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.
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