Overview:

A white American evangelical warns American evangelicals to be careful about fantasizing too luridly about their fears of intense persecution in the years to come.

It's good advice, but it won't help. Evangelicals can't stop, won't stop. This 'martyrbation' does way too much for them for them to slow down now.

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Recently, I spotted an opinion post on Religion News Service by David Curry, a middle-aged white American evangelical man who is president and CEO of Open Doors USA. This group apparently advocates for Christian victims of religious persecution around the world. His post asserts that while American Christians don’t face persecution, many Christians around the world face very serious persecution for their beliefs.

(And then his self-interest shoulder angel kicks in with a request for readers’ donations.)

As much as I appreciate his efforts, I don’t think he’ll convince his intended audience of his points. American evangelicals have been indoctrinated for decades with tribalistic fantasies of real religious persecution. Their own leaders have also inaccurately described persecution for decades. At this point, the tribe has no idea what persecution really looks like.

Despite that serious limitation, they are completely certain that what they are experiencing right now is the real deal—and that it is certain to get worse as they continue to lose dominance in America.

Privilege distress ≠ religious persecution

Privilege is the unearned deference, advantages, systemic power, and benefit-of-the-doubt that someone enjoys due to being part of some particular demographic group.

Years ago, I found an outstanding essay about privilege distress. Its writer, Doug Muder, defines it as the very real distress that privileged people feel when even a little of their privilege gets peeled away. To such people, the loss of privilege feels like real mistreatment. They feel hard-done-by, done dirty, unfairly picked-on, and yes, even persecuted.

Of course, all that’s happening is they’re starting to be treated like anybody else behaving the way they do. But to them, it all feels like an absolute tornado of unearned abuse. Their privilege has kept those consequences away from them all this time, but now a bit of that privilege is gone.

The distress these folks feel is real, even if it doesn’t even half compare to the mistreatment they have been doling out to those they view as lesser-than. It would do no good to remind them of this disparity of respective experiences, either. In such a state, it’s very easy for them to slide back and forth between outrage and loud self-pity. Nobody has ever faced the horrible treatment that they experience. Nobody, ever, in the history of forever.

They must get their privilege back, in any way they can.

This is where American evangelicals find themselves today. They’ve been here for almost a decade now, in fact, ever since they realized in 2015 that their religion is, in fact, in decline.

As Christian dominance declines, so does Christian privilege

Of course, Christianity had been in decline for some years before 2015. Even in 2012 and 2013, evangelicals in particular argued online with me about it all the time. It was nonstop hilarity to see them denying that decline while their pastors and youth ministers constantly complained in their blogs about shrinking flocks. I guess they thought that if everything stayed at the anecdotal level, they could deny it—even as church parking lots stood increasingly empty on Sunday mornings.

In 2015, though, the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study came out. It completely ended all possible arguments, all continued denial. It laid out the reality of Christianity’s decline in devastating and minute detail. Not even evangelicals, with their skills at denying reality and substituting their own, could hand-wave it away.

(Don’t worry about them, though. They turned, instead, to talking trash about the Christians leaving their ranks and coming up with hilariously bad ideas for fixing things. This is where they’ve largely remained ever since.)

Since 2015, Christians have watched their unearned privilege get peeled away bit by quivering bit. As a result, even the highest-level and biggest-name hypocrites must fear exposure! Bless their little cotton socks, evangelicals can’t even count on their one-time cronies to protect them anymore.

And worst of all, secular authorities have taken an interest in religious predators—and the powerful religious groups that have shielded them for decades, if not centuries.

Losing privilege hits authoritarians the hardest

For authoritarians aching for power, there isn’t much that hurts them as much as losing privilege. They’re in these groups in the first place because they’ve figured out that these groups represent the fastest, easiest way to get the power they want.

Once they have that power, they can start acting the way they really want to act. Nobody in their groups will be able to do anything about it, thanks to the way that authoritarians structure their groups.

But losing power hurts in another way, too. Dysfunctional authoritarians do not feel safe unless they have power or can nestle under the wing of someone powerful. In their utterly-wackadoo world, powerlessness means vulnerability. And vulnerability means incoming pain.

These authoritarians cannot resist hurting anyone they perceive as vulnerable. When we say that “cruelty is the point” to them, that’s what that phrase means. If they fail to attack someone vulnerable, they make themselves look vulnerable to their fellow dysfunctional authoritarians. And that means that in showing mercy, they themselves become targets.

This is why Tom Buck weaponized secrets against his faction’s enemies earlier this year. Human decency and even the stated values of his own faction, like “let your yes be yes,” took a backseat to scoring points against a suddenly-vulnerable enemy. If he hadn’t done it, someone in his own faction would have done something worse to both of them, no doubt.

And by the standards of dysfunctional authoritarianism, Tom Buck would have deserved all of it and more.

Crying persecution where there is none

For years now, outsiders to evangelicalism have noted evangelicals’ persecution complex. In 2014, Alan Noble wrote about the roots of this complex for The Atlantic. Noble himself appears to be evangelical, as he includes himself in their number, writing:

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. . .

