When we recently began a study of the book of Esther at my church, our pastor attempted to make a connection between his audience and the characters in the story by using a couple of rhetorical questions. First, he asked us if we could identify with living in the capitol city of the world’s superpower. Since our church is located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the answer was obviously “yes”. Second, he asked if we could identify with being a persecuted religious minority, to which there were several nodded heads and muted grunts of agreement.
Except for me, of course. Sitting there in my seat, I said, “No.” It wasn’t loud enough for anyone but my husband to hear, but still I said it. Why? Because as a member of an evangelical Christian church in America, I do not feel like a persecuted religious minority: not even close.
I can assure you that my personal feeling of being relatively unpersecuted is not a universal opinion within evangelical circles, nor for that matter within any religious group in the United States. Growing up, I have heard quite often how society is so opposed to us. They want to keep people from saying “Merry Christmas”, or from having prayer groups in schools, or from saying the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance. They want to foist on us false ideas about humans being related to monkeys, gay marriages being as good as straight ones, and so on and so forth.
I have just a few responses to this line of thinking. First of all, I do not deny that there are people in the United States who are forced into difficult situations because of their faith. Perhaps the knowledge that they believe in God has caused the breakdown of a personal relationship. Maybe their firm moral views have made them the butt of jokes or recipients of harsh remarks. In extreme cases, they may have suffered in their careers because of their faith.
While I acknowledge that such hardships do take place, I also acknowledge the fact that the majority of Americans believe in God, that Americans are far more likely to attend church than most of their European counterparts, and that there is perhaps no country on earth where evangelical Christianity has flourished to the extent that it has in the United States. While evangelicals often feel that they have little influence on government, they have actually proven over the past few decades to be one of the most powerful and important interest groups in American politics.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
It is the First Amendment to our Constitution that ironically has both allowed Evangelicalism to flourish and proven to be the greatest obstacle to even more extensive flourishing in the political sphere. Because of our right to religious freedom, we are supremely sensitive to any form of harassment. However, the flip side of this right – that the government must have no official religious viewpoint – has made it difficult for Christians to push for a more Christian style of government.
Evangelicals are not the only ones finding themselves trapped in the middle of this paradox. Just this week I heard a story on a local radio station about a push by Muslims living in Montgomery County, Maryland to have the public schools closed for the Eid-al-Adha holiday, an important date in the Islamic calendar. Maryland’s education hierarchy is insisting that it cannot give days off for such religious holidays. The Islamic groups feel that their right to practice their religion requires children to have time off for the holiday, while the school administrators feel it would be inappropriate to cancel school for this reason.
I realize that the knowledge that Muslims feel just as offended as they do is unlikely to provide any solace for evangelicals. Instead, let me offer a brief rundown of a typical Sunday in the life of evangelical Amy. I wake up and get ready for my day while watching television. Because it is Sunday, there are several Christian programming options for me to watch I get in my car to drive to church and have the option of listening to multiple Christian radio stations. No one stops or harasses me in any way as I travel to my gorgeous church building in an upscale residential neighborhood, recently refurbished to the tune of about $10 million.
I get out of the car and walk into the church, assured in the knowledge that any donation I make today will be tax deductible. I pass by a library full of Christian books, several of which were national bestsellers. I take a seat satisfied in the knowledge that no government agents will be reporting on my activities today (unless, of course, I send an e-mail that is tracked by the NSA).
I have the option to pick from a seemingly unending assortment of English Bible translations or even outright paraphrases. When I depart, my friends and I will go to have lunch at a local restaurant where we will not receive any nasty comments despite obviously having come from church. Wow, it really stinks to be so persecuted!
Once again, I hasten to add amid my sarcastic babble that there are some people who do suffer real hardships for their faith, even within the United States. However, I think if most of us sitting in those comfortable seats were truly honest, we would have to admit that we have it pretty good in this country. Verse after verse in scripture warns us of horrendous persecution far beyond anything Americans experience.
Christ told His disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20a)
There are places in the world where Christians do suffer terribly and would certainly fit within the category of “persecuted religious minority”. Just this week, more than 80 Pakistani Christians were brutally murdered when two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a church service. If I were in Pakistan, I would have a right to declare myself “persecuted”, but I live in America, where a book by Rick Warren is one of the bestselling non-fiction books of all time, every hotel room has a Bible, churches can be found every few blocks in our cities, and every one of our presidents seems to declare allegiance to almighty God.
I honestly think we should spend less time worrying about whether or not the local store decides to play “Silent Night” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” during the December shopping rush, and spend more time praying for people around the world who fear arrest every day for their beliefs. I did not even make an attempt to demonstrate how much higher our standard of living is than fellow Christians in less fortunate regions, but if I had the evidence would have been overwhelming.
Let’s stop living with this constant victim mentality and start realizing how blessed we truly are. Our ancestors in faith were famously fed to lions in the Coliseum. What fools are we if we compare ourselves to them!