Are American Christians really being persecuted – or are they just being manipulated?
There's an enduring narrative among many conservative Christian groups that the downfall and even persecution of Christianity in America is coming. That fearful sentiment provided part of the foundational rationale of the new book the Benedict Option, drew attention to numerous 'studies' by polling organizations, and appeared in various Christian or right leaning news outlets.
Even if many of these fears about persecution and marginalization are largely based on misunderstandings and overreactions, there's good reason to believe that the worst-case projections don't really hold water in light of so many professing Christian leaders in America. Russian electoral interference aside, evangelical Christians can finally tell themselves that, provided enough Christians mobilize for a common interest, they can exercise significant political power in order to advance their interests within the American political system.
There will always be small skirmishes over the definition of religious freedom and its boundaries. Small skirmishes over boundary markers are not the same thing as a full-scale assault to ban a particular religion. Whether there are lawsuits over issuing gay marriage licenses, baking cakes for a gay wedding, setting tax laws for church buildings, or defining the limits of public/private partnerships when churches rent space in public schools, none of these religious freedom battles qualify as an attack on the right to practice a religion. These boundaries concern the nature of separating church and state, not the state attacking the church.
Christians have long enjoyed a privileged position in America and Christians remain a majority religious group. As the overall number of Christians decline and cultural shifts lead to American values no longer being synonymous with a particular Christian group's beliefs, conflicts will be inevitable. Losing a place of privilege is not the same as losing all rights and freedom to read the Bible or to practice one's faith.
Most 'religious freedom' battles are matters of balancing one group's rights against another group's rights. For instance, if a Christian university has policies that restrict gay students/employees, courts will need to rule between the rights of the gay students/employees and the rights of the religious institution. Both sides have their concerns and arguments, but such a case is hardly a concerted attack on Christianity or an attempt to persecute Christians.
Even if a Republican president failed to provide sufficient safeguards for Christians on the federal level, there is no shortage of practicing Christians in the American government. In fact, Christians far outnumber every other faith group in Congress. In addition, the Republicans in the US Congress have by and large campaigned on 'religious freedom' platforms. If they hope to be re-elected, they would be expected by their constituents to take careful note of religious freedom issues – although there are plenty of Christian Democrats who would defend Christians.
With the disputed confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, a conservative justice believed to be further to the right than his predecessor Antonin Scalia, Christians worried about an assault on their religious freedom have yet another confirmed advocate in the court. This is also assuming that justices on the left would stand by if a gross violation of religious freedom occurred in America – a possibility that I highly doubt. It's hard to imagine a pitched battle in America's courts where both parties would alter the laws of the land against Christians.
However, even if the president, Congress and Supreme Court all failed to protect religious freedom in America and the rights of Christians came under fire, there remain state legislatures and governors as a significant line of defense. Republicans control a majority of these legislatures and governorships, the highest in recent history in fact. While there are serious charges of gerrymandering and voter suppression to contend with in the years to come, the fact remains that Republican representatives, who tend to be sympathetic to Christian voters, will have significant power in place to protect the religious freedom of citizens.
Once again, this does not take into account that there are many Christian Democrats as well who would strongly oppose any overt form of persecution or restriction on religious practice. Yes, they are plenty of Democrats who support gay marriage and who may not be as sympathetic to churches in certain court cases, but these issues hardly constitute a spirit of hostility or desire to undermine the freedom of religion in America.
The American Christian persecution complex is a fear-based manipulation tool that is designed to motivate voters for Republicans, to prompt donors to give to ministries, and to convince readers to buy books. There is no doubt about a decline of professing Christians in America, although a great deal of the decline can be explained by marginal or cultural Christians changing their status to unaffiliated.
An unaffiliated former Christian voting for Democrats and supporting same sex marriage is hardly on par with a conspirator working to ban the Bible and to lock up Christians in large numbers. Christians still have significant influence and political power in America. The sooner we use that influence for the causes of justice and restoration of those in need, the better for America and the future of Christianity in America.