Thrown to the Lions

There have been many odd and interesting developments in American conservatism in the last few years, but there are few that liberals find more incomprehensible than the belief among many conservative Christians that not only are they currently being oppressed for their religious beliefs, but that today's outrages are but a prelude to a far more vicious and violent crackdown on Christianity that is right around the corner. There's a movie I want to talk about in a moment, but first, I'd like to explore where this is coming from, both from the perspective of the conservative Christians themselves, and the liberals who have such a hard time understanding it.

Part of the problem is that the Christians most liberals know are more likely to be liberal Christians (I'll cop to that), so we've never actually sat down with someone who really feels oppressed and explored their thoughts on this issue. Another part is that the idea of Christian oppression gets its most visible airing from the nincompoops on Fox News, who in their endless search for material for the day's Umbrage Report will grasp at nearly anything. I have trouble believing that too many actual Christians walk into a Macy's, see a sign that says "Happy Holidays," and feel that they've been stabbed in the heart, but I could well be wrong.

You could even blame the left. The flourishing of identity politics in the 1990s included something derisively referred to as the "Oppression Olympics," where different minority groups competed with each other to claim the highest of moral high ground by saying their suffering was worse than anyone else's. That may be less common than it once was, but it left a residue in our public debate in which victim status is considered highly desirable, in part because it allows you to make claims for redress. You see this particularly in the way conservatives talk about race these days, where they insist that racism against black people has virtually disappeared and therefore blacks cannot make any such claims, while the true victims today are conservative whites who are unfairly accused of racism and subjected to vengeful attacks from the minorities who hold all the power.

So today, conservatives are if anything even more eager than liberals to say they're the real victims. Take a look at this preview for a new film called Persecuted, which vividly shows the terrifying future that awaits us:

 

I'll give the Christian movie industry this: their production values are definitely improving. There seem to be some visual effects in the film, and while the cast may not be A-list, it's full of real actors with recognizable faces. While the movie won't be in theaters until May, our friend Sarah Posner caught a screening at CPAC; you can read her description here. The nutshell is that a righteous evangelist is framed for murder by an evil senator when the evangelist refuses to support a vaguely-described bill that will give "equal time" to all religions and thereby subvert Christianity, then has to go on the run to prove his innocence and save the country.

Is it silly hyperbole? Sure, but it's drama and that's what drama does. What interests me more is the fact that it's tapping into a genuine sentiment, even if it's a sentiment that has been whipped up by professional blowhards on radio and TV.

The main objection liberals have to the idea of Christian oppression is that it sweeps aside the important distinction between things that make you uncomfortable or uneasy or limit you in a way you might not like to be limited, and actual oppression of the kind we've seen many times through history. It should be obvious to any thinking person that when the government (or the department store) doesn't take affirmative steps to honor your particular religion, like putting up a nativity scene on the steps of City Hall, that not only isn't the same as literally arresting you and sending you to a concentration camp, it isn't even in the same universe.

But liberals should acknowledge that for more fundamentalist Christians, there's a genuine feeling that underlies their fears. In many ways, the contemporary world really has turned against them. Society has decided that their beliefs about family—in which sex before marriage is shameful and wicked, and women are subordinate to their husbands—are antiquated and worthy of ridicule. Their contempt for gay people went from universal to acceptable to controversial to deplorable in a relatively short amount of time. If you are actually convinced that, in the words of possible future senator and current congressman Paul Broun, "I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old," then modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs. And so is biology and physics and many other branches of science.

When your kids go to school and learn about evolution, it feels like an attack on your most cherished beliefs, because it is. We like to pretend that science and religion can carve out their unique spheres (what Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria"), but as well-intentioned as that may be, it's just not true. Yes, much of religion is concerned with unanswerable questions, but every religion also has a creation story, and the fundamentally scientific project of explaining how the physical world works was one of the main reasons ancient peoples began creating religion in the first place.

