Anti-Christian bigotry: Myth with Ancient Roots
Stripping Christians of the right to oppress LGBTQ people is not persecution
When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
As a gay man and an LGBTQ activist, I’m all too familiar with conservative Christian claims that losing the legal right to discriminate against gender and sexual minorities amounts to persecution.
The state of Texas is in the process of passing a law to give doctors, lawyers, electricians, plumbers, and teachers the right to turn LGBTQ people away. The state Senate says the law is necessary to prevent ongoing ‘persecution’ of Christians.
Texas Evangelical Christians Legislate Hate
Senate bill declares open season on queer people
The Texas Senate’s claims of anti-Christian persecution are absurd on their face. Christian physicians are not being persecuted if they have to treat transgender people. They’re honoring their Hippocratic oaths.
But what about general tales of Christian persecution — throughout the course of history? What if I suggested that much of it was a manufactured narrative?
History is written by the victors, after all. Here’s some alternative narrative for you, though certainly not alternative facts.
Christians being thrown to lions —
Slaughtered by gladiators. Pierced by arrows. Suffering and dying to spread the Good Word of Jesus. I grew up on those tales. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a collection of Protestant martyrology published in English in 1563 by John Foxe, was one of my earliest reading adventures.
I didn’t stop with Foxe —
I thrilled to adventure tales for children about Christian missionaries tortured and killed by primitive “heathens” and “witch doctors,” all for the greater glory of God and the spread of Jesus’s good news.
I buried myself in romantic tales about noble Christian preachers facing great physical peril as they battled drug addiction and perversity in America’s inner cities. I read about how they were always willing to face persecution for Jesus.
I grew up certain that persecution is common fare for Christians, that persecution by non believers is something that all good Christians face. I’m no longer an evangelical Christian, but I know that world well. The Christian persecution complex, as old as history itself, is alive and well in the United States today.
Data bear out my personal observations —
According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a majority of white evangelicals believe that Christians face discrimination in the United States.
Anti-Christian bigotry and persecution is a major theme these days on Fox News. It’s almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of Fox and Friends in the morning without hearing about how Christians are put upon these days and about how much they suffer for their beliefs.
Anti-Christian bigotry is becoming a catch phrase among conservatives. In fact, the Christian persecution complex is probably largely responsible for Donald Trump’s unpredicted and rather shocking elevation to the American presidency.
American evangelicals are so certain they’re being oppressed that they’ll do anything, including electing a man whose values most of them personally loathe, to reverse the tidal wave of oppression they perceive as crashing into them.
But are evangelical Christians really being persecuted?
Last December in a The Washington Post, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Foreign Policy magazine wrote the following under the the headline,
No, Christians do not face looming persecution in America.
But evangelical Christians have long chafed at the strictures of that social contract. Now, with the election of Trump and the rise of Moore, they are in open rebellion against it. They want their beliefs to extend outside the walls of their churches and into bakeries, businesses, doctor’s offices, public bathrooms, Congress, the court system and the presidency — and they don’t want these actions to be subjected to legal and social scrutiny. They take such scrutiny, and any resulting opposition, as persecution. It’s a powerful rallying cry that has now swelled into a force capable of rewriting laws and oppressing the truly vulnerable.
Ms. Allen-Ebrahimian cuts to the heart of the matter, but allow me to be even more direct. What evangelical Christians perceive as persecution is actually the loss of influence and the diminishing of their power to persecute others. In fact, let me back up for a moment.
Christians have rarely been persecuted for faith —
All those origin stories of innocent Christians being thrown to Roman lions? Most of them emerged from a period of about two to four years during the reign of the emperor Nero, who actually did some terrible things to some Christians.
Nero did terrible things to a lot of people, though. He was by many accounts a deranged tyrant, though peering through the haze of biased sources is challenging 2,000 years later. It seems he fixated on early Christians after the great fire of Rome in 64 AD. He may indeed have fed a handful of Christians to the lions.
Nero almost certainly executed more political adversaries and imagined threats to his power base than he ever did Christians, though.
