Why Do Conservative Christians Feel Persecuted?

Kevin Drum has a few smart thoughts on why conservative Christians might feel persecuted in a country that overwhelming identifies as Christian:

A century ago, something like 10% of the country belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. That’s grown steadily ever since, and today it’s around 30%. So there’s really no mystery to explain here. Conservative Christians have become more outspoken and more politically powerful simply because they’ve grown more numerous. Sometime in the 70s, their numbers finally passed a threshold where they became a serious voting bloc, and they’ve been growing more powerful every year since then.

We’ve been chipping away at traditional religious expression in the public square for decades. At the same time, conservative Christians denominations have grown steadily. Put the two together and you have a substantial segment of the population that feels like it’s under assault.

I would add one more thing, namely, the rise of an evangelical subsculture. A significant number of conservative Christians—and evangelicals in particular—live in tightly sealed communities that cater exclusively to their beliefs and values. Indeed, a substantial number had lives like this:

You’re homeschooled—with a heavy assist from your church—you attend evangelical retreats, you listen to evangelical pop music, you watch evangelical movies, you go to evangelical social events, and after you graduate from your evangelical private school, you go to a Bible College or evangelical university. From there, you get your secondary degree from another evangelical school, and you eventually settle in an evangelical community.

This is simplified, but it isn’t exaggerated; a substantial number of evangelicals live their lives in a bubble is isolated from the overwhelming secularism of mainstream culture. It’s no wonder that those who leave the bubble are shocked and feel assaulted; the world they see is vastly different from the one they came from, and that’s scary.


This is likely part of it, but there's also the fact that the inherent narrative of evangelical Christianity requires external persecution. These groups see themselves as the new apostolic Church, complete with new external foes - new Romans ("secularists") - trying to stop them.

Just to point out that this is hardly new. As historians of fundamentalism such as George Marsden pointed out long ago, "Fundamentalism" was a thoroughly mainstream tendency in early-twentieth-century American Protestantism--not simply the "conservative" churches, but mainline groups such as the Methodists and Presbyterians. But then the 1920s happened. Fundamentalist efforts to take over control of the mainline were defeated; attempts to ban the teaching of evolution [which fundamentalists saw as defensive measures against a secularizing society] backfired as depictions of the Scopes trial depicted fundamentalism as a religion of slack-jawed hillbillies [In fact, a leading center of fundamentalist thought at the time was Princeton Seminary]. Accordingly, fundamentalists withdrew from active participation in politics and mainline protestantism, but constructed a parallel structure of bible colleges, radio ministries, and the like. This counterculture only started getting noticed again by the likes of TAPPED contributors when it re-emerged as a political actor in the 1980s. Bottom line: the Religious Right has always been defensive, but it has also always looked back to a time when evangelical protestantism was the de facto established religion of the US. That time was, of course, the nineteenth century, not the establishment of the American Republic; but eliding chronology is an old story when you're inventing a historical memory. The point is that they think the country beongs to them but that it has been taken away from them, and so they want it back. If this sounds like the Tea Party, that's because the Tea Party got it from them.

I would add to Mattgabe's comment (persecution as part of their religious narrative) that rhetorically, the positioning as persecuted fits into the self-narrative of defending the natural state of things. There they are, just protecting the way things should be, when suddenly ____ come along and tell them they need to move. (Where "____" is most often women, ethnics, the homosexual and queer community, and other religions.) It's from that mindset that simply being black/queer/Muslim is the aggressive move.

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