The raging hypocrisy at the center of the Christian right's persecution complex

The religious right has convinced itself that it's the target of liberal persecution. There's just one problem...

Published July 5, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

It’s been interesting to witness the public conversation going on among religious conservatives in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same-sex marriage last week. As Derek Penwell, a progressive Christian minister from Kentucky puts it, the gist of it all sounds something like this:

“The time has come to prepare ourselves for persecution. Our identity has put us at odds with the culture, which is now going to do everything in its power to punish us. Our commitment to living authentically is going to cost us — perhaps everything — because we refuse to compromise what we believe to be the truth. The dominant voices in our culture hate us, and will stop at nothing to eliminate us. Our jobs, our families, even our lives are now in jeopardy because of who we are.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling even prompted Rod Dreher at The American Conservative to write: “[W]e have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.” I think that’s premature. We’re not in a post-Christian culture yet. Not as long as outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh keep reaching millions of viewers, and Congress is nearly 92 percent Christian. Though I believe it will eventually happen, I certainly don’t think it will happen in my lifetime — or even in the next 100 years.

The lament that religious conservatives are now in the minority in our culture is accompanied by fears of persecution, a narrative the right-wing media has been pushing for years. Dreher goes on to write:

“LGBT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives...The more immediate goal will be the shunning and persecution of dissenters within civil society. After today, all religious conservatives are Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla who was chased out of that company for supporting California’s Proposition 8.”

This cry of persecution rings hollow, though, because in other areas of life religious conservatives seem to be fine with this kind of dog-eat-dog world. Political conservatives tend to favor the market forces of capitalism, and conservatives are overwhelmingly Christian. An article in Christianity Today noted that while a recent poll showed that “more Americans (44 percent) believe Christian values are at odds with capitalism than believe they are compatible (36 percent),” white Evangelicals — those making up most of Congress, Fox News, and Right Wing talk radio — “were more likely than other Christians or the general population to think positively about free-markets.”

So I think religious conservatives should be consistent if they want to be taken seriously. Religious beliefs are part of the marketplace of ideas, and the market is decidedly dog-eat-dog. As Salon writer Matt Pulver describes it: “Mom and pops close, medium-sized firms close, automakers go bankrupt—that’s how capitalism works. That’s what the competitive market makes: a vast, bloody battlefield of losers laid out behind the much fewer winners...Everyone competed and most businesses lost, they closed. That’s the market.”

If you’re the type of person who believes the Judeo-Christian God loves His creation more than He wants to punish it, and you actively support, or even just refrain from interfering with, social justice issues, then I think that’s great. I still think you're wrong about the ultimate nature of reality — and we can have a respectful discussion about that over a glass of bourbon — but I support your support for love and equality. I’m happy as a clam if you believe that #lovewins in the end.

But if you believe that the Judeo-Christian God thinks homosexuals are deviant or disgusting and wants to punish them in this world as well as the next, then you should be shunned. In the marketplace of ideas, when consumers don’t want to buy what a company is selling, they “persecute” them by shunning their product. Society isn’t buying what you're selling. The fear you feel is a result of your identity being wrapped up in your religious beliefs, so that a public rebuke on them is a rebuke on you. But that just means that now is a time for soul-searching, a time to decide who you want to be in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Here’s why you can’t, with a good conscience, claim that you are being unfairly persecuted. An article in National Review favorably quotes one of the dissenting justices: “Justice Samuel Alito predicted, ‘Today’s decision . . . will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,’ and ‘they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.’” But to vilify someone is to “speak or write about in an abusively disparaging manner.” Religious conservatives have been vilifying gay people in this country for decades. So Christians aren’t in retreat, it’s just that the playing field has come closer to being leveled.

Except we’re not quite there yet, because religious conservatives have gone beyond disparaging the character of homosexuals — they’ve disparaged their rights as human beings, backed by the force of the State. A religious conservative can go on vilifying homosexuals if they want — the government has not taken away that right — but what they can’t do is deny them their equal rights, which in this case is the right to have their marriage recognized as legitimate. It’s now the law of the land.

Writing in Slate, Richard A. Posner, a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th District, explains the key difference between the persecution of homosexuals and the “persecution” of religious conservatives. He writes:

“John Stuart Mill in On Liberty drew an important distinction between what he called ‘self-regarding acts’ and ‘other-regarding acts.’ The former involves doing things to yourself that don’t harm other people, though they may be self-destructive. The latter involves doing things that do harm other people. He thought that government had no business with the former (and hence—his example—the English had no business concerning themselves with polygamy in Utah, though they hated it). Unless it can be shown that same-sex marriage harms people who are not gay (or who are gay but don’t want to marry), there is no compelling reason for state intervention, and specifically for banning same-sex marriage.”

If, after you’ve engaged in some genuine soul-searching, you realize that you can’t become a progressive Christian who believes that God cares more about love and equality than punishment, I’d ask you to at least take to heart a popular Facebook meme. Paraphrasing, it says:

“When I say that ‘I am a Christian,’ I am not shouting that ‘I am clean living,’ or ‘I speak of it with pride,’ or ‘I am claiming to be perfect,’ or that ‘I am holier than thou,’ but rather that ‘I was lost, but now found and forgiven,’ and ‘I am humble, and still need Christ as my guide,’ and ‘My flaws are far too visible but God still believes I’m worth it,’ and that ‘I’m a simple sinner who’s received God’s grace.’”

In other words, don’t try to deny the equal rights of others because of your interpretation of what God says, just worry about removing the log from your own eye. You’re still allowed to have your beliefs, just don’t harm others with them. And don’t support policies that do. If you believe homosexuality is a sin, then don’t engage in those acts — don’t be like the many anti-gay "values" politicians who themselves turned out to be gay. I mean, it's a choice, right? If you believe that having sex before marriage and children out of wedlock are sins, don’t lecture others like Bristol Palin does, and don’t have sex or children before you get married. If you believe pedophilia is a horrific sin, then don’t molest young children (even if they’re your family members) like Josh Duggar did, or that Dennis Hastert is alleged to have done.

You can still be the change you want to see in the world, you just can’t force others to change. It’s a free market, remember?

By Steve Neumann

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Christian Right Christianity Gay Marriage Religion Scotus The Religious Right The Supreme Court