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The Safety of Being a Christian in America, Part One: What Is Persecution?

There is a certain attitude among my fellow Christians that really bothers me. I know it bothers other Christians, too, and it really bothers non-believers. The attitude is based on the myth that Christians in the United States are persecuted for their beliefs.

This is a deeply ingrained myth. Before addressing the benefits of being a Christian in America, I’d like to address the myth itself. Let’s consider whether or not Christians are persecuted in America.

First, we need to choose a definition of persecution. Wikipedia gives us this handy definition: “Persecution is the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another group.” There are two keywords here that I want to focus on: systematic and  mistreatment.

American flag with a cross superimposed; Text reads "The Story of Being a Christian in America, Part One: What is Persecution?"

Systematic

For something to be systematic, it must go beyond isolated incidents. If Person A ridicules Person B for being a believer, then Person A is probably a jerk. But! That doesn’t necessarily mean that Person B is being persecuted. The only way that Person B can claim persecution is if that ridicule is part of a systemic pattern and everyone who is like Person B has a similar likelihood of facing that ridicule by being a part of that system.

The ridicule needs to be ingrained into whatever system Person A and Person B are participating in. Another word you could use here is institutional““the mistreatment must be part of a societal institution.

I have never encountered a system that is systematically anti-Christian. Even Hollywood, which is often targeted as being heavily anti-Christian, is still entrenched with Judeo-Christian values, features beloved characters that are Christians, and makes a ton of money by releasing Christian-supported films like The Passion of the Christ, the History Channel’s The Bible, and all of Kirk Cameron’s films.

I was still pretty conservative and traditional when I interned at a production company in LA for a semester in 2004. Despite that”“and despite the fact that my dozens of classmates tended to be equally conservative and traditional in their faith”“none of us had any trouble getting internships or being successful in our placements. We met Christians in our job placements, Christian speakers came to visit our classes, we attended churches with tons of “industry” congregants, and to my knowledge, none of us were oppressed, rejected, or ridiculed for our faith. However, even if one of us had been spoken to with derision because we were Christians, that would not have marked persecution, because it was not an intrinsic part of the system.

Mistreatment

Another requirement for the definition of persecution is mistreatment. We have to decide what kind of actions on the part of an opposing party. I don’t believe that just because someone dislikes you or something you believe, then they are automatically mistreating you. Even saying, “Wow, what you’re saying is really stupid” is not mistreatment. Someone being rude to you isn’t the kind of mistreatment that warrants the word “persecution.”

You know what mistreatment based on religion is? It’s you and all of your family and friends being murdered by your government because you’re Jewish.  It’s Islamophobia so intense that you, a Sikh, are murdered in your place of worship. It’s converting to Christianity in Turkey despite knowing that you will lose the support of your family and risk your life and profession in order to be faithful to your beliefs. It’s being imprisoned for your beliefs, or your religious beliefs being against the laws of your nation.

While mistreatment is not limited to being murdered for your beliefs, but there are plenty of things that do not count as mistreatment or persecution. Someone saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is not mistreatment. A movie company releasing a movie that is contradictory to your beliefs is not mistreatment. Your coworkers thinking that your religious beliefs are stupid is not mistreatment. Neither is a TV show making fun of your beliefs. Neither is an English professor saying, “This is not an academic argument” when you want to write a paper about whether or not some behavior is a sin.

More examples of things that are not mistreatment and not persecution:

  • People boycotting a Christian businessperson for saying something they find disagreeable.
  • The government declaring that teachers can’t lead prayer in school.
  • Your gay neighbors wanting to get married.
  • Someone having a different interpretation of scripture than someone else.
  • A TV show that depicts Christians in a bad light.
  • Google featuring Cesar Chavez instead of Easter this year.

For something to be mistreatment worthy of the title of persecution, it must be something that actually hurts you.

Just because it’s not persecution doesn’t make it good”¦

I want to clarify something. Emphasize it.

Just because something isn’t persecution, that doesn’t mean that something is good. There are times when Christians are legitimately mistreated in America. The thing is, from time to time, everyone else is mistreated, too. It’s never valuable to get into a competition to see who is the most affected by ill treatment or rude behavior. There are people who are hostile to Christians, but there are also Christians who are hostile to other religious and belief groups. Sometimes hostilities need to be addressed and called out, no matter where they occur.

Often, when I hear something that is chalked up to Christian persecution, I come to a familiar conclusion: Person A isn’t persecuting Person B. Rather, Person A is just a jerk, or is misinformed, or is constricted by unpleasant rules, or perhaps Person B is used to being in a position of privilege and doesn’t really know what to do when that privilege is momentarily stripped away.

If you have been raised with the idea that Christians are persecuted in America, it can be a really hard concept to let go. If you have felt the sting of ridicule based on your beliefs, it is hard not to extrapolate that experience to something broader and call it persecution. I don’t want to dismiss your negative experiences, or moments in which you have felt that unfair treatment has been a result of your Christian faith. I want you to feel free to recognize moments in which you have been mistreated because of something you believe, but be able to think critically about whether or not what happened to you was part of a systematic problem, whether or not it was really mistreatment, and if there is really another explanation for why you were in the situation you were in.

In my next post, I will address why Christians, in addition to not being persecuted, are also one of the most privileged groups in America.

This article first appeared on Liz Boltz Ranfeld.

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7 thoughts on “The Safety of Being a Christian in America, Part One: What Is Persecution?”

  1. I love this line: “perhaps Person B is used to being in a position of privilege and doesn’t really know what to do when that privilege is momentarily stripped away.”

    I wish more people understood that!

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