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Are American Christians Persecuted?

Are American Christians Persecuted?

By Roger E. Olson
December 2, 2023

According to some new reports, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative, Mike Johnson, one of the highest officials in the country, recently commented that American Christians are persecuted. Naturally, this drew negative responses from some left-leaning commentators. One was a woman who wrote a column about Johnson's claim for the Religious News Service. I read it in The Anabaptist World.

Mike Johnson is a conservative Christian, probably, almost certainly, a self-identified evangelical in both the traditional, theological and spiritual sense (what I call the "evangelical ethos") and the contemporary political sense (ultra-conservative, "MAGA," supporters of Trump).

Are American evangelical Christians persecuted?

Johnson's explanation of his claim was that, in his view, American Christians, and I strongly suspect he meant conservative Christians, mostly evangelicals, are not being heard or taken seriously by the movers and shakers of American culture. That is, what he seemed to mean, they are not given a fair hearing or treated fairly by the media (for example).

The commentator I read ridiculed the very idea that American white Christians (her phrase) are being persecuted. She regards American white evangelicals as the dominant group in contemporary America. And, according to her, Johnson's claim is simply a ploy to support and promote white, conservative, religious supremacy.

Okay, now time for some background from this scholar of American religious history.

When I was growing up in the "thick" of white American evangelical Christianity many of us did believe that severe persecution was almost inevitable--from some quarter that would arise to promote communism, total secularism, or whatever. There was much talk about the Antichrist. I remember numerous evangelical speakers who warned about the coming great persecution. I remember wondering why we were so worried about that since we believed the "rapture" would rescue us from it, or at least the worst of it.

That persecution-expecting mentality sunk deeply into the "bones" of American conservative evangelicalism in the 1950s through the 1970s and beyond. Even if the rhetoric is gone, as it largely is, the mentality is still there--especially among many middle aged and older American conservative evangelicals.

We "saw" "creeping persecution" of us everywhere in secular society, especially in public schools. Our beliefs were often ridiculed. I was called a "holy roller" many times--by fellow students and occasionally teachers. And I know others who were labeled that, even by teachers, much more recently.

I do think there can be almost no serious doubt that, outside the South, America is undergoing a very serious secularization process as well as a pluralizing process. (Sociologist of religion Peter Berger and I talked about this much before he died as we were colleagues for a few years.) Conservative Christians who hold firmly to their beliefs do sometimes get ridiculed. The entertainment media especially tends to portray conservative Christians as either silly, stupid or sinister or all three.

I recently watched a couple of British TV series. One of my favorites is The World on Fire. But in the two series so far, there is not a single Christian but there are very devout Muslims and Hindus (Indian soldiers fighting for the British in WW2) and Jews. Twice there have been prayers, but only by non-Christian Indians and a Jewish soldier. No character has been portrayed as Christian although surely, during WW2 there would have been Christian soldiers, nurses, freedom fighters, etc. The authors of the series have obviously made a decision to exclude Christianity from the story line and highlight other religions, portraying them in a very favorable light.

The other British movie that I watched recently (sorry, not a series) is a recent re-enactment of War of the World set in England. As far as I can tell it's the most recent movie based on the book. (There have been many, of course.) A major character in the movie is a very sinister, if not psychotic, priest. (It doesn't reveal whether Catholic or Anglican.)

I am sure these examples, and there are many others, are part of what Johnson is talking about--negative portrayals of Christians in the broadcast media. It is quite obvious that the writers go out of their way to portray Christians, especially relatively conservative, devout Christians, negatively, or omit them altogether while portraying characters of other religions or no religion (e.g., atheists) favorably.

Someone will object by pointing to the series Call the Midwife. Yes, it began portraying the Anglican nuns very positively, but as the series continued their religious commitments, devotion, worship, etc., were put in question. I notice that when someone asks a question about God, the priest and nuns have no meaningful or reasonable answers but just appeal to mystery. In the most recent series of Call the Midwife the religious commitments and devotion of the characters has all but disappeared.

Please don't mention the British TV show Grantchester. I watched it and believe that the main character, an English priest (of the Church of England) is anything but Christian. The same is true of Father Brown. G. K. Chesterton must be turning over in his grave.

So, yes, I agree with Johnson insofar as he means that conservative Christianity is largely ignored or ridiculed in the mainstream media and I will add that some government departments have placed a great deal of pressure on evangelical Christian institutions to adapt to their norms--which are sometimes contrary to conservative, traditional Christianity.

I suspect that many conservative, white evangelical Christians have surged into American politics precisely because of the fear of persecution and with the intent of changing the cultural atmosphere of America to one more favorable to conservative Christian "family values."

And there's an example of what I think Johnson was talking about. The very phrase "family values" is now generally regarded negatively by American society beyond the boundaries of conservative, American evangelicalism. I struggle to understand that except that what American conservative Christians mean by "family values" is different from what many elite American movers and shakers of society mean.

Years ago I attended a parents' night at a secular, public high school. I saw a large sign outside a class room that said "Family is a group of people who care for each other." Really? And I knew quite directly, well, that that high school was doing its best to secularize and de-Christianize students, even going so far as to tell them that if their parents did not believe in gay marriage they (the parents) were as bad as racists.

All I want to do here is shed a little bit of perhaps different light on what Mike Johnson meant. I do not support Johnson's politics, as I wrote here recently. I'm appalled by it, especially his uncritical support of Trump and belief that the 2020 election was "stolen" which is manifest nonsense and which tends to whitewash the attempt by many to overthrow the government of the United States violently.


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