. It was later revealed he knew from the beginning the building wasn’t zoned for a church but was using the American Christian persecution complex to try and garner support for bending the rules.
Neil Carter, who was actually fired from his teaching job for being an atheist, suggest that Christians create fictions like these because “real life does not sufficiently validate people’s persecution complexes.”
“[Christians] are manufacturing conflicts in order to have something to rally behind,” he writes. “It makes them feel more in touch with the early Church’s tumultuous beginnings. But it takes a lot of smoke in mirrors to make it look like the people with the most privilege in a region (like Christians in the Bible Belt) are being mistreated by the people who run things. Where I live, all the judges, jurors, and attorneys are devout Christians. So are the teachers, the principal, and almost all of the parents.”
The persecution complex blinds Christians to our own privilege, which then blinds us to the challenges faced by the genuinely underprivileged in this country. We get so focused on ourselves and our own concerns we forget the admonition of the apostle Paul to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Phillippians 2:4)”
And if you think the SCOTUS ruling did anything to alter this privilege, a few reality checkers are in order:
Reality Check #1: No one lost any rights in the Supreme Court decision. What happened was a minority group that had previously been denied a civil right the rest of us take for granted was given access to that right. Sharing civil rights with other people is not the same as being persecuted by them. In fact, I see the decision as a victory for religious freedom in the sense that people whose religion supports and encourages same-sex unions will no longer be prohibited from practicing that important religious value simply because some of their neighbors hold a different view. I have yet to see a shred of evidence to suggest that the presence of a marriage license in the home a gay couple has any power to negatively affect the marriage of the straight couple down the street.
Reality Check #2: Contrary to what you may have read on Facebook, pastors and priests will not be forced to marry same-sex couples or be fined for refusing to…just as they are not presently forced to marry interfaith couples if their tradition opposes it, or cohabitating couples if their tradition opposes it, or divorcees if their tradition opposes it, or interracial couple if their tradition opposes it. That religious freedom has, and very likely will, be preserved. Just take interracial marriage, for example. It’s been 48 years since the Supreme Court ruled that the laws in sixteen states prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. At the time, only about 25% of the American public supported interracial marriage, with many citing religious reasons for opposing it. While public opinion has (thankfully) changed, the right of a clergy member to refuse to marry an interracial couple hasn’t. Just as a pastor can still refuse to marry an interracial couple, he can still refuse to marry a same-sex couple without fear of government intervention. There is no indication whatsoever this will change.
Reality Check #3: Facing disagreement is not the same as facing persecution. Conservative Christians are right about one thing: public opinion has shifted on same-sex marriage (particularly within the Church), and this means they are more likely to encounter pushback when they insist same-sex marriage ought to be illegal. Facebook friends may argue with them. Comedians may satirize them. Bloggers may write posts like these disagreeing with them. But to conflate such disagreement with the sort of persecution Jesus warned his disciples about is not only myopic, but also a slap in the face to those Christians who face very real persecution around the world. Living in a pluralistic society that also grants freedom and civil rights protection to those with whom one disagrees is not the same as religious persecution. And crying persecution every time one doesn’t get one’s way is an insult to the very real religious persecution happening in the world today. It's no way to be a good citizen and certainly no way to advance the gospel in the world.
Which brings me to my second point...
The persecution complex minimizes the very real suffering of others.
If Dan and I walk the streets of downtown Dayton, Tennessee holding hands, it will not even occur to us to fear for our safety or worry about harassment because of it. I’m afraid the same cannot be said for a gay couple engaging in the same activity. (It should be noted that in 2004, our county commission attempted to criminalize homosexuality.) That’s because in spite of shifting views on same-sex marriage, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people continue to face incredible hostility here in the U.S. and around the world, often at the hands of Christians.
Here in the U.S., homeless and suicide rates among LGBT youth remain shockingly high, in part because conservative Christian leaders like John McArthur instruct parents of gay children to “hand them over to Satan” and refuse to associate with them. Half of gay males experience a negative reaction from parents when they come out, and in 26% of those cases, the gay child is thrown out of the home. Studies suggest that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are on the street because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those whose families reject them are more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families support them. In most states, people can still be fired from their (secular) jobs just for being gay, or thrown out of their homes if their landlord doesn’t like LGBT people. Many LGBT people recall getting bullied mercilessly in school, and I’ve heard from several who report that they learned their first ant-gay slur from their church youth group.
