Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine.
One word explains why a record number of white evangelical Christians threw their support behind a lewd, religiously illiterate presidential candidate last year. The same word also explains why 65 percent of white evangelicals in Alabama have supported accused child molester Roy Moore in his campaign for the Senate.
That word is not “abortion.” It’s not “homosexuality.” It’s not even “racism.”
The word is “persecution.” According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a majority of white evangelicals believe that Christians face discrimination in the United States and are more likely to say that Christians, rather than Muslims, experience discrimination.
Evangelicals supported first Donald Trump and then Moore because they view both as protectors.
Persecution refers to systematic religious discrimination and marginalization. It is the opposite of power. A weak group can be persecuted, but a powerful group cannot.
Are Christians a weak and marginalized group?
Here are the facts. Christians are vastly over-represented in national politics, not underrepresented. While roughly 70 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, 91 percent of Congress identifies as such — a percentage that has remained roughly the same since the 1960s. The proportion of Christians in many state legislatures is even higher. Every member of the Supreme Court appears to be religiously affiliated (though not all of them are Christian), and no atheist has ever sat on that court. That over-representation means that either Christians have superior access to the mechanisms of electioneering or that being Christian is such a boon to candidacy that most people claim to be Christian regardless of their personal beliefs. Either of these possibilities fully precludes the possibility that Christians as a group experience formal marginalization or informal scorn that bars them from the halls of power. The opposite is true.
Meanwhile, atheists and the religiously unaffiliated — the supposed perpetrators of anti-Christian persecution — are vastly underrepresented in government. In fact, there is only one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). There are no open atheists.
If someone writes a book claiming that global warming is a hoax, we ask, “What is your evidence?” We do not pat them on their heads, express appreciation for how genuine their feelings are, and leave it at that.
But when someone published a book claiming that American Christians face looming persecution and even extinction, as influential Christian columnist Rod Dreher did in his bestseller “The Benedict Option” this year, journalists did not ask, “What is your evidence?” It doesn’t seem that anyone has interviewed sociologists and political scientists, or even quoted basic statistics, to see whether this claim squared with reality.
New York Times columnist David Brooks’s main criticism of the book was that Dreher “answers secular purism with religious purism” — not that the fundamental claim of his book was wildly inaccurate. A nearly 8,000-word New Yorker profile plumbed the depths of Dreher’s personality and family life without ever addressing whether his book had any basis in reality. A recent Washington Post article referred to Christians as “beleaguered.”
Why are we reluctant to challenge such claims? It’s the result of a tacit social contract, an uneasy truce after the 20th-century wars over science and the role of religion in the public sphere. According to this social contract, institutions outside the religious sphere will not use scientific methods to criticize religious beliefs, so long as those beliefs are not combined with sweeping political claims that extend far beyond the walls of the church.
The reluctance to fact-check Dreher, or any other Christian claiming persecution, is the social contract at work. We journalists inherently understand that we must suspend our usual judgment when writing about religion.
But evangelical Christians have long chafed at the strictures of that social contract. Now, with the election of Trump and the rise of Moore, they are in open rebellion against it. They want their beliefs to extend outside the walls of their churches and into bakeries, businesses, doctor’s offices, public bathrooms, Congress, the court system and the presidency — and they don’t want these actions to be subjected to legal and social scrutiny. They take such scrutiny, and any resulting opposition, as persecution. It’s a powerful rallying cry that has now swelled into a force capable of rewriting laws and oppressing the truly vulnerable.
When Christians make factually untrue claims that then go on to influence elections, law-making and eventually the lives of people outside the walls of the church, that social contract has been violated.
That means that journalists and public intellectuals can no longer give a pass to Christians who claim persecution. We must fight falsehoods with the full force of our professional training — logic, facts and research. This does not mean attacking Christian religious beliefs themselves, but rather, challenging inaccurate assertions about the state of the world we all share.
How will we know when American Christians are genuinely under threat? When they start changing their names from the obviously biblical “Andrew” and “Mary” to the more secular “William” or “Jennifer” in order to avoid hiring discrimination. When Christians in Congress hide their faith and instead loudly claim to be atheists. When Christians are regularly blocked from buying homes or renting apartments in the good parts of town. When the president of the United States calls for Christians to be banned from the country. Then we can start taking claims of religious discrimination at face value.
But until such times, American Christians who say they are being persecuted are simply, fortunately wrong.
It’s okay. You can say it. In fact, you must.