Some Christians anticipate major restrictions to religious liberty in the future as a result of these tensions, a concern that is not unfounded. But in anticipating such restrictions, it is easy to imagine, wrongly, that they are already here.

The Atlantic, 2014

“Not unfounded?” This concern is completely unfounded. Given how many authoritarian evangelicals infest our government, military, judiciary, and law enforcement organizations, we are far more likely to tip over into a fundamentalist, white-nationalist, fascist theocracy than an atheistic state hellbent on wiping out all traces of religious belief in its citizens.

And evangelicals would welcome such a shift.

The persecution fantasies of people who have never faced actual persecution in their entire lives

Often, this fantasized persecution occurs during an imagined future called the Endtimes. During the Endtimes, goes this belief, all of the world’s governments will fuse into one atheistic fascist state. A demon-controlled superhuman, whom evangelicals call the Antichrist, will take power. Interestingly, in the Bible’s description of him, he sounds remarkably like Donald Trump.

As the agent of Satan, the Antichrist is hellbent on wiping out all traces of specifically Christian belief from everyone everywhere.

You can see evangelicals talking about this imaginary future constantly. They tend to take for granted that this grand finale of ultimate persecution will totally happen as the world winds down to its last moments.

When this grand persecution fails to happen in reality, they write novels and Bible studies about it. Well-connected filmmakers even make movies about it.

(In fact, they make lots and lots of movies about it!)

And books, too!

Oh, the persecution you will face!

Evangelical-written e-novels and books about the Endtimes are amazing. I highly recommend them as a source of entertainment. They are absolutely hilarious in their overwrought fantasies of future torture, imprisonment, and even execution—not for breaking actual laws, not for trying to rob other people of their rights and liberties, no! This dire fate only befalls them for the grievous crime of jus’ bein’ KRISchin!

One gets the sense, reading this tripe, that evangelicals are actually upset that they’re not facing persecution at all. How can you not get that feeling when reading stuff like this blurb for God’s Colonel:

The guillotine is thirsty for the blood of non-compliant Christians. They are under the command of the secretive Colonel O’Regan, who answers to the powerful but demonic General Norvasso, and whose eyes are set on the global leadership of New Roma.

The future seems bleak, but the daring perseverance of the unwavering few seeks to salvage the faithful.

God’s Colonel, Amazon blurb (emphasis in original)

Oh noes!

None of the books come even close to the quality of the Left Behind series. Yes, they are that bad. But what they lack in quality, they more than make up for in open thirsting for all this stuff to happen for real at last.

Evangelicals draw from a number of Bible verses for this belief

In my old Pentecostal crowd, a number of the most obnoxious Christians seriously thought that persecution, defined as criticism, dislike, mockery, and pushback, was the most potent sign imaginable that they were Jesus-ing right.

There’s a whole bunch of Bible verses extolling this exact sentiment. Here are some major ones:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22)

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! (Luke 6:22)

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:19)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. . . (2 Timothy 3:12)

If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:14)

Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)

From Open Bible

It all amounts, in evangelicals’ heads, to the idea that any pushback they face only happens because of their correct religious behavior and affiliation.

Evangelicals consider misdefined ‘persecution’ a sign of Jesus’ approval

Thus, evangelicals imagine that “the world,” meaning the secular world and all the heathens within it, hates them for their Jesus Power. The more Jesus Power they have, the more everyone hates them. So if they are universally despised and face constant pushback, then they must be stuffed to the gills with Jesus Power!

As one evangelical blogger puts it:

We might even consider it a compliment that the devil thinks we’re enough of a threat that he has to mess with us! That must mean we’re doing something right! . . . The devil can’t get to God so he comes after us.

Tracy Robbins

Her entire post is worth reading if you want to get a bead on just how toxic evangelicalism can be regarding persecution, which includes her unseemly gloating over her critics going to Hell. Still, that quote in particular was a ubiquitous teaching in my end of fundamentalism. It still is, too, I see. Evangelicals assert this teaching almost verbatim every time they respond to pushback.

It leads Christians like this commenter to ask regarding someone else’s 2018 blog post:

Are we not being persecuted in America because we are not standing out? Are we not distancing ourselves enough from worldly things? Should we want the persecution that Peter talks about, because then we know we are doing something right?

Commenter McKenzie McCord in 2018

At least McKenzie recognizes that American evangelicals aren’t being persecuted!

What’s happening here is not persecution

It must be disappointing when the only real scare-quotes “persecution” evangelicals face in America is the pushback they get in response to their own boorish, control-hungry behavior. It often has nothing to do with their beliefs, but how they behave toward others. But when that pushback happens, we may count on evangelicals to rewrite the events to make it sound like they were picked-on and hard-done-by fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin!