If your religion is the most important thing in your life and it's being rejected in one way or another by the people and institutions that used to exalt it, that's something that's hard to accept. Placing the blame on society or modernity or science or the evolution of moral values can make it seem like your defeat is inevitable. Government, on the other hand, is an enemy that can be confronted and changed. So deciding that's the source of your oppression gives you something to focus on, and even if you're spinning out apocalyptic tales, it actually makes things seem less scary.  

Comments

The contemporary world HAS turned against conservative Evangelicals, who are fighting a last ditch battle against modernity, and that's a good thing. But as a liberal Christian I'm getting flak too--because most urban-coastal upper middle class secularists don't make fine distinctions. And when they do, they assume liberal, mainline Christians are "enablers"--circling the wagons to defend our fellow Christians against secularism.

I recently unfriended a Facebook acquaintance, a New York journalist, who asked me in all seriousness whether I 'believed in evolution'--because I was Episcopalian. In his secular echo chamber religious belief (other than minimal, non-theistic Buddhism) doesn't exist. And Christians are exotic specimens--like the 'yahoos' and 'rubes' Mencken described in his reports of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

No I'm not 'oppressed'. But the fact is that religion has become a class marker, and the assumption is that if you're a Christian of any kind you're rural trailer trash.

Considering that 40% of Americans do not believe in evolution, and my guess would be that Christians as a whole are less likely to believe in evolution than others, his question did not seem to be particularly strange to me.

Good points, but we've also got an epidemic of white people claiming to be oppressed and men claiming to be oppressed so I think "Christians feeling oppressed" is part of a bigger picture. If you're accustomed to privilege, the questioning of that privilege can feel like oppression. Surveys keep showing that aging white men are the bedrock of Fox News and the right-wing media. Is this surprising?

I agree with the earlier commenter that "religion has become a class marker." And affluent liberals, who tend to talk a lot more about race and sex than about class, can be really clueless on the subject.

This culture of fear and oppression was created and is still maintained by those who lost influence and desperately want it back...at any price. Evangelicals wee influential under Reagan, and both Presidents Bush, then lost their influence with the election of President who believes the constitution specifically calls for the separation of church and state...a concept abhorrent to many in our country. None of them see the slippery slope here. Allowing religion to influence our laws begs the question "which religion calls the shots?"

Right-wing Christians are upset that the unquestioned privilege their views have enjoyed for so long is finally encountering some real pushback. The nation no longer pays the accustomed hypocritical tribute to their professions of virtue— they have sex before marriage, drink too much, get divorced and use birth control (and seek abortion services) at the same rates as the rest of the population; they expect, however, that because they wring their hands about it at church on Sunday morning that they are entitled not merely to condemn but to try to illegalize other people's moral choices. Finally the social momentum is shifting against them: gay Americans are *Americans*, and are entitled to the exercise of the same rights as any other Americans. Being required to recognize the rights of someone who is different from you is what real liberty means; only a bigot could feel oppressed by it.

Something white liberal Christians might recall is that fundamentalists and evangelicals basically split from them in the sixties over support for Civil Rights. And it was often along class lines. I remember a popular "definition" of Episcopalians as people who advocated integration and sent their kids to private school. Radical Catholics were considered beyond the pale. I believe there are still racist undertones among fundamentalists in which they project onto others what they would like to do themselves. Certainly, if there's any threat of theocracy, it comes from the right, not the left. As for "Christian" movie-making, Bob Jones University has been cranking them out for decades.

Karen Armstrong wrote a book, "The Battle for God," in which she traces the history of fundamentalism in the three Abrahamic religions. She begins by distinguishing between two different ways of knowing in the pre-modern world: "mythos" and "logos". They were then equally important and complementary ways of arriving at truth. "Mythos" was concerned with the meaning of life, not with practical matters; the truths of myth were timeless and constant; they gave us a way to find the deeper meaning of our daily lives. Myths were expressed in the language of metaphor that was understood intuitively and were never meant to be understood as literally true in the modern, scientific way of knowing. "Logos", on the other hand, was concerned with the here and now, with practical matters that helped us function in the world. Where myth looked back at foundational truths, logos looked forward to discovering practical ways to gain more control over our lives. Both were essential in the pre-modern world.

