You’d think from the headline of an Aug. 4 Atlantic article, “The Evangelical Persecution Complex,” that it’s one more piece on how fearful evangelicals have traded the imaginary friends of childhood for the imaginary enemies of paranoid adulthood. But editors, not writers, come up with grabby headlines, and the article by Alan Noble, an assistant professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, is more nuanced than the eyeball-catching title suggests.
Noble notes accurately that “Christians face incredible discrimination” around the world: Look at North Korea, Mosul, and other flash points of persecution. He also correctly identifies the trend toward restricting religious liberty in the United States, but then makes a crucial point: “In anticipating such restrictions, it is easy to imagine, wrongly, that they are already here.”
Noble hits some low points—the “Jesus Freak” movement, the Left Behind series—and comments on recent movies. He recognizes the history of Christian persecution literature “designed to inspire and strengthen Christians,” most notably Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.But then comes a crucial point: “They were not designed to function as aspirational fantasy. And that is the real problem with many persecution narratives in Christian culture: They fetishize suffering.”
Biblically, we should not desire suffering: We should desire to sit under our vines and fig trees, enjoying our grandchildren. As Herbert Schlossberg noted in A Fragrance of Oppression: The Church and Its Persecutors (1991), suffering often leads to endurance, resolution, and joy, but it may also lead to co-optation and betrayal. We don’t have to go looking for trouble. If we’re steadfast in what we believe, trouble will find us, because we’re guerrilla fighters for Christ behind enemy lines.
In the United States we are increasing harassed but, so far, rarely persecuted. Let’s save this P-word for stories that really need it. Along those lines, Noble is more sanguine than I am. He writes, “As members of the largest faith group in America, Christians are relatively well-protected and more often accommodated than actively harmed.” But since that faith group is not more than 20 percent of the population, and particularly weak in the high places of American culture, media and academia, it’s possible for a wolf pack of other groups to jump on the moose and bring him down.
Still, Noble’s basic advice is wise: “Imagined offenses drummed up by sensationalists and fear-mongers should be exposed and denied. At times, even legitimate offenses should be overlooked, when they are petty. By focusing attention on real and substantial incidences of persecution, evangelicals will be much more effective at educating their neighbors and fighting for truly important matters of religious liberty.”
Our goal at WORLD is neither to minimize or exaggerate attacks on religious liberty, but to tell the truth. Let us know when we succeed but also when we fail.