Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Persecution of Conservative Christians

As it stands now, Americans pledge allegiance (when they do) “Under God.” According to our money “In God We Trust.” Public officials swear to uphold their duties on Bibles and witnesses swear to the tell the truth on Bibles. Nearly all public and private institutions have Christmas Day off, and many have a week or more off around Christmas. Almost as many institutions have the time around Easter off as well. Every single President has been, at the very least, nominally Christian. There will be a woman president before there is a Muslim president and there will probably be an openly gay president before there is an openly atheist president. By virtually every rubric, America is a Christian nation. 

Unless, of course, you ask a conservative Christian. Then, Christians are under attack from a coalition of radical college professors, Hollywood elitists, liberal media, and some vague collection of other leftists. Despite consistent policy victories all over the country, especially in our schools, where conservatives Christians have forced things like intelligent design and abstinence only sex education into our, legally, secular schools, and despite everything else I've mentioned, conservative Christians in the media consistently talk as though Christians were being thrown in jail. So, when parents take a school district to court because they don't want their tax dollars spent on the recitals of words sacred to a faith that is not their own, it is not a rational concern for the appropriate allocation of scarce resources, or the simple desire for teachers to teach rather than preach, or even the desire to have a little control over the belief structures taught to their kids, but an assault on Jesus Christ himself. (Quick aside. There's a technique I like to use that is pretty good at exposing when someone is being a self-righteous hypocrite. Simply take whatever situation their discussing and replace “Jesus” with “Allah,” and imagine what the reaction would be. Can you imagine what would happen if a Muslim teacher got a bunch of students down on the ground bowing towards Mecca?) Or when someone argues that they don't want their, constitutionally a-religious, judges displaying a system of governance that opens with “Don't you dare worship anybody else but me” and only gets to “Don't kill anybody” at commandment 6, that person is not ensuring that the agreed upon jurisprudence of the United States of America is the primary method of determining cases, but attacking all of the Christian faith and everyone who believes in it. 

For an almost unnaturally rational person, like yours truly, this is absolutely baffling. Most Americans believe in angels, intelligent design, and identify as Christians. And a vast majority wouldn't trust an atheist as far as said atheist could be thrown. Why do conservative Christians believe they are being persecuted despite all the evidence to the contrary?

The idea behind childhood trauma is simple; traumatic events in a person's formative years can have lifelong effects. Things can happen to our brains when we are children that are almost impossible to change later in life. I think the primary source of this persecution complex is essentially the same thing; a series of traumas in the formative years of the culture.

Essentially, Christianity was formed when a man was tortured to death. It was Jesus's death by crucifixion, not his message, that redeemed humanity from original sin. The foundational moment of Christianity was not a man telling everyone to love one other, but a man getting nailed to a cross for doing so. For the next several hundred years, or to go with the metaphor, during the formative years of the culture, Christians were persecuted. They were harassed, tortured and killed, and the memory of this persecution stayed with the culture even after Christianity, in the form of the Catholic church, became one of, if not the, most powerful institution on Earth.

There's another layer for American Christians, as one of our founding myths is of the Puritans coming to America to escape persecution. (Forget for a second that they started persecuting people practically the instant they got the chance. Cycle of abuse, maybe, since we're going with a psychology metaphor.) From then on, many groups of people came to America to escape persecution. America was the escape hatch for minorities, both religious and ethnic, all over Europe. Furthermore, the nation was born through the trauma of the Revolutionary War, a series of events often depicted as throwing off the shackles of British oppression. In short, on top of the fundamental trauma of Christianity, American Christians, especially if they belong to one of the many Protestant sects, come from a long history of persecution.

Now, that persecution is engrained. Arguing that abstinence only education almost always leads to higher teenage pregnancy rates is an attack on Christian family values, so is the suggestion that intelligent design, not being a scientific theory and all, shouldn't be taught in science, that public school teachers should not lead their students in prayer (of course, nobody is stopping the students from praying by themselves if they want to, but, that's another essay), that all people have the right to form partnerships that provide access to a host of tax and legal benefits, or really anything that doesn't fit with their very particular socio-political philosophy.

Of course, the persecution complex is not without its practical uses; it is very politically convenient. It is one of the ways to defend an idea or policy against criticism, without actually arguing against the criticism. Instead of dealing with facts or rationale, many conservative Christians (or at least the pundits and politicians who purport to represent them) simply point out that the critique is part of a general persecution of the Christian and conservative belief systems and, thus, somehow, inherently illegitimate. (Of course, if an African American makes a similar argument about something, that person is using “the race card,” but well, one can only have so many aneurisms.) Simply put, the rhetorical technique removes the entire mechanism of argument. (And what is Democracy without argument?)

