Christians Are Not Being Persecuted in America - But That Doesn't Mean All Is Well
Evangelicals need to understand the actual dynamics occurring in the United States
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I saw several articles posted about a pastor in Ohio who is being charged with several zoning code violations because he allowed homeless people to stay in his church during freezing weather. He’s apparently allowed homeless people in the church previously, had been warned against it, and is de facto using the church as an overflow facility for the homeless shelter next door.
Per the article, some people have called this persecution:
Ashton Pittman, editor of the Mississippi Free Press, said Avell's story was a rare example in the U.S. of "actual religious persecution of a Christian by the state."
I beg to differ. The city may be heartless here, but this is the sort of zoning dispute people of all stripes run into all the time in cities. It’s not unusual for even those who have followed all the rules to end up in kafkaesque situations. (Also, it’s not clear if his case, which is in a municipal court, is actually a criminal one).
As the guy who coined the term “Negative World” to describe the way post-2014 American culture now views Christianity negatively (or at least skeptically), you might think I would be aligned with people talking about persecution in America. But I’m not.
Christians are not actually being persecuted in America today. I’m sure there are individuals who have been attacked by a disturbed whack job or something because of where they go to church. But such cases are surely rare.
When I think of persecution, I think of places like China, where pastors get thrown in prison and churches get demolished by the state. Or India, where some Christians groups have been the target of sectarian violence. Or North Korea. Or perhaps some Muslim countries where Christians suffer various legal or cultural debilities.
This is not what is happening in the United States. I think it’s a mistake to equate the situation here with what happened to, say, pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent two years unjustly imprisoned in Turkey.
Talking about persecution only makes you sound like an alarmist or someone who has a martyr complex.
It also distracts from understanding the unique dynamics of what’s happening America. In the Bible, Paul may have been shipwrecked, stoned, beaten with rods and more - but nobody ever took away his ability to earn a living as a tentmaker.
Here in the US, losing your job for crossing some ideological line is a real possibility, even if it doesn’t happen that frequently.
Our society puts many forms of indirect or subtle pressures on people to hew to certain lines.
One need not be religious to fall afoul of them. As Peter Thiel once observed, in a democracy, 51% is a victory and that’s great. If you get 60% that’s a landslide and it’s awesome. But if you get 95%, that’s not democracy - that’s North Korea.
We live a country where in many domains of elite society, there’s essentially 100% public agreement on every major point. I can’t tell you how many conferences I’ve attended where there wasn’t a single genuinely dissenting voice heard.
A majority of the people I talk to who are in management in major companies or institutions will tell me that they think DEI has gone too far. But none of them will ever stick his neck out to say so in a public forum.
For some people, it’s understandable why they do this. But even among the independently wealthy there are far too few people who are willing to show courage.
The indirect social pressures our country puts on people would appear to be quite formidable. They certainly affect and put at risk a wide swath of the population, although conservative evangelicals might be more likely than others to find themselves in trouble. That’s the dynamic we should be looking at.
It’s also the case that while Christians might experience persecution, just because you are in trouble doesn’t mean you are being persecuted for being a Christian. In the case of this church, it is willfully violating the city’s zoning code, which is religiously neutral - if anything, religious institutions are privileged in zoning - and not to single this church out or because of some anti-Christian animus. The city may be unwise or even heartless, but that doesn’t mean they are persecuting the pastor. (The article also suggests he was not just allowing homeless people in his church on an emergency basis due to extreme cold, but had been doing this as a regular practice).
In my view, we should be much more attentive to the unique things happening in our country (and other advanced Western nations) and avoid rhetoric around persecution that is not accurate and obscures more than it reveals.
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