When Senator Rand Paul took the stage at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, it was clear he needed to up the stakes. Alongside a handful of other 2016 presidential contenders, Paul was auditioning for the far right’s support in a speech to the annual conference of Christian conservatives hosted by the Family Research Council at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Making his task far more difficult was that fact that one of his rivals had just hit a home run.
Ted Cruz, the Republican senator largely blamed for orchestrating the government shutdown in a last-ditch effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, left the podium after a barn-burner speech punctuated by yells of protest from a handful of immigration activists who had entered the conference incognito. Each time the protesters interrupted Cruz’s speech, the audience throbbed with exhilaration and rage. Cruz—who would go on to win the 2016 presidential straw poll—paced the stage like a charismatic preacher, pronouncing amid thunderous applause, “The greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives we cannot win.” It was an appropriate tack for a man who’s been widely criticized for leading congressional Republicans into an unwinnable shutdown crisis. At least in Cruz’s mind, victory is still possible.
The air was much stiller after Paul took Cruz’s place behind the microphone. But the Kentucky libertarian plunged in, dispensing with a few boilerplate jokes about the Senate Republicans’ upcoming meeting at the White House before shifting to another conservative bête noire: Christian persecution in the Middle East and beyond. “Across the globe, Christians are under attack, almost as if we lived in the Middle Ages or under early pagan Roman rule,” Paul said, referring to the waves of violence against Coptic Christians, who were targeted following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “This administration does nothing to stop it. And it can be argued that they’re giving aid and comfort to those who tolerate these crimes.”
The global war on Christianity is a perpetual topic on conservative talk shows, but it might seem like an odd choice for a politician like Paul, who's made his name as a libertarian Republican opposed to any kind of military intervention. As the Values Voter Summit unfolded over the next day and a half, however, it was clear that Paul was stepping onto a powerful rhetorical bandwagon. Throughout the summit, speaker after speaker bemoaned Christians’ status as an embattled people, fighting everything from Islamic radicalism to a shadowy “war on football.”
At least four speakers—from Ted Cruz to Matt Krause, a first-term Texas state legislator—placed themselves and the assembled crowds in the shoes of another embattled minority: Jews at the time of the Babylonian exile. “Like Esther, you were called for a time such as this,” Cruz told his audience, echoing a line from the Book of Esther, the Biblical story of the queen who rescued the Persian Jews, a religious minority in exile, from the genocidal machinations of the king’s adviser, Haman. It’s a weird analogy, not least because it casts Obama (who is, of course, also a Christian, although that fact was not mentioned at the summit) as Haman, a member of the Amalekite tribe, the Jews’ ancient foes. The allusion has other disturbing implications: At the end of the Book of Esther, the Jews, with the Persian king’s blessing, roved throughout the kingdom, slaughtering their enemies.
The crowds ate it up. But why would messages about martyrdom and victimhood be so galvanizing to a group of people who are, by almost any measure possible, objectively not being persecuted? The president is Christian; Congress is overwhelmingly Christian; although there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court, a majority of the justices are Catholic. Even Paul’s claims about a global war on Christianity ring false. Muslims who use the Internet—who make up about 18 percent of the global population, although this number varies widely from country to country—are increasingly likely to have favorable views of the West and Christianity, signaling that as Internet access expands, Muslim attitudes will grow friendlier. Two-thirds of Muslims worldwide share concerns about Islamic extremism.
Nevertheless, speeches like Paul’s tap into a deep and lasting theme in Christian history. Persecution has been central to Christian identity since the days of the early church; for many believers, Jesus’s death was the first in a never-ending torrent of assaults on their faith. But some religious historians argue that Christians’ martyrdom complex was an invention, an attempt by early church leaders to legitimize violence against minority groups. Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, contends that this emphasis on victimhood has, for centuries, encouraged Christians to eschew moderation and disallow defeat. “Before Christianity, when you were under siege or out of political power, that was a sign that you had lost God’s favor,” Moss says. “That was something that Christianity changed. Persecution became a sign that you had the moral high ground. When you succeed, that’s divine favor, and when you don’t succeed, that’s divine favor.”