There are many layers to the depth of this problem, only one of which is the political convenience. For example, if you happen to belong to a “Christian” religion that believes the only just society is one in which fundamentalist Christian values rule all aspects of society; if for example you believe teachers should be required to lead their students in Christian prayer, than there are certainly groups, forces, and people working against the fruition of your vision. Like me. With something as important as religious faith, it's not hard to see how “conflict” is interpreted as “persecution.” Furthermore, these cultural beliefs are deeply and personally ingrained. If you've ever doubted how character traits based in religion become ingrained in an individual's personality, ask a Catholic about guilt. You'll learn all about it.

There are aspects of this problem that are simply beyond the forces of intentional social change. But it would be nice if American media spent a little more of their time checking the facts asserted by pundits or politicians. Or perhaps, providing some global perspective on the whole “persecution” issue by covering, I don't know, any of the situations in the world where people are actually being killed, (which, though this might be my liberal elitist upbringing, is different from being disagreed with) for who they are or what they believe. Women in Saudi Arabia, for example, or dissidents in North Korea. China threw Ai Weiwei in jail, and I gotta believe that being thrown in jail is a requirement for being persecuted.

As usual, my argument comes back to the media, to what journalists do and don't do, what they spend their limitless time on and what they don't. What we need is an hour of analysis and context for every hour of “news” instead of this constant assault of new event. Without pundits, opinions, and debates, journalists provide history, background information, and verifiable facts about the previously reported events. And then, with the context of the issue established and a grounding of verifiable fact, you have the pundits and politicians debate and interpret the news. Then, when a pundit or politician says something incorrect, the journalist can make the correction. Sure there will still be bias, still be spurious claims on persecution, but I have to believe, this format will make it easier for people to distinguish argument from evasion and true claims on persecution from political bluster and culturally formative traumas.


  1. Allah Tapdancing um, Allah. Excellent points, especially the historical perspective regarding persecution. I never thought about in terms of childhood trauma, but that makes some sense.

    I think a major problem with Christians is that they are taught that Bible stories are all meant to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. So rather than ponder their meanings and figure out how to apply 2,000 year old tales to their own lives, they take them as stone cold fact. For example, I think the loaves and fish story is an excellent way to teach people to share so that everyone has enough rather than have a few be full and the rest go hungry. Instead, most Christians just take it as another example of how Jesus had magic powers.

    When people are taught that such stories - even the most preposterous ones - are fact, they are, by default, taught that anyone who disagrees is wrong. If someone insists that the sky is purple, you'd think they're crazy, maybe even a bit scary. They're threatening your view of reality. And if enough people do that - and it doesn't have to be nearly a majority of people - you may feel persecuted because the facts of your very existence are under attack. If more Christians would accept that, no, the things in this book didn't really happen, but you can still learn from them and intellectually discuss their interpretations (even with *gasp* atheists!) maybe they'd feel less threatened and persecuted.

    Of course, in keeping in line with your theory, that would take centuries of therapy.

  2. Matt, though I see your angle, I'm not so eager to agree that there has to be a connection between taking the bible literally versus taking it metaphorically. Regardless of how the material is interpreted, it does not logically follow that that by people have to disagree. Tolerance, patience, humility, and perhaps even the acknowledgement of a certain amount of relativity (as implied by subjective experience) can actually co-exist with a literal interpretation of the bible.

    Now I don't necessarily care for the bible myself, nor do I consider myself religious. But I do believe that there is a danger in the logical fallacies that plague everyone, from the religious fanatic to the N1 touting intellectual. Although it might be unconvincing to believe me right now when I write 'no offense', I don't mean to get personal. Just a thought.

    Josh, I think there is an outstanding brilliance to the simplicity and truth to your statement: "It was Jesus's death by crucifixion, not his message, that redeemed humanity from original sin." This takes nothing away from a mystical perspective and fits in perfectly with a more discursive mainstream understanding.


  3. So, why do American Christians say they are persecuted? Because Jesus _tells_ them to be whiney about it, that's why! See the "beatitude" in Matthew 5:10:

    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Thus, if you say you are being persecuted, you are automagically among the blessed.