For years, conservative Christians pushed for so-called reparative therapy efforts to change people’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual, which proved so traumatizing and dangerous to LGBT people and their parents that even the head of the most popular “ex-gay” organization, Exodus International, apologized for the damage done by those efforts and shut the organization down.
Christian leaders have blamed gay and lesbian people for the attacks on 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, and all sorts of natural and man-made disasters. The myth that gay and lesbian people are child molesters often goes unchallenged when spread from the pulpit, and in the 80s and 90s, many Christians refused to support efforts to curb the HIV/AIDS crisis as they believed it to be a “curse from God” that gay people deserved. (See Chapter 5 of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith). Among Gospel Coalition participants alone, it has been suggested recently that LGBT people are so disgusting they ought to induce a gag reflex and that supporting same-sex marriage is worse than supporting slavery. I have several friends who were so traumatized by their experiences with Christians they cannot even walk through the doors of a church without suffering a physical reaction similar to PTSD—uncontrolled shaking, sweating, and panic. And I have cried with parents of LGBT kids who were stripped of membership in their beloved churches simply because they wouldn’t publicly denounce their children.
And this is just what LGBT people face here in the U.S. Influenced by evangelical missionaries to the continent, many African nations have adopted legislation in which people can be thrown in jail or executed for being gay. (Just this week, John Piper tweeted his support of Kenya’s criminalization of homosexuality.) There are 79 countries in which homosexuality is illegal and many more in which LGBT people are advised not to travel because they may be violently threatened and harassed.
When it comes to opposition to gay rights, conservative Christians have been on the front lines, opposing measures that would give people in same-sex relationships the right to visit their partners in the hospital, file taxes jointly, adopt children, share insurance, and rent apartments without fear of unjust eviction. Routinely fundamentalist Christians compare people in same-sex relationships to pedophiles and demand an explanation for how their most important relationships are any different than people having sex with dogs. Anti-gay bullying, discrimination, and hate-speech often go unchallenged by Christians, and are far too often perpetuated by them.
So when Kevin DeYoung laments at the Gospel Coalition that Christians who opposed same-sex marriage are “worried about social ostracism and cultural marginalization” and asks that supporters of LGBT equality stick up for Christians when “their jobs, their reputations, and their freedoms are threatened,” it’s hard to blame anyone for balking with righteous incredulity.
Where is the concern for gay kids getting kicked out of their homes to live on the streets? Where is the opposition to LGBT bullying and housing discrimination? Why remain silent when Christian leaders speak in crude and hateful terms about LGBT people or support the criminalization of homosexuality overseas?
What the persecution complex suggests is that conservative Christians only care about bullying, oppression, and discrimination when it happens to them. If it happens to LGBT people, or to people in other religious minority groups, it is of little concern (or is tacitly supported). Compassion and advocacy are rooted in self-interest alone and Christian privilege is guarded ruthlessly, even if it comes at the expense of others.
Furthermore, when Christian leaders predict God’s impending judgment on the U.S. in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, arguing “our country’s foundations are being destroyed,” it suggests that slavery, genocide, extreme gender inequity, and Jim Crow weren’t serious enough to warrant a response from God, but now that our gay neighbors can get marriage licenses, all hell is sure to break lose. This reveals a profound ignorance regarding the suffering of other minority groups, both historically and presently. When white conservative Christians obsess over their own perceived oppression, it becomes incredibly difficult to engage in important conversations about religious, racial, and gender privilege that are necessary for creating a more just society. How can we begin to recognize our own privilege and the harm it can cause when it remains unchecked if we believe ourselves to be an oppressed minority?
The discomfort of conservative Christians whose views on gender and sexuality are being challenged more than they once were is nothing compared to the suffering faced by LGBT people and religious and ethnic minorities in this country. We would all do well to remember that.
