By the strictest definition of the work persecute there is no persecution of Christians in the USA. However, persecution seldom arises full-blown in any country. It develops over time. The seed is sown as disinformation about Christianity is spread in conversations, blog posts, public discussions and printed material. Disinformation casts Christianity as anything from an annoyance to a real threat to non-Christians, and the reaction of non-Christians may be as mild as name-calling in a shopping mall or as severe as lawsuits pursued all the way to the Supreme Court. Harassment may lead to actual discrimination, a practice forbidden in law but easily practiced by pretending some other motive.
That path to persecution is littered with the establishment of dangerous precedents. For example, in contemporary culture, the generic issues of health care, marriage and education are seething stews of hot button issues that turn on personal values shaped by religious teachings. When legal discussions succeed in dissecting the issues to separate actions from the values of people embroiled in them, court decisions can set precedents that feel like persecution to individuals who cannot live by their faith principles without running afoul of laws or regulations. Increasingly, the secular stance of the culture shapes a secular stance by government. The secular worldview is not itself persecution, but it is diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview. The conflict between worldviews can and does lead to persecution. It has happened in countries around the world, and it could happen in the USA
In the US, the First Amendment to the US Constitution historically has moderated the friction between secularism and Christianity. At the beginning of the nation, most of the parties to discussions in this realm agreed on terminology and definitions without writing out the terms and the definitions. They simply understood one another. Today, the tacit agreements of the past no longer stand, and disagreement over the terms is creating new points of friction.
Contemporary Christians chafe at the changes but are loathe to use the word persecution. It sounds overblown. They do not want to call it persecution when an employer forbids employees to wish customers a “Merry Christmas.” They don’t even want to call it persecution when a student is forbidden to pray in a valedictory address, bad though they may think the ruling is. They want to get along, and they do not want to start trouble.
This is the real challenge. When might the courage of one’s convictions become thoughtless and irresponsible trouble-making? In first century Jerusalem, the same question arose. The apostles were going around talking about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, a real sore spot for Jewish religious leaders and Roman government officials. They had executed Jesus in order to shut down trouble, but trouble seemed to erupt despite everything. Ignorant fishermen made the powers that be look ridiculous by claiming their “execution” was a failure, and even worse, they were performing miracles of healing in the name of the very troublemaker who had been executed. The people with power in the culture and the government tried to make deals with these people. They said that if the followers of Jesus would just shut up, the people with power would leave them alone. The followers of Jesus refused to shut up, saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” The public disagreements escalated from disinformation (these people just want to make trouble) to harassment (demands by religious leaders to shut up) to discrimination (refusal to hire Christians or allow them to live in certain places) to outright persecution (beatings, stonings, imprisonment and public executions).
Nothing has changed. People in the US have become comfortable about being Christian, because until recently, the culture actually thought being Christian was a good thing. Public officials wanted to be known for regular church attendance, whether or not they believed anything. That state of affairs has ended. And that is no real loss. What is lost, however, is an easy, comfortable assumption that being a Christian is a social plus.
What should Christians do about it?
Christians must open their eyes. The cultural pressures that create the momentum to persecution seem almost too trivial or even too ridiculous to worry about. Some Christians feel that it looks immature to object when somebody says, “It offends me when you say that Christ is the way to God.” In the name of being considerate and sensitive to the feelings of others, Christians back away and back away and back away.
Jesus teaches his followers to love people who oppose them, and he even teaches his followers to turn the other cheek, but he also insists that his followers must never stop putting him first. The entire book of Revelation is devoted to one consistent message: overcoming. Christians do not overcome the world by aggression; they overcome by clinging to Christ. When they are opposed, they cling to Christ, they claim his name and his promise to go with them, and they never recant. When they are assaulted and abused, they turn the other cheek, and they keep saying, “Christ died for you, too.” When they are told to keep their religion to themselves, they simply do not do it; they share Christ everywhere at all times. They overcome persecution by never giving up Christ. Their victories may at times look like defeat. Christ on the cross looked like a loser, but the empty tomb testifies that Christ is the winner, the victor.
In the US today, a Christian’s neighbors do not gather around and demand he leave town because everybody else is a Buddhist. It won’t hold water in a US court to accuse a Christian of blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. The local shaman will not assemble a mob to burn down a Christian’s house because he refuses to contribute to the annual fertility festival. Those kinds of aggression do sound like persecution even to western ears. By comparison, battles over prayer in schools, wearing a cross at work, and even the funding of birth control don’t actually sound like persecution. Nevertheless, it is important to remember than unless Christians step up and defend the boundaries of religious liberty, the pressure of creeping secularism will steadily shrink the accepted scope of religious liberty. Christians in the US may not be persecuted today, in the strictest sense of the word, but their right to the free exercise of their faith is seriously under assault. Groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation do not try to hide the fact that they want religion shut down and cleaned out of US society. They are quite clear that each time they win a victory, they celebrate the narrowing of religious liberty, and they consider that small victory to be a stepping stone to the ultimate victory of removing religion from the culture forever.
Christ never taught us that we should expect it to be easy to live obedient to him. He said, “All men will hate you because of me.” Matthew 9:22 The cultural and even governmental restrictions that pressure Christians to be less and less visible may not be persecution, but if the enemies of Christianity achieve their objective, the suppression of the good news of Christ, persecution will not be needed. Persecution arises only when less violent tactics fail. Christians must be faithful against the least rejection, the tiniest restriction of free exercise of faith. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Satan’s battle to defeat the good news of Christ may begin with nothing more than a whisper. Never doubt, however, that when Satan takes the smallest step to diminish Christ’s influence in the world, he has every intention of carrying the battle to its fullest development. The fact that Christians are not “persecuted” in the US today does not mean that it will not happen.