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The Myth of Christian Persecution

Why are messages about martyrdom and victimhood so galvanizing to a group of people who are objectively not being persecuted?

Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann (C) heads for a House Republican caucus meeting at the US Capitol building in Washington, DC on October 4, 2013


The following article first appeared in the American Prospect. 

When Senator Rand Paul took the stage at last weekend's Values Voter Summit, it was clear he needed to up the stakes. Alongside a handful of other 2016 presidential contenders, Paul was auditioning for the far right’s support in a speech to the annual conference of Christian conservatives hosted by the Family Research Council at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Making his task far more difficult was that fact that one of his rivals had just hit a home run.

Ted Cruz, the Republican senator largely blamed for orchestrating the government shutdown in a last-ditch effort to defund the Affordable Care Act, left the podium after a barn-burner speech punctuated by yells of protest from a handful of immigration activists who had entered the conference incognito. Each time the protesters interrupted Cruz’s speech, the audience throbbed with exhilaration and rage. Cruz—who would go on to win the 2016 presidential straw poll—paced the stage like a charismatic preacher, pronouncing amid thunderous applause, “The greatest trick the left has ever played is to convince conservatives we cannot win.” It was an appropriate tack for a man who’s been widely criticized for leading congressional Republicans into an unwinnable shutdown crisis. At least in Cruz’s mind, victory was still possible.

The air was much stiller after Paul took Cruz’s place behind the microphone. But the Kentucky libertarian plunged in, dispensing with a few boilerplate jokes about the Senate Republicans’ upcoming meeting at the White House before shifting to another conservative bête noire: Christian persecution in the Middle East and beyond. “Across the globe, Christians are under attack, almost as if we lived in the Middle Ages or under early pagan Roman rule,” Paul said, referring to the waves of violence against Coptic Christians, who were targeted following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “This administration does nothing to stop it. And it can be argued that they’re giving aid and comfort to those who tolerate these crimes.”

The global war on Christianity is a perpetual topic on conservative talk shows, but it might seem like an odd choice for a politician like Paul, who's made his name as a libertarian Republican opposed to any kind of military intervention. As the Values Voter Summit unfolded over the next day and a half, however, it was clear that Paul was stepping onto a powerful rhetorical bandwagon. Throughout the summit, speaker after speaker bemoaned Christians’ status as an embattled people, fighting everything from Islamic radicalism to a shadowy “war on football.”

At least four speakers—from Ted Cruz to Matt Krause, a first-term Texas state legislator—placed themselves and the assembled crowds in the shoes of another embattled minority: Jews at the time of the Babylonian exile. “Like Esther, you were called for a time such as this,” Cruz told his audience, echoing a line from the Book of Esther, the Biblical story of the queen who rescued the Persian Jews, a religious minority in exile, from the genocidal machinations of the king’s adviser, Haman. It’s a weird analogy, not least because it casts Obama (who is, of course, also a Christian, although that fact was not mentioned at the summit) as Haman, a member of the Amalekite tribe, the Jews’ ancient foes. The allusion has other disturbing implications: At the end of the Book of Esther, the Jews, with the Persian king’s blessing, roved throughout the kingdom, slaughtering their enemies.

The crowds ate it up. But why would messages about martyrdom and victimhood be so galvanizing to a group of people who are, by almost any measure possible, objectively not being persecuted? The president is Christian; Congress is overwhelmingly Christian; although there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court, a majority of the justices are Catholic. Even Paul’s claims about a global war on Christianity ring false. Muslims who use the Internet—who make up about 18 percent of the global population, although this number varies widely from country to country— are increasingly likely to have favorable views of the West and Christianity, signaling that as Internet access expands, Muslim attitudes will grow friendlier.  Two-thirds of Muslims worldwide share concerns about Islamic extremism.