The persecution complex vilifies LGBT people and ignores intersecting identities.
In addition to minimizing the suffering of LGBT people and other minority groups, the persecution complex caricatures them as evil villains out to destroy Christians, which is a tried and true way of making an already-marginalized group appear more powerful than they actually are in order to turn public opinion against them. When Christian leaders blame LGBT people for natural disasters or warn they are going to “come after” Christians, it’s hard not to be reminded of what was often said about Jews in Europe to justify centuries of prejudice against them. This sort of rhetoric dehumanizes our neighbors and prevents us from loving them well.
There is an inconsistency, too, in the justification of discrimination against LGBT people that points to a special animus against them. County clerks who cite their Christian values when refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples don’t also refuse licenses to cohabitating couples, or divorcees, or interfaith couples (also frowned upon in conservative Christian circles), nor do the bakers and restaurant owners who refuse to serve LGBT people refuse to serve other perceived “sinners.”
And perhaps most importantly, the “gays vs. Christians” narrative ignores the fact that 48 percent of gay Americans identify as Christians. The majority of my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends are devoted followers of Jesus whose faith in the midst of near-constant attack puts my own faith to shame. Obviously, LGBT people aren’t interested in persecuting themselves! But framing this as a culture war between Christians and LGBT people suggests that they have to choose and further marginalizes LGBT Christians by denying them their very identity. It says, “you say you’re a Christian, but you really aren’t,” which, if you’ve ever had that accusation thrown your way, you know is incredibly condescending and painful.
In a wise and grace-filled post entitled, “We’re Not Out to Get You,” Andrew Holubeck writes:
“[Most LGBT people] are not actually out to take away anyone’s freedom to worship, preach, and teach as they please. I know it’s rather convenient and comforting to believe that we are, to see us as ‘the bad guys’ out to destroy you, because then you don’t have to deal with the messy idea that good people can still significantly disagree on very important issues. We certainly do the same thing to you all, and for the same reasons. But I think it would do us all a world of good if both sides worked harder to resist the temptation to vilify the other.”
(Note: You may be thinking to yourself, “what about the bakers who were fined for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple?” That single story has already been so exaggerated and exploited by folks on both sides I’d rather not take the space in the post to address it, but may do so in a comment or separate post.)
The persecution complex obscures the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You know who was actually persecuted for their religious beliefs?
Jews under Roman occupation in the first century.
And you know what Jesus told those Jews to do?
Pay your taxes. Give to those who ask. Do not turn people away. Love your neighbors. Love even your enemies.
When Jesus spoke of “walking the second mile,” he was referring to an oppressive Roman law that allowed a traveling Roman solider to demand that a stranger carry his pack for up to one mile. No doubt some of Jesus’ first listeners had been forced to do just that, to drop their farming equipment, fishing nets, or carpentry tools and carry a heavy pack, losing hours of work in the process. The law allowed the soldier to demand from them a mile, no more. Jesus told his followers to walk two.
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” he said. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven... If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
As Christians, our most “deeply held religious belief” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. And yet right now, the prevailing perception of American Christians is that baking a cake for a gay couple is too much to ask.
As I’ve made it clear in the past, I support marriage equality and affirm my gay and lesbian friends who want to commit themselves to another person for life. But over and beyond my beliefs regarding homosexuality is my most deeply-held conviction that I am called to love my neighbor as myself…even if it costs me something, even if it means walking a second mile. And I know many of my fellow Christians who hold a more conservative view of sexuality share that conviction too.
I've been watching people with golden crosses around their necks and on their lapels shout at the TV about how serving gay and lesbian people is a violation of their “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” And I can't help but laugh at the sad irony of it. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus hung from that cross, looked out on the people who put him there and said, "Father, forgive them." Jesus served sinners all the way to the cross.
If conservative Christians continue to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens and cry persecution every time they don’t get their way, they will lose far more than the culture wars. They will lose the Christian identity. We’ve obscured the gospel when the “right to refuse” service has become a more widely-known Christian value than the impulse to give it.
Lord, have mercy on us and show us a new way.
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