Reconsidering 'Christian Oppression'

There is a certain type of Christian conservatism that regularly claims it is being oppressed. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, thinks that talk of legalizing gay marriage there raises the likelihood of Nazi-style totalitarianism emerging in Britain, complete with anti-Christian repression. Here at home, some Protestant Christians think the so-called "War on Christmas" amounts to Christian oppression, as does the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Last year, Catholic leaders were vocal in claiming that certain provisions of the health care reform legislation oppressed their exercise of the faith, a perspective that then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney took up and amplified, claiming that President Obama had declared an all-out war on religion in this country.

A group, however, is not oppressed because it loses in the court of public opinion, at the ballot box or in legislative assemblies. Christians cannot legitimately claim they are being oppressed in the United States because gay marriage is increasingly becoming legal and accepted, or because of an increased desire to limit in the public commons expressions of religion that seem to give one religion advantages over others, or because most parents want their children taught good science in their classrooms, or because most Americans -- including most Christians -- want their and their fellow citizens' health care plans to cover contraception should they choose to use it. Conservative Christians are not being oppressed because of these things. They have simply not made a compelling case for their positions and so those positions have been rejected. This is not oppression. This is democracy.

(This doesn't mean, of course, that democracy can never be a tool of oppression. The "tyranny of the majority" can have disastrous results. Protection against such majoritarian abuse is precisely what the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, is designed to accomplish. It seeks to safeguard the consciences, freedoms and expression of social and political minorities, keeping the United States as free as possible from oppression -- even if, originally, it was only to keep free, white men from falling prey to it.)

Oppression exists where those with little or no social, economic or political power are actively treated as lesser members of a population. Laws are passed, policies are enacted and discriminatory social practices are employed to prevent the oppressed from being recognized and treated as equal to the other members of their society. Conservative Christians enjoy the same status under the law and the same social approbation as members of every other religion in the United States -- if not more, particularly in communities where they are in the majority. Given that conservative Christians in the United States hardly lack access to social, economic and political privilege, and because Christians make up the overwhelming majority in every sphere of American life -- education, government, the professions, private enterprise and so on -- claims that they are being oppressed strike many of us as ludicrous at best and as self-servingly disingenuous at worst.

The tragic irony of such talk of Christian oppression is that it masks the fact that Christianity actually is an oppressed religion! Worldwide, despite belonging to the largest religion in terms of sheer numbers (2.2 billion adherents of a total global population of 7 billion, with Islam coming in second-largest at 1.6 billion members), Christians in other countries do face violence and discrimination. Yet, because many of us roll our eyes at the Christian claims of oppression in the United States, we find it easy to ignore or dismiss this uncomfortable reality. As journalist Rupert Shortt, author of a new book, "Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack," observes, "The truth about religious oppression -- that it is Christians who are targeted in greater numbers than any other faith group on earth -- thus comes as a surprise to many."

The sources of such oppression are complex. While some of it undoubtedly has to do with the actual content of the religions involved, far more often religion is, as Shortt writes, "used as a figleaf for what are really political disputes and turf wars." Think, for instance, of the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, which has not been over the doctrine of the Trinity or the nature of salvation, but of who is loyal to the British Crown and who seeks union with the Republic of Ireland, positions believed to correlate with one's identity as Protestant or Catholic, respectively. Further, those in power often seek to repress certain expressions of religion because they can be "massive sources of social capital," and thus capable of creating resistance to oppression and, thus, liberation for the oppressed. Think, for instance, of the role religion played in Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement, a movement that sought to end the very real oppression of African Americans in the Jim Crow-era South.

Certainly, there do continue to be times when acting according to the Christian Gospel can lead to marginalization, if not outright oppression. Taking seriously the gospel mandate to practice peace, for example, puts a person up against a dominant culture that sees violence as a legitimate solution to conflict -- and that often uses the Bible to support its violent position, to boot. Jesus is constantly portrayed in the Bible as working to heal the sick, feed the hungry and clothe the destitute. Yet, committed Christians who turn away from the privileges and advantages of economic and political power in order to stand with the poor, needy, vulnerable and outcast find themselves on the outside looking in, called "socialists" (or worse), accused of seeking to give hand-outs to the unworthy, out of step with "reality." Often, they are treated this way by other Christians who claim they themselves are oppressed when people simply disagree with them or pass laws they dislike.

If Jesus' message was an easy one for people to hear, he would not have been crucified for preaching it. Those in authority -- the powerful, the privileged -- had no use for a prophet who gallivanted around Palestine getting people riled up over justice, mercy, peace, righteousness and pledging allegiance to a loving God rather than to Ceasar. Being a follower of Jesus, therefore, means aligning oneself with the truly oppressed, not claiming phony oppression. It sometimes means giving up "respectability" and the approval of the powerful, in order to stand with, aid and love the powerless. This is what the Apostle Paul called becoming weak in order to become strong.

There is real oppression of Christians in the world. Let's not allow the claims of oppression that some Christians make blind us to the true oppression of Christians who daily face violence, discrimination and death for their beliefs (at least in part) or to the marginalization of certain Christians here at home whose voices some of our more powerful Christians wish to avoid hearing.