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[religion|culture] The self-valorizing Christian myth of persecution

Yesterday on my Facebook wall there was a fair amount of commenting conceding my blog post entitled “What I Believe About What You Believe”.

At one point, Brad Torgersen said:

[F]or a growing body of zealous atheists, their interpretation of “freedom from religion” includes quashing all public manifestation of faith, be it aural, or visual.

I responded:

As a committed First Amendment supporter, I’m not concerned about public manifestations of faith. I’m concerned about publicly-sponsored manifestations of faith. There’s a vast and unsubtle difference there which many people of faith pretend not to understand because it’s much easier to be outraged if you don’t make the distinction.

Without stopping to think about it very hard, I came up with a quick list of public manifestations of Christian faith which are not publicly-sponsored. These permeate our culture every day, and for there is no serious attempt to undermine any of these public manifestations of Christian faith via legislation or executive action or even public pressure.

  • Christian schools and colleges
  • Christian broadcasts on radio, television, and cable
  • Christian movies
  • Christian Internet sites
  • Christian publishers
  • Christian bookstores
  • Christian signage in outdoor media such as billboards and bus signs (which in many areas of the country are forbidden to atheists)
  • Christian church buildings (including their placement and architecture)
  • Christian church signs (which are an entire cultural trope unto themselves)
  • Sunday, the Christian holy day, being the default day of rest for most workers
  • Christmas as a nearly universally observed public holiday (no other religion in America has anything remotely approaching this privilege)
  • Christmas carols being almost inescapable in public gathering places between Halloween and New Year
  • Easter, or at least Good Friday, as a widely observed public holiday (no other religion in America has anything remotely approaching this privilege)
  • Christian phrases such as “God bless America” being nearly universal in our public discourse
  • “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance
  • “In God We Trust” on the money
  • The Bible being used to swear witnesses into legal proceedings
  • The Bible being used to swear politicians into office
  • Roadside crosses as a nationwide symbol memorializing traffic deaths
  • Crosses as a near universal symbol in cemeteries other than those reserved exclusively for non-Christian faiths
  • Bumper stickers and those little fish decals on automobiles everywhere in America
  • Christian apparel worn every day in every city and town in America
  • Christian jewelry worn every day in every city and town in America

Some Christians like to cite the so-called “War on Christmas” but that’s a marketing meme invented by FOX News, the same organization which has successfully sued for its First Amendment right to lie, and whose viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of any other major news source in America. Professional liars, in other words, and not exactly a trustworthy source. Besides which, the last time I looked, Christmas was doing just fine. There weren’t any FEMA troops blocking church doors this past December 25th, and practically the whole world wished this atheist a Merry Christmas.

What offends Christians insofar as I can tell is the slowly increasing restrictions on publicly-sponsored displays of faith. Not public displays. Publicly-sponsored displays. The Nativity scene on the lawn of City Hall has been banned in many places. The Nativity scene on the lawn of the church, or anyone’s private property, most certainly has not. School prayer has been banned in many places. Private prayer, even in schools has not. The explicit legal privileging and protection of Christian practice is not quite as ironclad as it used to be, but the social privileging carries on as strong as ever in every aspect of life.

Brad went on to say:

And yes, I can read Jay’s retort before he even writes it: American Christians are just upset because their domination of the public square is being questioned, boo hoo. Dominance in number is one thing. Dominance in law?

Got it one, Brad. The Christian perception of persecution in America is nothing more than a slight erosion from the unthinking privilege of absolute cultural supremacy to merely overwhelming cultural dominance. Viewed from outside the framework of Christian faith, the persecution claim betrays a laughable lack of awareness combined with an apparent need for self-valorizing outrage. That entire list of public displays of faith, and the hundreds or thousands more items which could be added to it, is in no danger whatsoever from legal action, executive fiat or public pressure.

(And yes, I’m sure angry Christians can come up with isolated counterexamples for almost anything I’ve mentioned above. Be careful if you want to play that game. For every outrageous report you might come up with, practically every gay, lesbian, Jew, atheist, liberal-progressive, pro-choice activist and secular humanist in the country can bury you in shame with their own Christian-inspired pain stories.)

While public displays of faith are not endangered, what is endangered is the Christian freedom to require other people to conform to Christian mores, which is what almost the entire Culture War boils down to. What is endangered is the Christian freedom to force children of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists and many others to bow their heads in Christian prayer or watch as Christianity is promoted by the state at the expense of all other faiths. What is endangered is the Christian freedom to promote arrant cruelty and profound bigotry agains gays, lesbians, and the transgendered in the name of religious values. Just to name a few examples.

You know what? If that counts as persecution, then I’m a proud persecuter of Christians. But whatever my personal feelings on the matter, I don’t object to Christian academies or bus signs or Nativity displays on church lawns or Christmas carols or all the other myriad Christian symbols and practices that permeate our culture. The same First Amendment that protects me from your faith protects your faith from me. Public displays of Christian faith are not just alive and well, they are pervasive in America. With this atheist’s blessing, because, hey, it’s your freedom of religion.

And all of this hardly constitutes Brad’s “quashing all public manifestation of faith, be it aural, or visual.” It barely begins to level the playing field for people of other faiths or no faith at all. And claims of persecution are quite literally and sadly laughable.

When Christians in America claim persecution, at the kindest interpretation they appear uninformed and unselfaware to anyone who isn’t sharing their faith framework. Come to me when you are pulled over by the police for your Christian bumper sticker. Come to me when Christmas is no longer celebrated as a holiday. Come to me when millions of your fellow citizens vote to deny you civil and legal rights because you are Christian. Come to me when your churches are denied zoning and building permits because of their potential for evil. Come to me when your children are forced to bow in Islamic or Jewish or Sikh prayer in school. Come to me when carrying a Bible is probable cause for you to be stopped and arrested. Come to me when you are forbidden to travel because of your religious garments. Come to me when Christians are beaten and tied up with barbed wire and left to die in the cold because of their religion. Come to me when the FBI investigates you and your church looking for terrorists.

Then we’ll talk about persecution.

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