In the modern world, logos became pre-eminent, but not without terrible conflict and disruption. And with the rise of the scientific method, religious conservatives began, for the first time, to read the truths of myths as though they were true in the modern, factual, historical, scientific way. Unfortunately, religious myths were never meant to be subjected to modern scientific scrutiny. Myths cannot be demonstrated or proved scientifically, and if we try to understand them scientifically, they lose their entire reason for being. Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" captures Armstrong's argument, I think. Treating religious myths as though historically and scientifically true only diminishes and trivializes religion, and may well be a reason for the growing number of Americans who reject organized religion altogether.

Nevertheless, human beings find it hard to live without a belief that life has an ultimate meaning and value. In the pre-modern world, myths gave us that knowledge. Many modern religious believers know that these religious myths - understood metaphorically, intuitively, poetically - can point to ultimate truths that transcend the rational and give meaning to their lives. So I guess the message is that the next time someone tries to sell you on the idea that the Bible is true word for word, tell them that literal truth misses the point entirely. And when we try to make the modern world conform to religious myths, bad things happen - but that's another subject.

Christians in this country are being sold a lie that evolution is not true. Yet the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world are members of churches that accept the truth of evolution.

I will take conservative Christians seriously when they start taking Christ seriously. Jesus spoke of people going to hell, but there is only one place where he explicitly said anyone would go to hell that I have found. Though I am Catholic I will reference the KJV since most Americans are protestants.
This is from Matthew:

025:041 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from
me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil
and his angels:

025:042 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty,
and ye gave me no drink:

025:043 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed
me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

025:044 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we
thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick,
or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

025:045 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you,
Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did
it not to me.

While you offer no examples, there are violent incidents of the persecution of Christians occurring on an almost daily basis. In the US, most attacks are limited to sarcasm, ridicule, marginalization, etc, but Prop 8 resulted in quite a few incidents of property damage, including the defacing of religious statues and church buildings. If I recall correctly, activists after losing the vote attempted to lay responsibility for the entire loss at the feet of the Mormon church. In China, the government has started bulldozing churches because too hih a percentage of the citizens in one province? have adopted the Christian faith. In Syria, a Jesuit preist who's been serving the poor there for decades was kidnapped and executed just last week. Another woman in some middle eastern country was drug from her car last week because she had a crucifix hanging from the rear view mirror. The skin was ripped from her face and she was beaten to death by a mob. Somewhere else last week a group of men were sentenced to death for writing the word Mohammad in a tweet, they were also Christian missionaries.

What most on the left fail to recognize is that many of the religious "rules" for behavior are the types of rules most societies adopted thousands of years ago to bring some order to daily life, reduce disease, ensure newborn babies didn't all end up thrown out with the garbage, to reduce crime and help ensure the survival of the community. They weren't just some words pounded out on a tablet. Today those rules look divorced from reality when the real issue is the rules didn't really evolve along with human understanding. As I'm sure many of you saw reported recently, academic studies show that the secret to a middle class or better life for any child is a two parent household with self disciplined parents capable of delaying gratification and teaching those "values" to their children. Where those values don't exist we pour billions and billions and billions, and conditions never change. America was never exceptional because of White people or "Christian" people, but because the prevalent community value system pushing people toward a behavioral mean had a tremendous impact on the stability, growth and innovation that, along with the luck of two great oceans insulating us from our enemies led to the development of an incredibly rich and powerful nation. Many today are actually more worried about the disappearance of those proven values than the demographic shift or the move away from religion. To us, the move toward a Euro style social democracy, strong central government, speech codes and all sorts of victim classes who pay little in taxes and vote for bigger entitlements is a shift that will kill the goose that's been aying lots and lots of golden eggs.

The only values you and the right are interested in passing on to your children are the values of hatred, bigotry, intolerance, and yes, RACISM! Time and again, the right attacks the freely elected President of the United States calling him a socialist, a Muslim, and, in the South, nigger. This persecution complex started the day this country's first black President was elected, and the folks who were calling the shots under the embarrassment known as George W. Bush realized that those days were over. Your paranoia will be the end of you yet.

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