Growing up in the evangelical church, and continuing to attend during adulthood, I’ve noticed that the sermons from the pulpit typically, but not always, revolve around a handful of themes: service, spiritual gifts, tithing, relationships, evangelicalism, and a few more. Along with this carousel of themes, various comments continues to arise again and again. For me, the one that pops up all of the time claims that the church and Christianity are under attack and being persecuted by society and culture. I never really thought about this line of thought. In fact, I just kind of skipped over it when I heard it, thinking to myself, “Here we go again.” However, over the past few years, I’ve started to dissect this rhetorical maneuver, and I find it not just disingenuous but also extremely dangerous.
Through the positioning of oneself or a group as a victim, as being attacked from the outside, it makes it easier for the individual or the group to justify heinous actions and positions against others. It eliminates avenues for communication and discussion because the person or group feels that any communication will only exacerbate the supposed persecution. Candida Moss lays out the history of martyrdom and persecution in her 2013 book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. Moss lays out the ways that victimhood works because individuals and groups “can act aggressively and maintain the moral high ground in the knowledge that they are the victims” simply because they perceive themselves as threatened from the outside.
As news of the Buffalo shooter’s belief in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory immediately led me to think about the continued use of persecution as a rhetorical trope from the pulpit in many evangelical churches. The conspiracy theory posits that white are under attack and on the verge of replacement by immigrants and people of color. Within the thread of persecution rhetoric, the argument goes that evangelical Christians face being overrun by a secular society and becoming a persecuted minority for their beliefs. This line of reasoning places evangelical Christians on the defensive, as victims of some plot to displace them. This “replacement” belief is also a key tenant of fascist ideology, as Robert Paxton notes: “the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies both internal and external.”
Earlier this week, Jonathan Shelly, the pastor at Stedfast Baptist Church in Texas addressed the Arlington City Council calling “Pride” and “Pride Month” an abomination. During his anti-LGBTQ comments, Shelly stated, “God has already ruled that murder, adultery, witchcraft, rape, bestiality and homosexuality are crimes worthy of capital punishment.” Along with calling for capital punishment for LGBTQ individuals, he also positioned himself and the church as victims, claiming that the LGBTQ community “hates children, hates Baptists, hates Christianity and hates God.” Through placing evangelicals as victims of hate, Shelly expresses his hatred for the LGBTQ community and feels justified in promoting capital punishment because he views the community as a threat to his existence.
While most evangelical churches do not call for capital punishment for members of the LGBTQ community, they nevertheless position the community as a threat and enemy to Christianity even though members of the LGBTQ community are Christians. Again, the perception of persecution and victimhood gives individuals the opening to espouse hatred towards others. In so doing, they eliminate the bridge that they could build between communities. If the mission of the church, and especially the evangelical church, is to minister to the world, then how does demonizing individuals achieve this goal? Rather, it burns the bridges before they even arise, destroying the paths that lead us to one another.
The persecution card is nothing new, and it has been around for centuries, but the recent iterations arose as part of the Moral Majority. As Kristen Kobes Du Mez notes in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Jerry Falwell’s masculine, militant Christianity “depended on maintaining a sense of vulnerability among his followers.” He achieved this goal through the construction of enemies. As Du Mez writes, “Danger, discrimination, and disparagement lurked around every corner. Malevolent forces aligned against true believers. Outsiders were likely enemies. Threats of a spiritual and cultural nature required a militant Christianity; threats to the nation required unrestrained militarism.” This “militant Christianity” appears all around us. Look at the “God, Guns, and Guts” signs or Warrior Camp for boys or Warrior Week for men. Even though “militant Christianity” is connected with the persecution thread, the discussion is much broader than I can dive into here, but Du Mez does that and more in Jesus and John Wayne.
The connection to patriarchal culture connects here as well, notably in the ways that evangelical Christianity works to instill in boys and girls a mentality of warrior culture (fighting against persecution) and complementarianism. Anthea Butler, in White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, put it this way, “But because conservative evangelicalism embraces patriarchal culture imbued with a persecution complex, its leaders will always have an excuse for their excesses, transgressions, and sins.” They feel justified because they perceive themselves as victims, engaged in a war to preserve their very existence and way of life, even at the expense of others. This positioning dovetails into the ways that evangelicals perceive sin too. For evangelicals, Butler notes, “is always personal, not corporate.” This reasoning is why many evangelicals push back against CRT. It’s why many say, following mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, “It’s a heart problem.” They place the onus on the individual, not society as a whole, thus dismantling conversations that would lead to any substantial change before they even begin to occur.
Butler concludes White Evangelical Racism with a direct call, noting that evangelicals wear their perceived persecution “as a badge of honor.” Rather than being persecuted, Butler argues, “[t]hey are being called to account. Evangelicals are being judged for not keeping to the very morality that asked others to adhere to.” Playing the victim removes the responsibility of action from evangelicals because they feel that they are being victimized and should not be held responsible for their own actions because they are fighting the good fight against evil.
In 1 Peter 2: 13–16, the author calls upon Christians to to submit, “for the Lord’s sake,” to those who rule over them on earth. By doing this, Christians would silence their critics. However, the author also tells his readers, “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” Positioning oneself as a victim and as persecuted gives a person the feeling that they are justified in their actions, and those actions, as Jonathan Shelly, Greg Locke, and countless others how, become their “cover-up for evil” because they feel that they must defeat the enemies of God.
None of what I have written here is to say that Christians are not persecuted in the world. My point is that evangelical Christians in the United States use the rhetoric of persecution as a mask for harmful and violent actions. I’m still thinking through a lot of this. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.