Reflecting on the recent execution of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS fanatics in Libya, Rod Dreher, writing at the American Conservative, calls the incident “a sobering reminder of what real persecution looks like.” Coming from Dreher, for whom the future of American Christianity looks increasingly ominous, the line is sobering in itself. But he goes on:
Yet it is also the kind of thing that people in this country who fear and loathe Christians point to as an argument-ender when Christians complain about social injustice against themselves, e.g., “Get back to me when they’re chopping Christian heads off, then we’ll talk.” I would point out that ISIS is throwing gay men out of high windows to their deaths, and the crowds below are finishing off the job with stones. No secular liberal would — nor should — accept the argument that gays in the US have no right to complain against discrimination because they don’t have it as bad as gays in ISIS-held territory. So let’s put that cheap argument to bed.
At Patheos, Benjamin Corey shakes that cheap argument awake:
Can we stop complaining about this bogus idea that American Christians are persecuted now?
I mean, really. Can we stop? The world needs us to turn from ourselves and focus on this real persecution, because it’s evil and must be exposed and stopped. However, our own self-centeredness as Americans is getting in the way of the discussion on real anti-Christian persecution in the world today. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is actually distracting, offensive, and insulting to those who face real persecution for their faith.
It’s interesting that both Dreher and Corey distinguish “real” persecution from its less-than-real varieties. To his credit, Dreher has always balked at claiming membership in a persecuted class, though his concerns about the loss of religious freedom often toe a blurry line. Therein may lie a problem, or at least a source of confusion.
While Dreher often explicitly disavows the suggestion that Christians are “persecuted” in America, he also claims that they are increasingly marginalized and discriminated against. This may be a matter of semantics, but since persecution is a potent rhetorical resource, and since it is also a central theme of the Christian tradition, Christian complaints about systematic marginalization tend to blend quite seamlessly into a broader narrative of persecution.
As a practical matter, I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.
For Dreher, then, the explicit disavowal of the word “persecution” may be insufficient to overcome the impression of it in his writing, especially since this has become such a persistent feature of conservative Christian rhetoric in the early 21st century.
All that said, I think Corey gets the better of it here, for two reasons.
First, it’s needlessly dismissive to write off critics as “people in this country who fear and loathe Christians.” I suspect Corey, for one, would not accept that label. Further, critics like Corey do not object to “complaints about social injustice” so much as the hyperbolic veneer that certain complaints often adopt.
Second, Dreher’s comparison of the Christian community with the gay community discloses a head-spinning irony. In acknowledging that gays in the US have a legitimate grievance about their systematic discrimination, Dreher tacitly renounces any role in the struggle they face. Meanwhile, his own claim to discrimination depends specifically upon the maintenance of discrimination against gays. Here, too, clearer definitions of persecuted and persecutor seem appropriate.
As they continue to transition from a history of overt moral condemnation to a defensive, liberal posture in keeping with public reason, conservative Christians must continue to refine their strategies for engaging the public square. It remains to be seen what role persecution – or persecution-ish – arguments will play going forward. For now, though, I’ll agree with both Dreher and Corey that, in the United States, Christian persecution doesn’t really exist.