The question of harassment for religious beliefs balanced against free speech is a tricky one, but the answers are becoming increasingly important.
“Persecution has an allure for many evangelicals,” Alan Noble, writer for The Atlantic, boldly stated.
“In the Bible, Christians are promised by Saint Paul that they will suffer for Christ, if they love Him (Second Timothy 3:12). But especially in contemporary America, it is not clear what shape that suffering will take. Narratives of political, cultural, and theological oppression are popular in evangelical communities, but these are sometimes fiction or deeply exaggerated non-fiction—and only rarely accurate.
“This is problematic: If evangelicals want to have a persuasive voice in a pluralist society, a voice that can defend Christians from serious persecution, then we must be able to discern accurately when we are truly victims of oppression—and when this victimization is only imagined.”
The very idea that believers in North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, northern India, Laos or Somalia might find persecution alluring is patently absurd.
I also very much doubt that U.S. business owners who privately donated money to a Christian charity and found their business blacklisted by their city council as a result found their experience glamourous. Also, the city’s act was publicly documented; it was hardly the figment of anyone’s imagination.
Everett Piper, columnist for The Washington Times, incredulously noted mounting opposition to Christians in the public realm. “We have actually come to a point in our culture where the state presumes the authority to tell a baker in Colorado what art he must create and a florist in Washington what religious ceremonies she must celebrate…. Christians are now considered verboten.”
Is this actual persecution, though, or simply one more bout in the fight to maintain the luxurious amounts of religious freedom that our society enjoys?
Disagreement Is Not Persecution
While I take issue with Alan Noble’s rather narrow assumption that believers in the United States, Canada and Central America do not face any kind of noteworthy harassment and that Christians somehow relish this treatment, his argument isn’t wrong on all points.
The significance of a word like persecution should not be diluted. It may have garnered a type of myopic glamor in some Christian circles where individuals are eager to claim that they’ve been oppressed because this is seen as proof that they’re boldly living out their faith. Usually, this involves someone simply disagreeing with them in a philosophical, political debate or even just expressing open dislike for them.
Having someone snub you at the Christmas party or leave a harsh comment on your social media platform isn’t pleasant for sure, but the same free speech laws that allow us to discuss our beliefs openly in the first place also allow others to disagree.
The word “persecution” been traditionally used to denote life-threatening oppression and social torment for religious beliefs. For example, earlier this year, seven men were released from prison in India where they had been tortured and held in constant fear for their lives for over 11 years. Why? Simply because they were Christian pastors.
This kind of life and its rigors are so remote from the day-to-day experience of believers in the West that it might as well be news from the moon.
No one has kicked down our door and chased us around our house with machete because we go to church. No one has kidnapped our children and forced them into a life of harsh labor because we worship God. Our spouse will probably make it home from work today without being dragged off the street and beaten or raped for daring to mention Christ at work.
We currently enjoy an enormous amount of freedom to talk openly about our faith and act publicly according to our beliefs. Even when something or someone infringes on that liberty, we have legal recourse. This is the blessing of living in those countries where society and government is based around certain unalienable human rights because we’re made in God’s image and God places value on our lives.
To call someone’s ad hominem campaign against us or even legal attack on us because of our religious beliefs ‘persecution’ cheapens the term. This is like telling someone who has been gored by a bull that we empathize because we were once bitten by a mosquito.
A Small Reality Check on All Sides
Those Christians who keep one finger on the political and cultural pulse of our country, however, are usually well aware that our religious freedoms are not guaranteed to continue on into the future. If we want to continue enjoying these liberties, we must make choices that continue to allow for open discourse and debate, that protect individuals from government direction on what they are allowed to believe.
Very often, the legal decisions encroaching on these liberties are not what they appear to be on the surface.
In July 2020, two cases came before the Supreme Court, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel. Both involved a teacher who had been fired from a religious school claiming that this was a violation of federal employment discrimination laws.
One teacher said that she had been fired for her age, the other for a disability. That’s terrible, right? What casual onlookers might not have realized was that this case had the potential to overturn legislation that shields churches’ ability to hire or fire ministers for religious reasons. If a pastor has an affair or abuses a congregant, the church (currently) has the legal right to ask this individual to step down from their position without being required to defend their request.
In this case, the high court upheld original laws that allow churches to exercise their own discretion with staff and leaders.
Other cases have been less fortunate. Abigail Shrier, journalist for the Wall Street Journal and author of Irreversible Damage, discovered that legislation has been passed so that public school personnel in California, New York, Oregon and several other states may now help children obtain puberty suppressants and hormones for the opposite sex without notifying their parents, much less getting their permission.
Along with this often comes advice from school counselors for children to keep their sex transitioning secret from ‘bigoted and/or religious’ parents.
These kinds of moves are what might one day lead us to becoming a nation where our government or even private individuals could take punitive action against Christians without any repercussions. We may devolve into a state where believers truly are persecuted, but that day is not this day. Not yet.
Speaking Up for All Who Are Silenced
The struggle to retain true religious freedom — delaying the day when we might sincerely say “We are persecuted” — is work well worth taking seriously for many reasons, some obvious, some less so. The Heritage Foundation notes, “Did you know that an estimated 350,000 religious congregations operate schools, pregnancy resource centers, soup kitchens, drug addiction programs, homeless shelters, and adoption agencies?
“These efforts serve 70 million Americans each year and the value of their services are estimated at over a trillion dollars annually.
“Ultimately, everyone benefits from religious freedom.
“It covers all people equally—Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Religious freedom preserves America’s diversity, where people of different faiths, worldviews, and beliefs can peacefully live together without fear of punishment from the government.”
The efforts to preserve these freedoms must be well-informed and realistic. The self-proclaimed victims who are clutching their pearls over someone who took them to task on Twitter often prove to be a distraction from real issues like how major search engine algorithms heavily filter results, often to bury religious or controversial opinions and include 'politically correct' topics.
Ultimately, the business of building a holy city or holy nation on earth is God’s, and that job will only be completed when Christ returns.
Until then, though, our occupation is with witnessing to God’s goodness, serving our communities and contending with anything that interferes with those tasks. The importance of this duty cannot be understated.
As Everett Piper eloquently stated in the conclusion of his piece in The Washington Times, “With deference to Martin Niemoller: First, they came for the evangelical and I said nothing because I wasn’t evangelical. Then they came for Catholics and I said nothing because I wasn’t Catholic. Then they came for the bakers, the florists and the Christian restaurateurs, and I said nothing because I was not a florist, a baker or a restauranteur.
“When they came for me, there was no one left to speak.”