uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Historical Irony of the Christian Persecution Complex

Religious freedom is under attack in America -- or so says the right-wing echo chamber, where such a sentiment is not only repeated daily but taken for granted as reality. Christians and Christianity are being "frozen out" of America and good followers of Jesus are being "persecuted" roundly in America today for their religious beliefs just like they were in ancient Rome.

Of course, this is all fantasy -- both the modern assertion of persecution and the invocation of the ancient world. Christians are not being "persecuted" today for their beliefs, and the Romans actually didn't systematically persecute Christians very much -- least of all for their beliefs.

Yet this narrative, informed by right-wing talking points and postwar Hollywood movies, is repeated time and again every day. It informed the recent video making the rounds of a group of militant teens who blankly and falsely assert that all manner of religious freedoms are being denied them.

"Why can't I pray in school?" one of them asks. You can. You can pray all you want. What you can't do (or shouldn't do) is organize a school-sponsored prayer at, say, a school-sponsored event, where everyone is coerced into praying with you.

Yet this distinction seems beyond the religious right. Is it that they don't get the difference between individual and state-sponsored religious expression, or that they just don't care? It's been pointed out again and again, so one is tempted to believe the latter.

In my former home state of Arkansas, a school this week canceled a sixth-grade graduation rather than remove two prayers from it amid a complaint. Parent Kelly Adams is one of those who doesn't get it or, again, just doesn't care: "As Christians and a mainly Christian town I think, there were a lot of people hurt that our rights were taken away." Except that your rights weren't taken away: you and your kids can continue to assemble, worship, and pray as often as you want; the complaint (rightly) noted that prayers before a captive audience at a school-sponsored event are inappropriate.

Likewise, a fervor on the right continues to simmer about the increased scrutiny put on commanders and military chaplains who might use their positions of authority to proselytize their subordinates. Again, this is about the avoidance of coercion and control, not about "religious freedom," but the right-wing media is, not surprisingly, treating it like the latter.

So what some Christians perceive as "persecution" or "taking away our rights" really has to do with their inability to coerce everyone else into practicing their religion with them. They seem to be under the impression that in order for their full religious rights to be recognized, the state must express their religion for them.

What's so historically ironic about this?

Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at the University of Notre Dame, has recently published a book called The Myth of Persecution, which notes that Christian persecution was sporadic, not systematic, and happened only a handful of years between the advent of Christianity and Constantine (in some 300 years). Of course, this is common knowledge among those of us who study the ancient world: the narratives of persecution in popular consciousness owe more to Hollywood movies (something I've presented papers on) than to anything historical.

In reality, persecution was not very widespread nor prolonged. It did happen, but not because of Christians' belief in a single god, and indeed, not really because of their "beliefs" at all. Roman religion was largely ambivalent about belief -- people worshiped a variety of gods, and those cults usually coexisted just fine. Rather, Roman religion was ultimately concerned with the proper ways to go about performing the imperial cult, and here is where it often ran into conflict with Christians.

Your run-of-the-mill Isis or Mithras initiate didn't see any problem with participating in the state cult -- it was part of being Roman. But Christians did -- they either rejected the existence of the gods of the state or, worse yet, considered sacrifice to them to be nourishing the demons they really were. The Romans were upset by this: here was a group of individuals refusing to participate in a ceremonial, patriotic exercise, who met in their own private assemblies (another Roman anxiety) and worshiped or venerated a man crucified as an enemy of the state. The refusal to participate in this coercive, religious practice was seen with the same suspicions that those on the Right reserve for people today who might fail to cover their hearts during the national anthem or opt out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. (Note how both prayer and patriotism are wed in the teens' video above: "in school, prayer and pledge to the flag was welcomed and appreciated.")

So the historical ironies of Christians equating religious coercion with religious freedom, and demonizing those whose consciences prompt them to opt out of ceremonial state exercises, abounds two- and threefold.

Christians are not being "persecuted," at least not in this country. It is true that a certain socio-religious ideology, claiming Christianity as its mantle, which condemns gay and lesbian people and relegates women to subordinates of their husbands, is indeed becoming increasingly rejected in our modern culture.

But that itself is of course laden with irony as well: many Christians, like the hyperventilating teens in the video above, openly fret about being condemned and ostracized -- all simply because they insist on condemning and ostracizing others.


