Are American Christians Persecuted? It’s Complicated. (a book review)

I was a pastor in Florida at the time the Supreme Court passed the Marriage Equality Act. At a nearby megachurch, the pastor there launched into a series on how the Christian faith was under assault. The recent Supreme Court decision was only the most recent example. Political Correctness sought to silence good Christians, atheists like Richard Dawkins were trying to make them appear evil,  the Muslims were seeking to bring Sharia law to our country, there was no prayer in schools, and abortion on demand was the law of the land. I know some of my own parishioners wanted me to describe, in similar terms, the persecution we as a church were facing. Only I didn’t actually believe it. We were free to worship God, voice our convictions and talk to our neighbors about Jesus. Congress had made no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Us evangelicals had lost some of our cultural influence and clout, but we were in no way persecuted.

51v9d3s6ncl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Jason Wiedel lives in Surry, Virgina where he directs Habitat For Humanity and works to extend the influence of Christ beyond the walls of the church. In Persecution Complex (2014), Weidel takes aim at the ways this persecution narrative and the accompanying culture wars have poisoned our public witness.  The current situation may be slightly different today from when Wiedel first published this book in the late Obama years. President Trump has sought to curry favor with evangelicals, and the ways in which conservative (white) Christians have felt unheard. There is a way in which the evangelicals who feel persecuted may now feel less under fire, though suspicion against liberal elites remain, and inevitably the pendulum will swing.

Part 1 of Persecution Complex describes the Christian persecution narrative. Wiedel describes the persecution narrative as a reaction to the wider cultural drift away from certain biblical commands, and a reaction to the alleged ‘anti-Christian forces’ who seek to minimize Christian faith in the public sphere (e.g. taking prayer out of schools, and assaulting cherished Christian beliefs through legalizing abortion and marriage equality)(5-6). These ‘anti-Christian forces’ “seek to distract us from important spiritual and moral issues by focusing society’s attention on climate change, scientific research, civil rights, income inequality, prison reform, drug legalization, education, gender equality, and universal healthcare” and seek to marginalize Christian voices as much as possible (7). Wiedel questions the fundamental basis of this narrative, asserting that the loss of some cultural influence of the church in American culture, is not persecution. As counter evidence, he reproduces Sam Killermann’s 30+ Examples of  Christian Privilege (57-59)

In Part 2, Wiedel describes the appeal of the persecution narrative (e.g. how it creates community and rallies people to action, ‘legitimizes our cause’ (we’re the victim!), and gives us someone else to blame. In part 3, Wiedel outlines six dangers inherent to the persecution narrative:

  1. We feel and act superior to others (111-113).
  2. We justify antagonism (113-114).
  3. We dehumanize others (115-116).
  4. We eliminate conversation and debate (117-118).
  5. We become immune to criticism (118-121).
  6. We ignore the suffering of others (121-123).

Part 4 offers some strategies for breaking away from our persecution narrative through showing interest in others, speaking prophetically against systems of violence and advocating on behalf of the poor, fighting injustice (instead of ‘persecution’), loving our enemies, and following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice.

Wiedel does offer a good analysis of the culture war mentality and our alleged persecution. But while Wiedel is right, he may overstate his case slightly. Christian’s in America are not the victims of persecution, but there is something to there being an anti-Christian bias, in some settings. I think of Carolyn Webber’s excellent memoirs Holy is the Day (IVP, 2013) and Surprised By Oxford (Thomas Nelson, 2011) which describe the challenges of trying to be a faithful Christian in the world of academia (in her case, as a grad student, and then as  professor of literature), or sociologist George Yancey’s Hostility (IVP 2015) which describes, through qualitative research, the phenomenon of anti-Christian bias (again, especially in academia).  Neither of these authors is involved in the sort of culture war that Wiedel is critiquing, and neither would cry persecution (Yancey would also acknowledge that Christians are somewhat to blame for the bias they experience), but anti-Christian bias does affect some Christians in America, in some spheres, some of the time.

None of this detracts from Wiedel’s larger point, critiquing the use of a narrative of persecution to justify our bad behavior and our culture war offensives. Unfortunately, me reading this book, makes Wiedel ‘preach to the choir.’ I am soooo done with American Christian’s persecution complex (and the ways that claiming persecution here diminishes the actual suffering of the world church). My question is, would the people who actually need this book, read this book? I’m not sure they would with how entrenched our current political discourse is. Important points, but how to get Wiedel’s message into the right hands? I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.W

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