Vice President Mike Pence's commencement address at Liberty University this weekend was largely a predictable affair. But along with the platitudes and politicking came the part that made headlines, the part where Pence warned his audience they'd leave Liberty to live and work in a country that doesn't particularly like them:
[M]y message to all of you in the Class of 2019 is — derives of the moment that we're living in today. You know, throughout most of American history, it's been pretty easy to call yourself Christian. It didn't even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible.
But things are different now. Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you're going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you're going to be asked to endorse them. You're going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture. [Vice President Pence via The White House]
This is the "evangelical persecution complex" in action. It may be sincere and well-intentioned — I don't know Pence’s heart, let alone those of ordinary American Christians who express similar views without the complicating factor of political gain — but it's misleading and misguided, damaging to real religious liberty issues and the plight of Christians suffering grave persecution abroad. Though I share Pence's concern that Christians prepare themselves for faithfulness in the face of cultural challenge, this fearmongering is not productive. It suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.
Persecution has always been part of the story of the church. The New Testament reports the first martyrdom just a few years after the life of Christ, and after that, we're told, "a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem," scattering Christians into modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and beyond.
The earliest followers of Jesus were seen as a sect of Judaism, which enjoyed some exemptions from the requirements of Roman civil religion. But as Christianity grew and spread, it was quickly identified as a new religion, and those protections fell away. The waves of persecution that followed were not necessarily targeting Christians — the Decian persecution, for example, was an attempt to make Rome great again and only incidentally resulted in Christians' execution for refusing to worship idols and the emperor — but the effect was that many Christians were forced to flee, apostatize, or die.
The Emperor Constantine's embrace of Christianity and the subsequent rise of Christendom in Europe produced about a millennium of quiet for the bulk of the Christian world, though certainly persecution continued outside Europe. But the Protestant Reformation brought a fresh round of violence, this time of Christian against Christian — Catholics against Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians (and vice versa), and everyone against Radical Reformers, like the Anabaptists. This, as any storybook account of the first Thanksgiving will tell you, is partly what drove European colonists to the Americas.
Protestants like Pence and most of his audience at Liberty (and me) tend to pay less attention to church history than our Catholic and Orthodox counterparts, but this record of persecution looms large in Christians' cultural memory across the board. In other words, it's not surprising that this is a lens through which we'd see our own experiences of opposition.
But that doesn't mean the antagonism American Christians are now experiencing should be placed in the same category, as Pence's remarks intimate. Yes, it was in some ways easier to be a Christian in the United States in decades past, but ridicule, hostility, and peer pressure to abandon the distinctives of Christian life are hardly new. (Jesus himself told his disciples to expect as much, commanding them to act in love.)
As a Mennonite who believes Jesus asks us to reject violence, power, and materialism — all deeply embedded in American culture — I'd argue things aren't so "different now" as Pence seems to think. It has never been especially easy to be a Christian in America if you think peacemaking is integral to our faith and domination and consumption are not. Every age poses new challenges to a faithful life, and "the moment that we're living in today" is nothing special in that regard.
If Pence's comments only ran afoul of history and Scripture, it would be bad enough. But they have more immediate, practical consequences, too. For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a "boy who cried wolf" effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.
If — while enjoying obvious political and cultural power, even as a holdover from an earlier era — we constantly cast ourselves as victims, it becomes difficult for non-Christians to take seriously real pleas for help in defense of freedom of conscience. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously eschewed the "vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted," and American Christians in an increasingly pluralistic society must learn to do the same for the sake of political strategy if nothing else.
As Alan Noble, co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture and a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote at The Atlantic in 2014, we "need to be even more careful about the debates we choose to engage in, the rights we choose to assert, and the hills we choose to die on." A pattern of injudicious claims of victimhood undermine us when there is a real injustice to address.
Pence's words and the mindset that feeds them are arguably even more deleterious to Christians experiencing real persecution abroad. "Yesterday, I was informed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that today Christians suffer more persecution around the world than any other religion," Pence said in his speech. "In fact, the United Kingdom released a report just last week that said persecution of Christians worldwide is 'near genocide levels.'" All of that is correct — an estimated "one in 12 Christians live where Christianity is 'illegal, forbidden, or punished'" — and the British report likewise found Christians to be the most persecuted religious group on Earth.
How can we Americans complain that we "might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible" while churches burn in Burkina Faso? It's important not to "bow down to the idols of the popular culture," but we're not being asked to bow on pain of literal death. As with our own religious liberty fights, threat inflation of the opposition the average American Christian will experience makes it easier to ignore or downplay this very real suffering abroad. We don't serve the persecuted church well if we drown out news of their deaths with our plaints about mean tweets — and Pence linked the one to the other in just a few sentences.
To be a Christian in the United States in 2019 may not be the all-time easiest context to practice our faith, but it is certainly near the top of the list. Christians in times past and elsewhere in the world today have lost their lives for their faith; we, at most, might lose a career, and even that is incredibly unlikely.
Contra Pence, it's still "pretty easy to call yourself Christian" in America. And if the days are evil, our task is not to deploy one of the most powerful men in the world to hyperbolize on our behalf at the largest private non-profit university in the country. It is to live wisely, make the most of the opportunities we do have, and give thanks.