Recently, the Franklin County School Board in Tennessee debated ending all after school clubs as a response to the formation of a gay-straight alliance there. If they can’t keep out just the gays, they will end all activities. Thus is the spirit of equality preserved, I guess.
Aside from the raging assholery of local elected officials (and residents), this debate illustrates a key reality in the right wing’s narrative of persecution. Christians in this nation, we are told by many preachers and news outlets, are being persecuted for their faith, so much so that a teacher cannot even mention the name of Jesus in a historical context in a classroom (c.f. the plot of God’s Not Dead 2—I can’t wait!). The spate of “religious freedom” laws that arose in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage were passed in the expectant specter of persecution, in the fear of a future in which believers could no longer follow the dictates of their faith. The idea that President Obama is the antichrist and getting ready to march believers into concentration camps is practically mainstream in modern Christian rhetoric.
But the case in Franklin County illustrates that it’s not actual persecution that is taking place. No one was wanting to shut down any of the faith-based after school activities, of which I imagine there must be plenty, at least a Fellowship of Christian Athletes. No one was attempting to limit religiously oriented groups. All that happened was that a gay-straight alliance wanted its own space and applied for that.
What is happening is not the actual persecution of Christians. What is happening is the loss of cultural hegemony for Christians. There was a time in the life of this nation when Christianity was the normative philosophical stance for most and when most debates occurred in the context of a Christian culture. Debates over slavery, for example, were, for the most part, couched in scripture by both slaveholders and abolitionists alike. Which church you attended reflected, and informed, your own social standing in the community. A certain cultural Christianity was the air everyone breathed and the water they all drank.
But that has changed. A part of that change is the greater religious diversity we have these days. For example, Bentonville, Arkansas, long a cultural backwoods, now hosts not only Christian churches but also a mosque, Hindu temple, Sikh temple, and synagogue. However, I think that the greater change is not simply cultural diversity but rather the growth of a more scientific mindset. We live in an era in which we see the various fields of science making astounding discoveries, while science fiction as a genre has come into the mainstream. We increasingly have a culture that expects proof for certain truth claims. You can proclaim from your pulpit that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord and that those who choose the gay lifestyle will no doubt go mad from all the demons that enter them or some such, but I can conduct an actual peer-reviewed study of gay and lesbian couples, reviewing their mental health histories, and demonstrate that nothing about being gay, in and of itself, leads to a deteriorating mental condition. You can preach from your pulpit that all human life originates from a primordial pair, but I can conduct genetic research that demonstrates the patent absurdity of such a claim. You can shout that God created the world in seven days about 10,000 years ago, but I can summon forth a wealth of geological evidence that shows a much older earth.
We live in an era in which truth claims must be backed up with evidence. I’m not saying that this is universal across our culture, only that enough people here in the United States think empirical evidence important as to make uncomfortable those previously hegemonic Christians, who are now being asked to prove their assertions rather than having them simply taken for granted. They no longer have the lock on the terms of the conversation. Their way of arguing and arriving at a truth is no longer the one universally employed. Talk gay marriage, for example, and while they are quoting scripture, their interlocutors are drawing from a wealth of scientific and sociological studies demonstrating how homosexuality is more nature than nurture, combining that with some Rawlsian thoughts on justice and the like. Theirs is no longer the common language. They are like the speakers of Old English a generation after William the Conquerer, wondering why everyone is talking French.
And I don’t doubt that some mockery occurs. Proclaimers of a seven-day creation can find themselves ridiculed by some media figures, for example. This is not persecution, though I understand, from the subjective perspective, how it can feel like that. You had such freedom at one time. You could call homosexuality an abomination publicly and not be called a bigot. Your biology teacher would never present anything that would challenge your faith. And if you proclaimed your love for Jesus, everyone around you would know exactly what you were talking about. But now the world has changed, and you simply don’t have those freedoms anymore, and if someone has stripped you of your freedoms, well, that’s the definition of persecution, isn’t it?*
But it’s not persecution. No one is preventing you from worshipping whatever God you desire in the manner you see fit. Demands of proof for religious truth claims or even teasing mockery do not amount a case of Christians v. Lions. Equal rights for groups that would be allowed under your religious laws does not prevent you from exercising your own legal rights. And the more you proclaim this to be the case, the more you make obvious the power struggle that lies under your words.
*Incidentally, a loss of what was previously taken for granted, especially those “freedoms” of unchallenged bigotry, is also why many whites see themselves as constituting the most persecuted racial group. It’s not a matter of reality—it’s perspective and loss of hegemony.