Sunday, March 12, 2017
I grew up listening to Christian rock -- Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, the 77s, Jerusalem, etc. -- and one notable theme throughout the genre is that Christians are separate from the world. There are upsides to being formed in this worldview (an emphasis on holiness and courage) and big downsides (a lack of accountability for the common good and a tendency to see persecution around every corner). By the time DC Talk hit it big in the 1990s, I was not listening to much Christian rock, but the group apparently embraced the theme with gusto.
Julia Marley, writing for Commonweal, has a fascinating take on how DC Talk's smash hit "Jesus Freak" might have helped shape today's pro-Trump evangelical mindset:
“Jesus Freak” articulated the way the evangelical church thought of itself: marginal, scorned by mainstream culture, and, importantly, the victim of violence rather than its agent. The song’s speaker aligns himself with two characters. The first is a shirtless street preacher with “Jesus Saves” tattooed on his stomach, who we can assume disturbs the people he attempts to convert—we’ve all passed such a street preacher, careful to avoid eye contact. The second character is John the Baptist, who is also scorned. “The words that he spoke made the people assume / There wasn’t too much left in the upper room,” the song continues. But John had more to deal with than an audience rolling its eyes: Herod has him executed. Here lies the crucial sleight-of-hand of the song: we move seamlessly from a man who presumably retains the freedoms of speech and religion (even if his audience ridicules him), to a man assassinated by the state for expressing his religious beliefs. The song conflates criticism of Christianity with the persecution of Christianity. It elevates the eccentric to the status of martyr.
When I was probably 8 years old, I remember a playmate -- a Catholic no less! -- calling me "a church weirdo" because my family attended services three times each week (twice on Sundays, once on Wednesdays). It was a cruel and careless comment, but in my mind, it fed directly into the other messages I was hearing about the Christian life being one marked by persecution of the martyrdom sort. It contributed to a sense of being separate, shunned, and targeted. That's a lot to place on a single comment from an 8 year-old, but that's how narratives are reinforced from one generation to the next.
I think Julia Marley ends up overstating her case when she argues that "[c]onservative Christians see religious pluralism—and the state’s reflection of that pluralism—as encroaching on their right to practice their own faith." In many cases, conservative Christians are not objecting to the fact of religious pluralism -- they're objecting to the imposition of a secular orthodoxy that does make the practice of their faith more difficult, at least when the implications of their faith extend to the public square.
Still, Marley makes an important point to the extent that the evangelical subculture has proved to be fertile ground for political messages that elevate the persecuted status of American Christians beyond what any reasonable interpretation of the facts warrant and that -- even more dangerously -- pushes concern about discrimination against non-Christians to the margins. This was borne out in the results of a recent survey:
Overall, people were twice as likely to say Muslims face discrimination as they were to say the same thing about Christians. Democrats were four times more likely to see Muslim vs. Christian discrimination, and non-religious people more than three. White Catholics and white mainline Protestants were both in line with the American average: Each group was roughly twice as likely to say Muslims face discrimination compared to how they see the Christian experience.
The people who stuck out, whose perceptions were radically different from others in the survey, were white evangelical Protestants. Among this group, 57 percent said there’s a lot of discrimination against Christians in the U.S. today. Only 44 percent said the same thing about Muslims. They were the only religious group more likely to believe Christians face discrimination compared to Muslims.
Why should we care? Because religious liberty is only as strong as the degree to which it protects the most vulnerable among us. If millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground. This is an argument that some conservative Christians are championing -- Robby George and Russell Moore are two leading examples -- but it faces an uphill climb, in part because Christians have been hearing about our own persecution for a very long time.
Christian leaders and scholars need to cultivate a new commitment to discernment: distinguishing between the discomfort of holding increasingly unpopular beliefs and the real persecution that -- thus far, at least -- been far more prevalent in our lyrics than in our legal system.