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Are American Christians Persecuted?

The roots of the modern Religious Right persecution complex run deep, right back to the beginning of Christianity. Jesus often warned his first followers that they would face hardship, and would even be persecuted by people who didn't understand their mission.

Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. (Matthew 24:9)

…and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22)

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. (Luke 6:22)

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. (John 15:20a)

The theme of persecution can be found throughout the rest of New Testament.

Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:17)

Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)

And history records a trail of persecution of Christians that stretched through three centuries, first within Judea, then sproadically throughout the Roman Empire. But in the fourth century everything changed. The Roman Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. Christians who had come to expect hostility from the authorities suddenly found that they were the authorities.

Today, the Western world has become a place where the greatest danger the state offers to Christians is not conflict but co-option. Today's church and state far too seldom recognize themselves as distinct entities with distinct goals. It is those outside the church who now suffer for their beliefs. American Christians have a secure spot in national affairs, but nearly half of all Americans say they could not vote for an atheist or a Muslim.

But many prominent Christian thinkers argue that this is not what Jesus had in mind for his followers.

Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the leading Christian theologians of the 20th century, explained the church's role within a secular culture.

Whenever a church does anything for its own group, it has that right. But when it reaches up beyond its group and tries to enforce its standards upon a society that doesn't accept these standards…not necessarily every standard that every church tries to enforce upon the society is from the society's standpoint a good standard.

Contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School is even more emphatic.

My greatest concern for the church today in terms of its relation to the state is quite simply idolatry. As I’ve tried to argue in my book, War and the American Difference, the deep problem is the Christian identification with America such that Christians are unable to distinguish the church from America. It’s an understandable confusion given our country’s history. But that doesn’t make it any less perverted.

The Reverend Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has launched an initiative called Protect Thy Neighbor to ensure that religious freedom, "an important constitutional principle," is not turned into "a cudgel to be used against others."

But some Christians continue to fall into the trap. Failing to understand the difference between legal and moral principles, psychologist James Dobson reacted to the Supreme Court's June decision on same-sex marriage by asserting"Barring a miracle, the family that has existed since antiquity will likely crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself." Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association worries that the decision makes it more difficult for Christians to denigrate their neighbors.

Following the July 2012 mass shooting at a Colorado theater, attorney and pundit David French worried that the federal government was preparing to take away a "God-given right of man."

Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz questions why this nation would allow "nonbelievers"—by which he means anyone who doesn't share his particular brand of Christianity—to elect our leaders.

And when these extremists get pushback on their views, they are quick to claim they are being persecuted. This allows them the smug satisfaction of feeling like they are taking the Bible literally, and are suffering the same way Jesus' early followers did.

But it's really not the same at all. The Apostle Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (or Two Corinthians, if you're Donald Trump) about some of the hardships he had faced.

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

Being wished a happy holiday as the Starbucks employee hands you a plain red cup of iced cinnamon latte is just not the same level of punishment.

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