This is exactly what happened in 2012, when Fox News headlines blared:

Man Facing Jail For Hosting Home Bible Study

Fox News, 2012

It was an explosive accusation. Indeed, its first paragraph paints a dire picture! Its writer, Todd Starnes, tries to make the situation sound like the most unreasonable, anti-Christian thing that has ever happened to anyone in America:

A Phoenix man has been sentenced to 60 days in jail after he refused to stop hosting Bible studies in the privacy of his home – in violation of the city’s building code laws.

Fox News, 2012

Too bad none of that was true.

He wasn’t being persecuted at all

In reality, the guy, Michael Salman, lied to the zoning board. He told them he was building a gaming room. Instead, he built an actual church in his yard. This church hosted up to 80 people at a time in his tightly-packed suburban neighborhood. What he was doing wasn’t “Bible studies in the privacy of his home” at all.

Worse, the church was categorically unsafe for visitors and created traffic problems for his neighborhood.

But when the city filed 67 building code violations against him, he cried about being totally persecuted fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin.

The Fox News crowd still considered the case to be a real live example of real-deal persecution, of course. Michael Salman himself certainly did. Immediately, he embarked on what one Phoenix news site called a “disinformation campaign” to convince his fellow evangelicals of exactly that point. (I suspect his efforts didn’t entirely succeed; one major Christian site ran a story consisting only of the city’s rebuttal to his claims.)

Fast forward to 2022, when Ammon Bundy is doing much the same thing. Truly, there is nothing new under the evangelical sun.

When authoritarians crave power and don’t get it, they dive low(er)

Whenever Jesus talks about Christians’ power in the Gospels, it’s in the context of his followers being powerless servants to everyone who asks anything of them (and, of course, being persecuted and hated fer jus’ bein’ KRISchin). They must wait for crowns and power, which Jesus assures them they will totally get after death. On Earth, however, “the evil one” rules all of the real kingdoms.

The New Testament itself contains nothing that indicates that Jesus’ followers would rule any nation in the world at any point. It takes some egregious misreads of the Old Testament to come up with anything like that. Rather, “the Kingdom” that Christians will rule and the crowns they’ll wear are both in Heaven. They’ll achieve these rewards only after a lifetime of service and obedience.

But that’s no fun for dysfunctional authoritarians! Hence the rise of Dominionism, Christian Reconstruction, the Patriarchy Movement, and a host of other similar evangelical movements like the Proud Boys—all of them hellbent on “taking America back” for evangelical culture warriors.

And when they talk about “taking America back,” they mean taking America back to their own poorly-understood vision of the 1950s, when they think evangelicals were at their very height of power.

“Religious liberty” and persecution complaints as a front for shamelessly seizing unwarranted power

In the past ten years or so, American evangelicals have gotten around their obvious control-lusting hypocrisy by veiling their hunger for power with the plausible deniability of “religious liberty.” Strangely, the free expression of evangelicals’ strongly-held beliefs always seems to require the rest of us to wordlessly surrender our own rights and liberties in order for them to get whatever they demand.

We can and should refuse to do that. No human right nullifies another person’s human rights. (Consider “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose,” as well as abortion as the linchpin of about a dozen human rights). Even the definition of human rights by the Human Rights Resource Center defines them as “indivisible.” That means nobody can hand-wave away inconvenient rights by declaring them less-important than their own prerogative.

Moreover, acknowledging human rights confers a responsibility not to infringe on others’ rights. But whenever we do assert our own rights not to be trampled by religious zealots, evangelicals cry and moan about how their “religious liberty” is being violated.

As propaganda and indoctrination campaigns go, this whole “religious liberty” thing has been wildly successful for evangelicals. In a lot of ways, “religious liberty” is the win/win situation they needed.

If they get whatever they demanded, then yay! They won!

But if they don’t, then still yay! They’re totally being persecuted at last! That means the world is totally ending soon!

What are we to do with these false cries of persecution, these disingenuous complaints about religious liberty?

Ultimately, we’re not going to fix evangelicals’ obsession with persecution. As I’ve hopefully made clear, they have spent literal decades being indoctrinated with these opinions. They won’t listen to any heathens, especially not nowadays when they are polarized and torqued up into the stratosphere.

What we can do instead is point out that religious liberty doesn’t require us to play along with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. The moment someone else is required to do a single thing for their game immersion to stay intact, real religious liberty transforms into a rights-violating demand for obedience.

We are not required to endure evangelicals’ judgment and cruelty in places of business and healthcare. We are not required to allow them to set religious rules that make them feel insulated, powerful, and safe that we must also follow. And we are not required to refrain from commenting on their false claims and nasty behavior when they decide to exhibit it.

I know that approach won’t make evangelicals happy. It will almost certainly even fuel their persecution fantasies for a few more years. But we must hold firm. The moment we let dysfunctional authoritarians take an inch, they will grab seven more miles. If we let a single offense go by, they will try to browbeat us into allowing their other offenses as well.

Firm limits, utterly consistent pushback, and concrete boundaries they can’t ignore or negotiate with are the literal only ways to deal with people like this.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...