Lately, we’ve heard a lot about threats to religious freedom in the U.S. We don’t have to look very far to see the consequences of this truth: Attacks on mosques and temples have been consistently rising, and many fear for their physical safety due to their expressions of faith. Yet in November 2016, many Christians reported voting according to fears that their religious freedoms were in danger. On Thursday, the president signed an executive order purportedly to expand “religious liberty,” aimed at protecting Christian freedoms and extending their churches’ political power — which begs the question: Are Christians in the U.S. being religiously persecuted?
It depends on who you ask. No really.
We all know that our perceptions inform our realities, but today more than ever, it seems our emotional understanding of reality (the part of our brain that inputs data and filters it through our experiences and feelings) informs the part of our brain that stores facts, and not the other way around. We then respond based on these filters. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but it does mean that, no matter how factual or fictitious information is, we often receive or reject it based on whether it reinforces our view of self, other, our values, and perhaps most importantly, our fears.
Nearly every Sunday, my husband and I sit in our church and examine the roots and consequences of religious and political intolerance, and we take responsibility for our role in advocating for those who don’t look and love and worship like we do. The messages we hear are an extension of the types of data and information we choose to consume throughout the week. And why would we go elsewhere? Our church tells us a story that reinforces our view of self, others, our values, and our fears. The enemy? Hate, dogma, sweeping generalizations, walls, biblical literalism, and the limitations within us that prevent us from being able to fully embrace and love without fear. Our choice of church is consistent with our perception of truth, justice, love, and how we interpret the Bible.
A different reality is true of just as many Christian churches across the U.S.
That narrative empowers a reality that perceives American Christianity to be under siege, and that, subsequently, American Christians are being persecuted. In these churches, there is little or no mention of the hate crimes being perpetrated against temples, mosques, LGBTQ nightclubs, immigrant families, or of the profiling of people who wear hijabs or have last names that indicate they may be from Muslim- or Spanish-speaking countries. Like ours, these churches are an extension of the data and information provided by the same news sources these people choose to consume. And why would they go elsewhere? These churches tell them a story that reinforces a view of self, others, values, and fears. The enemy? Refugees and immigrants from “those countries,” snowflakes, mainstream media, people who don’t embrace an alarmist view of these very real threats, and people who want to give their hard-earned money to people who “don’t deserve it.” Their choice of church is consistent with their perception of truth, justice, love, and how they interpret the Bible.
When I was growing up in evangelical churches, I understood all Christians to have a shared enemy: the devil, or Satan (used interchangeably). There are many studies that reinforce the power of “negativity bonding,” the idea that when a shared enemy is present, there is transformational opportunity to gather and mobilize groups of people. Satan was an enemy we could all get behind and rally together to defeat. This enemy resided in a dark fiery place of punishment for sin, the sergeant major of an army of demons at his disposal to wreak havoc on those who went against God’s will. God’s will included things like not cheating on your spouse, not lusting after someone who isn’t your spouse, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, not stealing, not being greedy with your money and time, not creating an idol out of your possessions, or another person, or your job. Basically, obeying the Ten Commandments. Satan was responsible for all measure of destruction when these boundaries were crossed.
While I no longer subscribe to this literal understanding of an enemy, I’m not sure Christians who believe they are being persecuted do either. For years now, there have been strategic and successful messaging campaigns (the “War on Terror,” for one) that constructed a new enemy among some Christians. I do think a literal understanding of a devil still exists, but I think he’s been confused as someone who isn’t white, isn’t Christian, isn’t straight, and doesn’t speak English, instead of a mystical figure who will punish you for being covetous.
And this is important, because if our news sources and churches are no longer preaching about a singular shared enemy that resides in hell, but rather convincing us that the enemy is from “that country” or worships “that God,” our entire experience of thinking, living, worshipping, giving, and voting changes. And if I follow this logic, I’m more inclined to suspect the person on the plane or the person next door. I might avoid that part of town and I might support that policy or platform, because while it may not align with a traditional understanding of the gospel, it is consistent with the fear-narrative strengthened by what I’m learning on the news, on social media, and at church.
I believe this breakdown of the common enemy is largely responsible for the collapse in perception among American Christians, and has led to the illusion of Christian persecution in the United States. This externalization of the enemy is dangerous, and it’s also lazy. It means I am now more responsible for policing those people than I am my own behavior. It means I can check the reactionary box instead of evaluate my own fear bias.
I was taught, like many, that the highest form of persecution is to be killed for your beliefs. As a child, I would fantasize about being asked whether I was Christian. In my fantasy, the person asking had a weapon and the cost for saying yes was to be killed on the spot. I always said yes. If “the enemy” is one who, either real or perceived, is out to threaten your very being, how are you not in a constant posture of defense? How do you not actually become the very thing you think you are being threatened by? Or, if persecution is praised, how do you not actually look for it in places it may not even exist? Simply put, how do you not become hostile toward those you perceive to be threatening you, even if they may not, and likely are not, doing so?
The same churches and news sources and elected officials successfully convincing Christians that they are being persecuted are skipping the fact that no one is actually preventing them from going to church, getting married, not going to movies that depict gay cartoons, reading their Bibles, or praying in public. And why would they? These networks and pastors and politicians maintain ratings, receive donations, and win elections by reporting and preaching a message that works. Until it doesn’t.
But it’s important to remember that you can keep doing and not doing the things consistent with your values alongside those who do and don’t do things consistent with theirs, and it doesn’t devalue your commitment to your faith, nor does it indicate that your beliefs are somehow under attack.
Even as policy becomes law about matters inconsistent with how you choose to live, it doesn’t mean you and your children are in imminent danger. Take a deep breath, fellow Christians; we are still the privileged ones.
As I pour into research for my film on consistent ethic of life issues, I become more aware that these discrepancies among Christians are a relatively modern invention. Yes, people of faith have never entirely agreed on a multitude of issues, and we have tens of thousands of denominations to prove that. But there were constants, at least up until recently:
The enemy was Satan, caring for the marginalized was a given, and extending love to the stranger (vs. creating an enemy out of her), was required of those who claimed to follow Christ.