After Nero’s death by suicide (to avoid execution or assassination) less than four years later, the small Christian community in Rome returned to anonymity. While sporadic persecution of some Christians is reported to have taken place after 68 CE, it appears to have been rare, highly localized, and contained to the provinces.
It wasn’t until almost 200 years later that things changed. In 250 CE, the emperor Decius proclaimed that everyone in the Empire other than Jews must perform a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate. Decius was squarely targeting Christians, as the exemption of Jews clearly highlights.
Christians would not sacrifice to the gods, and Decius knew it. Christians who would not comply were sometimes executed.
Well, in a way, but probably not the way you think. Christians had it rough for about the next 50 or 60 years. Several general persecutions were enforced. They ended by 303, 311, or 313 depending on the region of the empire in question.
By 324, Christianity had become the favored religion of the Empire. Within 75 years of the first real organized resistance to Christianity, being a pagan in Rome became a political liability.
Within one generation, it was Christians doing the executing.
The Roman Empire had always been religiously diverse. The Romans tolerated and even emulated religious belief systems from all over the world. They gladly took on board elements of Greek, Persian, Egyptian and other religions.
When Decius issued his edict, he was recognizing the existence of a vast culture war. The struggles over the next 75 years were a cultural fight to the death that the Christians actually won.
It was the early Christian Church that was intolerant, not Rome.
Christians had become powerful all over the vast empire. Early Christians rejected religious tolerance, seeking supremacy rather than acceptance.
Framing the Roman fight for cultural survival as persecution of the innocent was a neat propaganda trick. It worked. People today almost never learn of the vast pogroms committed by triumphant post-Constantine Christians in the effort to suppress the Roman religion. They rarely hear about inter-Christian, internecine disputes over the next few hundred years that led to enormous amounts of persecution and suffering in the name of religious purity.
The parallels to today’s world are obvious.
When Christians in the United States complain about anti-Christian bigotry, they aren’t complaining about their right to worship or practice their faith as they see fit.
Their right to do that is rock solid and undisputed.
Christians have the right to their faith and even to educate their children outside of general public education. No serious voice in the United States calls for that Constitutionally guaranteed freedom to end.
No, when evangelical Christians in the US talk about being persecuted, they invariably and actually talk about losing their privilege to oppress and persecute others.
Evangelical Christians in the United States don’t want equality and diversity, they want dominance. It’s not good enough for them to have the freedom to worship, they demand the “freedom” to enforce their religious beliefs on the entire nation.
They demand the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. In many cases, they outright demand re-criminalization of same-gender sex. They demand to have their own religious views on marriage enforced at law.
They demand that other people’s children be taught in public schools about their peculiar and scientifically absurd notions regarding divine creation.
They demand laws that enforce their own peculiar notions about sexuality and other private human behavior. They in fact demand spiritual dominion of the secular world, much as the early Christians during the 4th century demanded dominance.
There’s even a term for that.
Judge Roy Moore and Vice President Mike Pence are both publicly avowed Dominionists. So are many other evangelical politicians. They’ll tell you outright that their God’s wishes supercede the rule of law. Moore demonstrated his Dominionist political philosophy, of course, by infamously defying two US Supreme Court orders.
No, evangelical Christians in the United States are not persecuted.
Religious ideas don’t deserve to be elevated or privileged above other ideas in public discourse in the first place.
To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.
Evangelical Christians are free, and they are equal. But they’ve largely lost their power to dominate and persecute others.
As a gay man and an HIV activist, I personally know what it feels like to be persecuted and targeted by conservative Christians. I know what it feels like to have my basic humanity put into question, to have my right to love and marry challenged and denied.
I know exactly what it feels like to be the target of Christian homophobic bigotry.
Raised as an evangelical Christian, I can say without reservation that I was never persecuted for being a Christian. I never was the subject of bigotry for holding Christian beliefs.
Having lived in both worlds, I know what real bigotry is, what real persecution feels like. I know it is perpetrated by evangelical Christians against people like me. The difference is as stark as it clear.