Pat Buchanan added “lynch mob” to Sarah Palin’s “blood libel” and the Washington Times‘ “pogrom.” Why the persecution complex? (More)

Persecution Complex, Part I – Blessed Are They

This week Morning Feature looks at the persecution complex of the privileged. Today we consider its roots in fundamentalist Christianity. Tomorrow we’ll examine the persecution claims of other privileged groups and individuals. Saturday we’ll explore how to debunk such claims in talking with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Along the way we’ll explore the psychology of the persecution complex. It is not a single psychiatric disorder; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists persecution delusions as a symptom of several mental illnesses. But rarely do those diagnoses apply to the privileged who claim to be persecuted. Unlike the psychiatric symptom, most of the persecution claims made by the privileged do have a factual basis. Their claims are not like the mentally ill person’s paranoid fantasy that the street light went out because the city wanted him to get mugged. The privileged who claim persecution usually were at least publicly criticized. Sometimes government did tell them to stop doing something.

But mere public criticism is rarely persecution. And when government says “Stop doing that,” there’s often a good reason. For example….

The persecution of U.S. Christians:

In 1989, Robert Waggoner delivered a lecture that was later published in Embattled Christianity: A Call to Alarm. The title of the lecture was “Will Christians Be Persecuted in America?” and Waggoner offered several examples that he claimed as proof that the persecution of Christians was already underway:

  • In Alabama, hospital receptionist Kathy Pierce was suspended and placed on probation after refusing to admit patients for therapeutic abortions.
  • In California, landlord Evelyn Smith was sued for discrimination after she refused to rent to an unmarried couple.
  • In Ohio, biology lecturer Jerry Bergman was denied state university tenure because he taught biblical creationism in biology classes.
  • In Nebraska, a church school was closed because they refused to hire only certified teachers as required by state law.

Clearly these went beyond mere public criticism. In each case, a government actor said “Stop doing that,” either directly or (in Bergman’s case) indirectly. But were these examples of “persecution,” as Waggoner claims? Pierce and Smith tried to use their positions to impose their religious beliefs on others. Bergman insisted on teaching religion in a science class. The Nebraska church officials defied a state education law that specifically included church schools. To call them persecution is to claim that your religious freedom includes the right to impose your religion on others, as Waggoner admits:

The religious freedoms desired by humanists are obviously not compatible with religious freedoms desired by Christians. Freedom of religion for one group means denials of religious freedoms for the other. Either Christian values dominate our society and give freedom of religion to Christians but deny it to humanists, or humanistic values dominate our society and give freedom of religion to humanists but deny it to Christians. Either one or the other will prevail and thereby suppress the other. Religious freedoms for both groups cannot co-exist. (Emphasis added.)

Note that Waggoner defines freedom of religion in terms of dominance. It’s a conservative, authoritarian notion … and one we’ll see again and again this week. But the Christian claims of religious persecution have deeper roots. Some see being persecuted – or at least believing themselves to be persecuted – as a religious mandate.

The Beattitudes … with Attitude.

Science journalist Ed Brayton wrote about “The Roots of the Christian Persecution Complex” at Brayton noted that Jesus offered a special blessing for the persecuted in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

But note how the persecution complex turns this from a blessing for those who suffer into a mandate to suffer: to get that great heavenly reward, you must be persecuted. Or at least you convince yourself that you are. As Brayton notes, “The astonishing thing today is that they manage to convince themselves they’re being persecuted even while controlling virtually every institution in our society.”

Brayton cites an essay by Professor Elizabeth Castelli of Barnard College. Dr. Castelli argues that Christians have joined what she calls “the battle over ‘true victimhood.'” The link to Dr. Castelli’s full essay no longer works, but Brayton quotes enough to give a good sense of her argument:

As resentments and self-diagnosed feelings of moral injury rise and as the language of liberation and rights loses its anchoring in the historical narratives of the dispossessed and disenfranchised, what political theorist William Connolly has dubbed “the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” takes over, and we are left with the Christian persecution complex — a discursive entity impervious to critique, self-generating and self-sustaining.

In that “self-generating and self-sustaining” narrative, “true victimhood” lies not with the dispossessed and disenfranchised … but with those whose perceived constitutional right to dominate has been infringed. Fortunately, not everyone agrees….

“… so get over it.”

Those four words are the opening injunction in this wonderfully cogent essay by Rev. Jonathan Weyer at The Thomas Society. They’re also the conclusion of the essay’s title: “Christians in America, you aren’t persecuted…”

Weyer is an evangelical Christian minister who is annoyed by what he calls “whines” by American Christians who feel persecuted, especially those who wade into discussions of atheism and demand “equal time.” (Note: I’ve never heard of an atheist barging into a church service to demand “equal time.”) As Rev. Weyer writes:

Christians, when you hang out with atheists, get used to the idea they won’t be won over by arguments they might have heard a million times before. And, if they don’t accept your arguments, please don’t play the “you are persecuting me” card. They aren’t persecuting you. They just don’t believe you and think what you believe is absurd. I don’t agree with them, of course, but this hardly measures up to anything that measures real persecution. I know that we all love that word but it does us no favors in conversations with atheists as it just makes us look foolish.

Why does it make us look foolish? Because atheists know what real persecution looks like. Ask a Chinese or Sudanese Christian about persecuted for their faith. Then, see if you can look them in the eye when you try to describe the “persecution” you face on a day to day basis.

His conclusion is especially apropos:

Further, ask this question, why am I being challenged? Is it because of my faith? Or is it because I’m being a jackass?

The answer might surprise you.

So at least there’s some push back against the Christian persecution complex, from within the evangelical Christian community. But as long as there are Christians in America who define their religious freedom as a right to dominate – a privilege claim – some will cry persecution if they can’t dominate the rest of us.


Happy Thursday!