  1. I have come to realize that these types of Christians do not believe in religious freedom as most people define it. What they believe is that everyone is free to believe what they believe, and if they don't then that must mean that they are being "persecuted". This is actually not a new problem. The protestants that fled England due to religious persecution quickly set up their own forms of persecuting others. To them religous freedom was not about allowing other people to have different beliefs, it was about the freedom to believe in the "right" form of Christianity as opposed to the "wrong" form as practiced in England and other countries. I know that some of them went so far as to set up an Old Testament form of government where anyone who was believed to be a heretic, or someone who engaged in what they considered immoral sex acts, or other infractions were stoned to death. The scary thing is that there are some fringe elements that would like to do that today. Not the majority of course, however you have prominent TV preachers who are worshipped by millions saying that the government and the schools should be run by the church and that anyone who does not accept baptism into the church should be non-citizens.

    I had a disgreement with someone recently who brought up the old idiotic argument that the liberals are trying to take over politics and the schools (because of course the students are being corrupted by teaching evolution, which he equated with atheism) and I wrote back by saying that this is simply a case of psychological projection, attributing your own flaws to someone else. It isn't the scientists and teachers who want to teach an ideology, it is the creationists that want to teach religion in schools. They often try to claim that they simply want an alternative to evolution to be taught so children can make up their own minds. Since when does fundamentalist theology ever allow people to make up their own minds about anything, much less children? He homeschooled his children and I forgot to ask him before he stormed away whether he had presented both theories to his own children and allowed them to make up their own minds. I sincerely doubt it.

    These Christians who complain that they are being persecuted should spend a little time in an extremist Muslim country to find out what religious persecution really is. Unfortunately when I have pointed that out they see what is going on here as a prelude to what is going on in these other countries. It is the old "slippery slope" argument. Or a better term for it is the "Chicken Little" mentality.

  2. Don, I haven't read Candida's book (perhaps I should), but I'd be curious as to whether her work (or yours for that matter) leads to a different interpretation of the book of Revelation? By this I mean that it seems that every commentary i've read emphasises that it was written against a backdrop of harsh persecution of the early church. btw, love your blog; thanks!

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      No, I would definitely agree with that interpretation of Revelation. It's one of the most (only?) anti-Roman books of the NT, and is clearly referencing Rome and probably Nero. I don't think either Candida or anyone else is saying persecution never happened. We have historical information that Christians were targeted, to be sure. The question is, for what reason? And how widespread and systematic was the persecution? The romanticized portraits we get in Hollywood films like The Robe (a terrible film) and pop culture understandings of it suggest that they were targeted simply because they were Christian or because they held certain "beliefs." But this is not really the whole picture.
      Nero appears to have blamed that fire on them; there were other persecutions at other times (Pliny the Younger writes of prosecuting them), but as for Empire-wide policies of targeting Christians, those were rare and short-lived. Usually they were targeted for the same reasons other groups were: for being "secret societies" with possible political motivations, and for refusing to pay homage to the emperor.
      Does that answer your question?
      Thank you for your kind words!

  3. Well said. I have been saying the same thing for years, albeit not as thoroughly or eloquently. I am impatient with the Fundamentalist's claims of persecution an loss of rights. To a thinking, neutral third party such as myself, these claims are ridiculous. Yet they repeat them and recite them all the time as a mantra to reinforce each other's paranoid beliefs. If you hear it enough times, it must be true.

    Spot on about the fact that what they want, indeed, is to force their religion on others. When I was a Christian, I was embarrassed by others who wanted school prayer. I was a high school teacher then, and separation of church and state was very important to me professionally. I never thought school-led prayer was appropriate. There are too many religions in america. It is not fair to non-christians to end a prayer in Jesus' name for Muslims, Hindus, polythesist, or to pray at all for atheists and agnostics.

    Now I am a Buddhist and a medical doctor; life as a public school teacher/Christian seems like so long ago..almost 20 years.

    Thank you for being an intelligent Christian, and expressing a voice of reason.

  4. It seems to me that Jesus very explicitly told the Pharisees to pray in private. Public prayer seems to have taken the place of committed action for responsible compassion in our world community.

    It also seems to me that "Christians" may be indeed be "Christians," but they don't seem to be following Jesus as their "Christ." The Roman Catholic Church made that clear when they sold all of "Christianity" out to Constantine and created the political system that Bishop Spong refers to as "Christendom."