Religious “Persecution” In a Pluralist Society

Yesterday afternoon I delivered the Thirty-Seventh Annual Giannella Memorial Lecture at Villanova University School of Law. Told I could speak on any topic broadly related to law and religion, my topic was What is Religious “Persecution” in a Pluralist Society?

In my talk, I explored the question of how we should think about what we mean by religious persecution in a pluralist society like the United States and whether we should be concerned with the use of the term “persecution” for the kind of issues that have given rise to that label in the United States.

After talking about why I think the term “persecution” is an inappropriate label for many of the instances to which it is applied, I spoke about why I worry about the use of the term “persecution” both with respect to those who utter the words and those who hear them.

My concern is that once someone sees themselves as “persecuted,” their instinctive reaction is to fight and resist. And the fight becomes fierce because a kind of circle the wagon mentality arises and anyone outside that circle is the enemy. And when we are talking in religious terms, the enemy is evil. If I believe I am persecuted, I must fight to defend myself. It is not just that someone disagrees with me, I am being attacked.

The result of language of persecution is demonization of those who disagree. In The Myth of Persecution, Candida Moss writes,

The myth of persecution is theologically grounded in the division of the world into two parties, one backed by God and the other by Satan. And everyone knows that you cannot reason with the devil. Even when the devil is not explicitly invoked, the rhetoric of persecution suggests that the persecutors are irrational and immoral and the persecuted are innocent and brave. In a world filled with persecution, efforts to negotiate or even reason with one’s persecutors are interpreted as collaboration and moral compromise. We should not attempt to understand the other party, because to do so would be to cede ground to injustice and hatred.

This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about disagreement and is not about dialogue. The response to being ‘under attack’ and “persecuted” is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy war, the same things happens; we have to fight with those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground.

Not surprisingly, this kind of attitude inhibits the ability to find any kind of common ground – indeed, to even acknowledge the possible existence of common ground.

There is also an unfortunate effect on those who hear the words. First, the more the language of religious persecution is used for things that are not really persecution, the greater the danger of trivializing the real persecution that exists. There becomes a real credibility problem that makes it much harder for people to take real threats against religion seriously. There is a bit of the “boy who cried wolf” too many times reaction. Moreover, many people feel that calling the kinds of things I’ve mentioned as examples here “persecution” cheapens and detracts from “real” instances of persecution around the world.

Second, the more language of persecution is used, the more likely it is the opponents of a broad concept of religious freedom will tend to argue that anything short of persecution ought to be acceptable. It makes persecution that which we seek to avoid, rather than claiming a strong positive space for things that fall short of an acceptable definition of persecution.

Third, people accused of persecution are also likely to go into a fight mode, creating the possibility of backlash that results in an even narrower understanding of what constitutes persecution and what kinds of protection ought to be granted on religious grounds.

For both – for both those who claim to be persecuted and those accused of doing the persecution, the language of persecution ratchets up the “crazy” emotion, creating dangerous polarization. Candida Moss calls the language of persecution “discursive napalm, ” dialogue-ending language – and I think there is much truth in her conclusion that “In the political and religious arenas, [abandoning the narrative of persecution] would allow us to find common ground in debates that are currently sharply polarized. Rather than demonizing our opponents, we could try to find points of agreement and work together.”

The failure to do so risks turning some people off to Christianity altogether. That is a sad and unfortunate result – if people view Christians as cry-babies who rant about persecution, our evangelization efforts will falter; people will be much less likely to be able to hear the message of Christ.

The entirety of my remarks will be published in the Villanova Law Review.