taking the words of Jesus seriously

It is widely known that white American evangelical Christians feel they are under siege. In 2017, pollsters at the Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans about their perceptions of discrimination in the United States. Overall, respondents were twice as likely to say Muslims face discrimination as they were to say that to be the experience of Christians. White evangelicals were the only group to say Christians face more discrimination than Muslims.

Reported hated crimes fly in the face of evangelical perceptions. Muslims experience 22% of religiously motivated crimes even though they represent less than 1% of the population. In contrast, Christians comprise roughly 70% of the population yet only 13.6% of the religiously motivated hate crimes were directed at members of all Christian denominations combined.

Vice President Mike Pence reinforced the siege mentality of white evangelicals in a speech given to the 2019 graduating class of Liberty University. He referenced worldwide religious persecution and then segued into speaking of what he called religious discrimination in America, suggesting that persecution may not be far behind. He went on to claim that “freedom of religion is under assault.” He admonished the students, “You need to be prepared to meet opposition.”

Commenting on Vice President Pence’s speech, Christian historian John Fea wisely wrote, “Perhaps evangelicals might spend less time playing the victim and more time addressing their failures  to deal with systemic racism and or their failure to welcome strangers in the form of refugees and immigrants. Or maybe evangelicals should spend more time thinking about an approach to political life that is less about fear and more about hope in a coming kingdom defined by compassion, mercy and justice.”

Evangelical Presbyterian pastor Andrew Brunson — who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years — said during an interview at the 2019 Western Conservative Summit, “I think it’s coming to the U.S., that there will be persecution…. And I’m really astounded at the speed with which, I think, the U.S. is imploding…. It’s very unusual for a Westerner to be arrested for his faith. So we haven’t experienced it, but I think we’re going to. I think it’s coming to this country.”

But who are actually calling for Christians to be persecuted? Beyond the anxiety among certain kinds of Christians that they are losing dominance over the culture, what is the evidence of this coming persecution? The only evidence is that some Christians are being inhibited in their attempts to discriminate against certain classes of people.

It is not entirely surprising that the far-fetched fear-mongering comes from religious media celebrity figures. Well-known, scandal-ridden, TV preacher Jim Bakker elevated the baseless alarmism by announcing to his audience, “What’s coming next, if we keep losing, you’re going to see the leaders of the church and the leaders of the gospel and the political conservative leaders that are powerful, you are going to see them suddenly die, suddenly killed…you’re going to see it one after another.”

It is notable that he doesn’t cite a single specific threat that has been made or identify any acts of violence as actual harbingers of the killing of Christians he claims will happen. And what would be the only thing that could save Christians from the mass murders Bakker anticipates? The re-election of Donald Trump!

Jesus blessed those who faced persecution for the sake of righteousness or justice. He pronounced no blessing on those seeking dominance over others. Conservative white Christians feel embattled, not because others are trying to stop them from worshipping or practicing their faith but because they are being legally constrained from discriminating against certain classes of people.

In other words, certain kinds of Christians imagine themselves to be victims when in fact they are seeking to victimize others.

While Christians in the U.S. are not being threatened by violence or being deprived of the freedom to worship, actual threats are being made by some evangelical Christians. I want to believe they do not represent the majority. Nevertheless, it is ironic that while conservative, predominantly white Christians are speaking of themselves being victims and express concerns that they will be the objects of persecution, no threats of violence are being directed at them, but there are actual threats of violence being made by people from within their ranks.

Some evangelical preachers have expressed the conviction that homosexual people should be executed. Some have argued that women who have abortions and the doctors who perform abortions should face the death penalty. Extremely coercive measures involving capital punishment have been forthrightly advocated by a number of conservative Christians. Again, while not all evangelicals are likely to support some of the most radical proposals, some who do are visible and highly vocal.

One such person is Baptist pastor and Knox County, Tennessee police officer Grayson Fritts. He declared earlier this year, “Understand, one of the laws of the U.S. should be to put homos to death!” Christian pastor and radio host Kevin Swanson repeatedly stated that the Bible supports executing homosexuals. At the same time, he has baselessly claimed that laws are being put in place which are “intended to persecute Christians if they don’t want to celebrate homosexual, heathen rites and rituals.”

Conservative pastor Ben Bailey approvingly spoke of stoning gay people, something he claimed was commended in scripture. Pastor Roger Jimenez, a Sacramento preacher; Fort Worth Pastor Donnie Romero; and Pastor Steven Anderson of Tempe, Arizona, among others, celebrated the Orlando, Florida, massacre of mostly gay customers at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 and expressed hope that God or the government would “finish the job.”

The white evangelical perception of “persecution” is based on a self-pitying preoccupation with an idealized past where they could dominate others without significant challenge.

While some religious and political leaders seek to engender fear among people in the pews that persecution is coming and Christians in the U.S. will soon be forced to renounce their faith or die, in fact those with a desire to persecute and kill are from within their own ranks.

It is past time for white evangelical Christians to stop whining about nonexistent persecution and start forcefully renouncing the advocates of persecution and violence among their own.

About The Author

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Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist.

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