Paul, who came in fourth in the straw poll, may have erred by taking a “bigger is better” approach. For all his talk about persecuted Christians in Pakistan, Egypt, and Zanzibar, Paul never made the connection that the crowd really cared about—aligning these cases of actual persecution with the political marginalization of the Tea Party and the Religious Right.
Rather than accepting these trends, the Christian right is retreating into full martyr mode, prepared to deny—and defy—any cultural shifts that threaten its dominance. This strategy is enthusiastically shared by Tea Party Republicans, who, rather than offering a new conservative agenda, are working tirelessly to reverse Obamacare, a law that has already been implemented. The amped-up rhetoric at the summit—Ben Carson, the new darling of the Christian right, memorably declared that the Affordable Care Act is the worst thing to happen in the U.S. since slavery—cast Christians as noble and beleaguered soldiers in a holy war.
Faced with the Affordable Care Act—a piece of legislation that Cruz, Paul, and many other speakers at the Values Voter Summit lambasted as the beginning of the end for America—Tea Party Republicans refused to negotiate. Why should they, when facing a president bent on destroying the very fabric of American society? This martyr complex facilitates a strange reversal of logic: Calling on familiar Christian messages of persecution conveniently enables politicians like Cruz to argue that shutting down the government was an act of self-defense. “This language of persecution legitimizes violence under the rubric of acting in self-defense,” Moss says. “In the Middle Ages, Christian leaders used the rhetoric of persecution and martyrdom to launch the First Crusade. Today, they’re saying, ‘Well, we may have shut down the government, but it was the other side’s fault for providing health care.’”
Throughout the conference, speakers seemed to be competing to find yet more dire examples of Christian persecution. In a panel called “Standing Up to the Assaults on Our Faith,” Rick Scarborough, a radical pastor who stridently opposes same-sex marriage—and contends that AIDS is God’s judgment for immoral behavior—decried President Obama’s “war on Christians,” saying that that “believers are being persecuted in larger numbers than ever before.” The tone was decidedly apocalyptic; later in the session, Janet Porter, the founder of a militant pro-life group called Faith2Action, darkly noted that “the last time men were given in marriage to men and women in marriage to women” was in the days of Noah. Gazing ominously at the hundred or so people assembled in the low-ceilinged room where the panel was being held, she added, “And we all know what happened then.”
But the rhetoric kept coming back to one place: The need to crusade against Obama, a president hell-bent on destroying the nation. It was hard to find an attendee who didn’t applaud Tea Party Republicans’ intransigence or buy wholeheartedly into the notion that negotiation with Obama was futile. “I think the shutdown is awesome,” says Kylie Unell, a sophomore at New York University who attended the conference. “To be honest, I think Obama is a sociopath. He tries to get revenge against anyone who disagrees with him or opposes him.”
Christian conservatives leaders certainly can’t argue that the cultural zeitgeist is on their side. Public opinion is quickly shifting on same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, and it’s increasingly difficult for the Christian right—once a powerful voting bloc—to sway a presidential election. In 2008 and 2012, Obama won the presidency with support from only one-quarter of white evangelical Protestants. There was a moment, after last year’s election, when it seemed possible that the Christian right might try to moderate its message, in an attempt to draw in younger voters or Latinos in the next major race.
How long will the Christian conservative movement continue to fight reality, rather than adapting to it? There’s no end in sight to the strategy of martyrdom and stubborn defiance. The power of the Christian-persecution narrative ensures that even if the architects of the shutdown are kicked out of office or a Democratic president is elected in 2016, these losses will only feed the rhetoric of martyrdom, which in turn will keep white Christian conservatives’ resentments simmering. “If you believe you’re Esther and God is guiding you to victory, why would you give up?” Moss says. “In times of struggle or perceived struggle, Christians constantly retreat to the idea that they’re being persecuted, but they’ll prevail. It really strikes a chord in the Christian, slightly self-indulgent perspective that when people disagree with us, they’re attacking us.”