Christian Persecution Complex
Christian Persecution Complex is the tongue-in-cheek phenomenon that describes how some Christians perceive minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of church and state to be offensive attacks against them and their beliefs. Critics of religion mockingly refer to the complex whenever religious conservatives use inflammatory language to refer to religious and political conflicts, especially in the legal realm. Although the complex is invoked in jest, there is truth to the phenomenon it describes. This mysterious complex can be partially explained in several ways, including Christian texts and traditions, fundamentalist psychology, and the real atheist agenda, but none of these is fully satisfactory.
Christian text and tradition
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reported to have preached:
Blessed are those who’re persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.
This text reflects concerns of early Christians in the first and second centuries who did experience persecution. Most of their persecution was social and local – expulsion from Jewish religious practices and general ostracism. Christianity was still seen as an offshoot (and heretical branch) of Judaism, and many of its early converts were Jewish. This is especially true for the audience for which the gospel writer Matthew writes. At other various points during Christianity’s early history, it was confronted with more organized and widespread persecution.
The important thing to note about biblical texts like these is that they are like one half of an ongoing conversation that took place two thousand years ago in a certain context. The circumstances in the modern world are quite different, and the surviving half of the conversation is not always relevant now. Nevertheless, the text of the Bible is extremely important to many Christians, and especially so to the fundamentalist Christians who suffer from Christian Persecution Complex. Ed Brayton summarizes the connection between the Sermon on the Mount and the modern complex and their disconnect from modern reality:
[The Sermon on the Mount passage] provides fertile ground for a persecution complex, a reason for Christians to seek out examples of persecution (though, to be fair, the habit of inventing and exaggerating persecution is limited to a certain subset of Christians). And in some places at some times, that persecution was quite real. The astonishing thing today is that they manage to convince themselves they’re being persecuted even while controlling virtually every institution in our society.
Another explanation for Christian Persecution Complex is found in the psychological profile of fundamentalists. The social psychologist Bob Altemeyer has researched extensively on authoritarianism and fundamentalism, and has found a lot of overlap between the two. Individuals who score highly on fundamentalism and authoritarianism tests tend to be disproportionately aggressive when confronted with any challenge to their own views.
The challenge to fundamentalist views does not even have to be a direct challenge to be considered by the individual as a challenge. To a non-fundamentalist, an atheist’s positive statement “I do not believe in God” is not an attack per se on any other point of view; it is only a statement of that individual’s view. But to a fundamentalist who holds his own views very rigidly and defensively, this statement is easily converted into an attack that puts the fundamentalist’s interests in jeopardy.
There is some disagreement over how the atheist’s statement can be reasonably interpreted. Jesse Galef argues in an article for the Friendly Atheist titled “Atheism Inherently Offends:”
There is one reality and some of us are correct while others are incorrect. It’s no longer merely a statement about myself – in essence I’m saying, ‘I don’t believe God exists and neither should you.’
Perhaps this interpretation makes the fundamentalist reaction more reasonable. In any case, it certainly sheds light on why it occurs. If Galef is right, then an atheist’s description of her own beliefs belongs in the same category as a Republican identifying as such or a Muslim identifying as such, rather than a woman, Hispanic, or lesbian identifying as such. The first category includes beliefs that are adopted by choice and may be changed if the holder is convinced, so a positive statement of belief may be taken as an attempt at persuasion. The second category includes purely demographic markers, and cannot reasonably be interpreted as persuasive attempts. This distinction makes sense, but it does not explain the unique phenomenon of Christian Persecution Complex. There is no comparable Democratic Persecution Complex that is identifiable any time another self-identifies as a Republican.
The last explanation for Christian Persecution Complex may be found in the atheist agenda: there is a desire among many atheists to actively campaign against religion. The complex may not be pure paranoia then, if fundamentalists’ claims about the goals of their opponents are partially true. In any given court case, the stated goal of the party opposing the fundamentalist interest is usually “equality” or something similar. But that ostensible goal may hide the real motivations behind these cases.
Thomas Huxley is said to have fired the first shots in the explicit war between faith and science, saying that “one or the other must go after a struggle of unknown duration.” Several current atheists, including the most widely known, are members of the aggressive atheist camp. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris are the leaders in this group, and have unequivocally advocated against religion. Even less aggressive atheists tend to believe in the superiority of their opinions and would like to see religion decline in influence.
Although none of these explanations fully explains Christian Persecution Complex, taken together they help show why fundamentalist Christians seem to view modern legal and political conflicts involving religion the way that they do.