Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

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Yes, Jesus Loves Me

His love binds us to himself.

Every night when I lay my son down to sleep we sing the same song. He will hear me begin, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and then jump in: “The Bible tells us so!” What began as a way to disciple my four-year old has turned into nightly catechesis for Dad and son. We confess our weakness and rest in the strength of Jesus. We remind ourselves that it is to him that we belong.  As the familiar refrain tenderly reminds us, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes,Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

These words resonate with Christians young and old because of their simplicity and depth. The melody is simple enough for a child to remember, but the meaning demands prayer to even comprehend it. The Scriptures declare that Christ’s love for us is immeasurable. With intercession Paul prays that Christians “… may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19). In other words, yes, Jesus loves us—and that love is so immeasurable we can’t even comprehend it without his help.

I lead my son in singing the line “little ones to him belong.” Naturally we might think of Jesus’ reception of children and the humble way adults are to come to Jesus in faith (Matt. 18:1-4; 19:14-15). But I can’t help but also think of how belonging to Jesus means we are caught up in a love that is both eternal and perfect. The Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35; John 5:20; 17:24-26) and the Son’s love for the Father (John 14:31) is the basis for our redemption in Christ Jesus. Our belonging to Jesus means that Jesus loves us as the Father loves him (John 15:9). Jesus even prays that the love the Father has for the Son might be in us (John 17:26). Those in Christ are, as D.A. Caron says, “friends of God by virtue of the intra-Trinitarian love of God…”[1] Is there a greater motivation for obedience than this? After the day’s battles with temptation, doubt, and fear, this musical nightly rhythm reminds me that I belong to Jesus, who loves me as the Father has loved him. This is what refreshes the heart to desire to abide in the love of Jesus by keeping his commands (John 15:9).

The confession of our weakness leads to trust in Jesus’ strength. The nightly proclamation that He is strong grants us gospel rest. Was not God’s love made manifest in our weakness? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:8) It is Christ who intercedes for us after all; who can separate us from this intercessor? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Romans 8:32)

Our world is ever changing. The most loving parents can’t protect their children from the worry and distress of every day. I may want to be strong for them, but I can hear my own weakness in the melody as I sing. So my frail voice points to the strength of Jesus. His love binds us to himself and the reaches of Hell will never be able to pull us from his grasp; “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

We sing the final verse and he slowly drifts off to sleep. I retreat into the quiet of the night, leaving the business of the day behind. My mind, finally “free,” is now reminded of failures, past and present. The feeling begins to build along with anxiety, doubt, and despair. But there has been grace in this nightly repetition. The melody is stuck in my head. Unlike other children’s songs I don’t rush to block it out, but breathe deeply and sing, “Yes, Jesus loves me; yes Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”


[1] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000) 43.

The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

Why do many evangelicals fail to recognize the genetic fallacy?

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.