Culture At Large

Persecution and the American Christian 'matyrdom complex'

Andy Rau

Last week, Peter posted some thought-provoking videos that challenge the idea that American Christians are being persecuted for their faith. Today I came across a thorough and critical essay by Elizabeth A. Castelli examining the contemporary Christian 'persecution complex' and how it developed.

Castelli suggests that the 'persecution complex' today (specifically, the idea that American society is engaged in an active political and ideological war against Christianity) has its roots in identity politics, the history of Christian matyrdom, and—most interestingly—the uniquely American "jeremiad":

The link that some Christians assert between their religious identity as Christians and the idea of persecution, then, has a long heritage. In the contemporary U.S. political context, the story of Christian martyrdom has become intertwined with two different threads of political argument and positioning: with, on the one hand, what historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed presciently in the early 1960s as "the paranoid style in American politics" and, on the other, the legacy of 1960s and 1970s identity politics. The resulting persecution complex is melodramatic in tone and, like all melodrama, tends to traffic in caricature and larger-than-life allegorical figures that lend themselves to broad-stroke morality portraits. But in addition to these, I see an even more complicated historical blending here, with several strands being woven together into the discursive process: the story of Christian martyrdom being braided together with the American jeremiad tradition (grounded in the Puritan sermonic practice) and identity politics, all three promoting a Utopian vision of looming danger and moral injury, collective struggle and perseverance, and holding out the promise of redemption -- whether it be spiritual, moral, or political.

That's a mouthful. But the essay is well worth the read, even if you disagree with its conclusions. Do you think this analysis, which suggests that the Christian persecution complex is less a factual reality and more a worldview built on a fusion of American politics and religious history, is on target? More directly, do you think there's an intentional "war against Christianity" raging in our government and culture today, or is that just a paranoid fantasy?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends