Vice President Pence on Saturday warned the graduating class of Liberty University to be prepared to suffer for their faith. “The truth is,” he told an audience of over 40,000 attending the commencement ceremony, “we live in a time when the freedom of religion is under assault.”
Pence needs some perspective.
According to one estimate, in 2016, a Christian was killed for his or her faith every six minutes. Today, the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is rampant, especially in the Middle East. The Islamic State has forced millions of Syrians, many of whom are Christians, to flee for their lives.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have been targeting Christian villages for nearly two decades. Most recently, Islamic terrorists killed Christians worshiping on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.
Pence is an evangelical Christian. And while fellow members of his religious tribe face a few challenges to their religious liberties, especially when it comes to Christian institutions committed to traditional views on marriage, these challenges pale in comparison with what those who name the name of Jesus are facing worldwide.
Pence’s persecution complex should not surprise us. Evangelicals in America have seen themselves as victims since the 1960s. The Christian Right emerged in the 1970s with an agenda focused on returning prayer and Bible reading to public schools, resisting demographic change in the wake of new immigration, defending segregation in Christian academies, overturning Roe v. Wade and stalling the gains of the feminist movement.
The movement gains strength by scaring evangelicals into believing that they are constantly under attack. Without this discourse of victimhood, the donations will stop, and the Christian Right will lose its hold on the levers of power within the Republican Party.
At one point in Pence’s speech on Saturday, he gave a moving testimony about his conversion experience. It was a powerful story of redemption and faith. But in the context of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University and the rest of the Pence speech, it seemed that the vice president was suggesting that an evangelical conversion will naturally lead to Christian Right politics and the unrelenting support of an immoral president. It does not.
For Pence, who came of age spiritually and politically at the time of the Christian Right’s ascendancy, there is little difference between evangelical faith and a political agenda. He sees the world in black and white. It is “us vs. them” in an epic battle for the soul of the nation.
And the Liberty University crowd, students and supporters of what Falwell Jr. claims to be the largest Christian university in the world, cheered. At one point the crowd even began a chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”
It should also not surprise us that Pence wasted no time turning his commencement address into a Trump rally. He praised the Trump economy, reminded the audience that “America stands with Israel,” talked about abortion, and attacked former president Barack Obama for his supposed threats to religious liberty.
As the Founding Fathers of the United States taught us, we should always keep a vigilant watch over the liberties we enjoy so that those rights are not taken away by tyrannical, power-hungry despots.
But American evangelicals should have more important issues on their plates than worrying about a few misguided progressives who do not like Christian schools or offering tired diatribes against the sins of the Obama administration.
One of those issues include the warm evangelical embrace of a president who continually lies to the American people, obstructs justice, separates immigrant children from their families, and draws a moral equivalence between self-proclaimed white supremacists and those who fight against this kind of racism.
Perhaps evangelicals might spend less time playing the victim and more time addressing their failures to deal with systemic racism and or their failure to welcome strangers in the form of refugees and immigrants.
Or maybe evangelicals should spend more time thinking about an approach to political life that is less about fear and more about hope in a coming kingdom defined by compassion, mercy and justice.
A commencement address should be a celebration of the graduates. A commencement speaker must put down the self and offer words of encouragement and some wise advice about life after graduation. To his credit, Pence did some of this. But his words of exhortation were couched in a belief that progressives are lurking in the shadows, ready to undermine Christian America and persecute the faithful.
I wonder what a Sri Lankan Easter worshiper or a Christian Syrian refugee would think about the way American evangelicals are describing “persecution” these days.
John Fea teaches history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. and is the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump” (2018).
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that millions of Syrian refugees have been forced to flee for their lives.