By Kevin Singer
On May 11, Vice President Mike Pence told a crowd of roughly 8,000 graduating students from Liberty University that they should prepare to be “shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible” in their daily lives.
“You’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you’re going to be asked to endorse them,” he said. “Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now."
Pence clearly scratched an itch for the crowd that gave him a standing ovation and loud chants of “U-S-A” after he was introduced. His words were also a familiar refrain in the white evangelical community. According to a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelical Protestants were the only religious group more likely to believe Christians face discrimination compared to Muslims.
I used to be one of those evangelicals who bemoaned anti-Christian bias whenever and wherever it reared its ugly head. At the public university I attended as an undergraduate, I would sometimes hear stories of faculty shaming Christian beliefs in the classroom. These anecdotes made my evangelical student group’s outreach events feel like acts of resistance against those secular forces on campus we thought were out to silence us. Pushback on our beliefs and practices was almost always romanticized as a fulfillment of the persecution that Jesus foretold his followers would experience (e.g. Matthew 10:26-33; John 16:33), then was quickly followed by prayers for our “enemies” and requests that God would remove obstacles to the success of our ministry. I remember telling my brethren from other campuses that my university was a “dark place” with very few Christians who took their faith seriously.
It wasn’t until I started making friends with people of minority religious traditions that I began to reevaluate the premise that devout Christians are an endangered species in America that require special protection.
I will never forget the first time a Muslim friend told me about her experiences being ridiculed in public; not because of anything she did, but because of what she was wearing. She told me that she almost always felt unsafe walking through grocery stores or sitting in a car alone.
I was also confronted with stories from religious minority students of being approached on their college campuses, sometimes multiples times a day, by Christians intent on sharing their faith (they presumed they were targeted because of their ethnicity or clothing). They felt paralyzed to say no or exit these conversations, either because of the social etiquette they were raised with, or because the conversation was a bait-and-switch that they did not see coming.
I was also told stories about others being frequently asked in classrooms to speak on behalf of all Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., despite the diversity of beliefs and practices in these traditions, or to explain why people in their tradition with whom they have little in common could do such terrible things. While Christianity was made to look rational even when critiqued, their beliefs were subtly dismissed as primal and backwards, not even worth entertaining. Even if Christianity wasn’t being preached or praised, it received deference in ways that most Christians have taken for granted: holidays in the academic calendar, food offerings, school rituals and symbols, prayers at events, and even the privilege of gaining a hearing when they felt unfairly treated.
I began to realize that my claims to “persecution” were significantly overblown. How I framed these experiences said more about me and my privileges as a Christian in America than about the people and environments I accused of being anti-Christian. For one, I expected to be afforded a certain level of respect for my faith, whereas many religious minorities have come to expect the opposite. Second, much of what I experienced came as the result of having privileges that religious minority groups don’t typically have.
My biggest regret, however, is that I did not see the contradiction in my demands for respect with the earthly ministry of Jesus, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7). If Jesus’s life was dedicated to the “interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), why was I so absorbed with making fortifications against secularism and alternative worldviews? What was I so afraid of?
To be sure, there have been several instances in the past few years of Christian student organizations being treated unfairly under university policies. Furthermore, Christian persecution is reaching alarming levels overseas. ISIS and Boko Haram militants, for example, continue to commit violence against millions of Christians and force them from their homes. In Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, 258 worshippers were killed in a series of bombings. These horrific events merit serious reflection on the frightening realities that Christians face every day in many countries.
However, these global realities also raise an important question about how evangelicals in America are using the word “persecution” to describe critical encounters, when they pale in comparison to the life-threatening experiences that Christians are having overseas. What evangelicals here are calling persecution might actually be the tamest forms of criticism. When evangelicals respond by retreating into their enclaves, groaning about the culture, and flexing their privileges, they are signaling where their treasure lies.
More than convincing me to ditch my evangelical persecution complex, my religious minority friends challenged me to remember what first drew me to the Christian faith; not that I was promised a life of fairness, but that in the life of Jesus, I would find the power to live for others.
Originally published in Sojourners on May 15, 2019.