Christians in Today’s America: Persecuted or Persecutors?
During the Palm Sunday service in church today my pastor made an interesting comment. The topic of the sermon focused specifically on Christ’s tribulations immediately preceding His crucifixion and resurrection and how these have parallels in our own lives. Among the specific pains Jesus experienced the pastor referenced betrayal, persecution, denial, rejection, and scourging, with everything culminating in the crucifixion itself. In discussing persecution he made the interesting comment that America is still very much a free nation and that we as Christians in America have been fortunate not to experience, as have so many others around the world, persecution for our faith – at least “not yet.”
I should mention that I make it a point to avoid, as much as is possible, discussing politics with my fellow believers. My reasons are twofold. First, I believe that our temporal existence is fraught with enough political discord that we should want to avoid it when we are gathered in Christian fellowship, focusing on spiritual matters to the greatest extent possible. The second reason is more straightforward: I do not share my fellow congregants’ almost fanatical adulation of George W. Bush and American nation-state and do not wish to sow the seeds of discord and disagreement. I am not sure that I will be able to avoid this indefinitely. But I digress.
I understand why my pastor made his statement and to be fair, he has not been at all jingoistic from the pulpit, as so many other Protestant evangelical clergy have been (a cursory listen to your local Christian radio station during the afternoon and evening hours will probably yield a festival of state worship on a par with Hannitimbaugh, Liddy, and the other neoconservative babblers of the commercial airwaves). The fact that his older brother is an army chaplain currently deployed in Iraq (indefinitely, he was recently informed) probably in no small way molds his point of view. He feels, like many other Americans of every religious and philosophical belief, that he is obligated to “support the troops” and that the only legitimate way of doing so is to praise and support the State that his put his brother and his fellow soldiers into harm’s way. It never occurs to him that this same state has not only needlessly endangered his brother and thousands of other Americans, but that it has propagandized him and his congregation into believing that this war is both just and biblically justified. The fact that George W. Bush has publicly declared that he is “born again” is sufficient to instill belief that the president is doing God’s work. The fact that the president rarely, if ever, seems to behave in a manner consistent with one who has been born-again seems not to register at all.
But getting back to the original statement about freedom in America for Christians, I am compelled to wonder just how “free” we really are. Let’s start with a subject near and dear to my heart, the federal tax code. Churches, as most of my readers are aware, qualify for exemption from corporate income taxes under Section 501.c3 of the United States Tax Code. While this is certainly a boon to churches in that it frees them from what would be otherwise crippling tax liabilities, there are strings attached. One of the most onerous (and arguably unconstitutional) of these is the restriction placed on political speech from the pulpit. Basically, the tax code states that any use of the pulpit to endorse a particular candidate or political position constitutes advocacy and is a cause for revocation of tax-exempt status. For just a small sample of how toxic this is to both freedom speech and the autonomy of churches to worship as they see fit, see this. Not only does the State use federal regulation to co-opt Christian worship, it also enlists “fellow believers” as Judases, motivated by secular politics, to persecute churches that it considers ideologically threatening. Now that “Born Again” Bush is in office, this is apparently A-Okay with most evangelical Christian Americans, but one wonders if such tactics would be tolerated were Al Gore or John Kerry currently occupying the oval office and members of “liberal” traditional churches were assisting in the persecution of evangelical churches by “ratting out” conservative sermonizing from the pulpit. It might behoove my pastor to consider this as he waxes rhapsodic on “freedom” of the church.
We must therefore ask ourselves how any organization, religious or otherwise, can be “free” when gagged by state-imposed restrictions. How is a church “free” to worship if it can be taxed out of existence and its property seized simply for exercising the collective conscience of its members? But the most important question is: what business is it of the State what ideology any organization endorses? What clearer example do we need of raw state power than a federal law that regulates the association of individuals? Indeed, with raw state power exercised more ferociously than ever in the nation’s history, will there be any more explicit examples necessary?