We’ve all heard the old joke, “Lions 21, Christians 0,” a reference to the period presumably when the Romans persecuted Christians for sport. Now we’re hearing cries of persecution of Christians once again. Right now and right here in America. Here are some examples:
- Banning of religious symbols—ten commandments, nativity scenes—on government property.
- Banning of prayers in public schools.
- Banning of the teaching of creationism in public schools.
- Giving women the right to abortions.
- Granting same-sex couples the right to get married.
All are claimed to be instances of attacks on Christians and Christianity. I don’t agree.
Let’s take as an example the matter of same-sex marriage. In a landmark decision the US Supreme Court recently declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry as matter of equal protection under the 14th Amendment. This has been a rebuke to a lot of conservative Christians who use the term “definition of marriage” as code for the belief that homosexual behavior is a sin against God. (And, if one claims that the Bible is the infallible “Word of God,” there is language both in the Old and New Testaments to support that view.)
But how does granting gays and lesbians the right to marry represent a persecution either of Christians individually or of the Christian faith generally? Well, it doesn’t.
As to Christians individually, many Christians will say that legalizing same-sex marriage makes them “sad.” First of all, are they “sad” (a) because the court has sanctioned marriage between same-sex individuals or (b) because they consider homosexual behavior sinful and they are sad to see individuals being sinful? If (a), well, we are all disappointed from time to time by decisions by our government with which we disagree. In short, this is simply disagreement, not persecution. If (b), then the court decision isn’t changing the incidence of homosexual behavior. It’s not even legalizing that behavior, which is already legal in nearly all jurisdictions. The decision is simply saying that homosexual couples who make the same commitment to one another as heterosexual couples do are entitled to the same benefits under the law. So that should not be cause for greater “sadness.”
Again, this is not “persecution” of Christians. No one is forcing them into same-sex marriages. And they are free to believe whatever they wish. They are even free to express their disagreement with homosexual behavior or with the Court’s decision, at least so long as they do so in a way that does not threaten the public order or safety. (Freedom of expression does not extend to inciting a riot or advocating violence.)
There are those who feel that drinking alcohol is wrong and that those who engage in such behavior are sinning. And they are free to think that way and to voice their opinion. But no one is forcing them to drink. The fact that they may be “sad” to see that the law allows others to engage in sinful drinking is not “persecution.” And no one refers to it as such. That train left the station a long time ago.
OK, there are those who will argue that they may be forced to abet a nonChristian (they may say antiChristian) cause and that that represents “persecution.” When it comes down to it, these examples are pretty rare—a baker asked to provide a cake for, or a photographer asked to photograph, a same-sex wedding, for instance. There are competing interests here, and ultimately one must find a balance. And different persons of intelligence may find that balance at different points. But this is not so much a religious issue as it is an ethical one.
One could have a sincere religious belief that interracial marriages are sinful. Not so long ago this was a common “Christian” belief. In Loving vs. Virginia the Court determined that the right to interracial marriage trumps any religious misgivings, sincere or otherwise. And no one much talks about that issue anymore, at least in public. I think the same analysis applies to same-sex marriage, and I think that’s how the Court sees it, too.
In the end one needs to ask a hard question. Are objections to same-sex marriage founded on religious belief or on homophobia dressed up as religious belief?
As to the argument that it is Christianity itself that is under attack, consider that no one is telling various Christian sects what they can and cannot state in their creeds or what their clergy can preach from the pulpit with respect to the sinfulness (or not) of same-sex marriage. At its heart, the claim that Christianity as a religious faith is under attack is based on the notion that America is a “Christian nation.” It is not. Regardless of what the religious sensibilities of the founding fathers may have been, the First Amendment is clear that the government is and must remain secular. Christianity, or anyone’s particular brand of Christianity, is not entitled to favored status.
My sense is that the cries of religious persecution are largely born of a frustration resulting from the realization that the conservative beliefs and behaviors being challenged are no longer rationally defensible.
© 2015 John M. Phillips