In March 2014, the film God’s Not Dead was a surprise box office hit, grossing $9.2 million on its opening weekend and earning nearly $70 million as of the writing of this book. Variety called it “the biggest shocker” of the weekend. The success of this movie should not have come as a surprise, though. God’s Not Dead was enormously popular with one audience in particular: Evangelical Christians. Why? Because it perfectly captures the persecution narrative that has become the central worldview of so many Christians in America.
God’s Not Dead tells the story of a college student named Josh whose faith is challenged by his atheist philosophy professor. Josh must prove the existence of God or fail his philosophy class. Many film critics found this premise to be ridiculous. That is not the point though. The filmmakers wanted their Christian audience to identify with Josh, who stands up for his faith despite severe criticism. The movie wants us to see the secular world as a source of anti-Christian persecution. The film also wants us to take up the call to battle these forces of secularism that are seeking to eliminate Christianity from the public sphere.
The ridiculous part of God’s Not Dead is not the professor’s pass/fail challenge. It is the creation of a world where atheists are pitted against theists and non-Christians against Christians in a battle for the soul of our culture. God’s Not Dead creates a simplistic, dualistic world, where one is either in or out, and the ones who are in are always the good guys. They are always us.
The film portrays not only atheists but also Muslims, academics, and wealthy business people as persecutors of Christians. (In fact, the film’s only positively portrayed characters are church-going Christians, the Newsboys, and the stars of Duck Dynasty.) God’s Not Dead communicates the idea that the highest vocation of the Christian is to stand up for Christ amidst the onslaught of daily persecution.
Persecuting Young People
When I was in high school, I was part of a youth ministry in a non-denominational, Evangelical church. We had meetings every Sunday night where we played games, listened to a Bible lesson, and ate Oreo cookies.
One evening when we gathered, our leaders told us we were going on an outing. We climbed into the church van, where we had to don blindfolds. After a short drive, we piled out of the van and found ourselves in an old barn lit by a dim gas lantern.
One of the leaders proceeded to read a newspaper article informing us that Christian gatherings were now illegal and that pastors who attempted to assemble their churches would be arrested. This was the reason for the blindfolds and the secret location. Then we found a comfortable place in the loft of the barn and proceeded to pray and conduct our illegal youth meeting.
It was a pleasant evening in the old barn—until we were interrupted by flashing blue lights and a police siren. When our youth pastor went out to investigate. He was promptly handcuffed and taken away in the police car.
Of course, the entire evening was an elaborate object lesson. (It was fairly effective though, since it is one of the few lessons I remember from my years in youth group.) Our adventure was crafted to reveal how Christians are forced to function in places where they are persecuted and to warn us what life would be like if Christian persecution ever came to the United States. While our leaders were not intentionally trying to instill fear in us, they were promoting the idea that persecution is a very real problem against which we should be prepared to fight.
Growing up in the Evangelical world, this idea was continually reinforced. I heard it in Sunday school and in Sunday morning preaching. I heard it in the Christian music to which I listened, saw it in Christian movies, and read about it in Christian books. I learned that those who worked to remove prayer from public schools were not following a constitutional mandate of separation of church and state or considering the diverse beliefs of all Americans but were secularists (hell-) bent on the destruction of one faith only: Christianity. Those who supported legalized abortion were not validating the rights of women to control their own reproduction but were murderers determined to eliminate millions of “inconvenient” children. Those who mocked Christians didn’t do so because they had had bad experiences with rude, obnoxious, and selfish believers; they were opposed to the love of Jesus, perhaps even as part of some broad, Satanic conspiracy.
In response, at youth group, youth conferences, and in ministry training, I was taught continually to stand up for my faith. Over time, I came to realize that one of the highest values of the Evangelical world is to stand up for one’s faith.
The idea of Christians as an excluded “other” has deep roots in America’s history. Our Puritan forbearers left Europe to escape persecution from state churches. Separatists, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics, and many others came to America for the promise of religious liberty.
Fast forward to the present, where a culture war is being fought to identify the “true believers” and determine whose values will control American society. Many American Evangelicals imagine themselves engaged in a battle for the country’s soul, not only with secularists but also with progressive and liberal Christians, whom they regard as nothing more than wolves in sheep’s clothing.
It’s a Myth
While the notion of a culture war has been used primarily by political ideologues to rally their troops, it has also caused many evangelicals to see religious persecution under every rock. The Ten Commandments are removed from the courthouse lobby? Religious persecution. The opening prayer at an event is replaced by a moment of silence? Persecution. Teachers are prohibited from wearing religious T-shirts to school? Persecution. The cashier wishes you “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Persecution, persecution, persecution.
We have a persecution complex. An obsession.
I worked in church ministry for nearly 20 years. During that time, I interacted almost exclusively which people who were part of the religious institution. Over the past ten years or so, I came to know more people who reside outside the bounds of conservative Evangelical Christianity—atheists, liberals, homosexuals, scientists, educators, philosophers, and those who identify with other religions—people who I might once have considered my enemies. The thing is, when you get to know your enemy, the conflict and contention begins to disappear. This is exactly what happened to me. I came to realize that my years of entrenchment in the narrative of persecution had deprived me of relationships with amazing people, positive developmental experiences, and a truer understanding of God’s character.
I now believe that Christians in America are not persecuted or oppressed. I will go so far as to say the persecution of American Christians is a myth, a fiction that serves to bind many American Evangelical communities together. It is a legitimizing force for our religious activities, a motivator for evangelism, and an excuse to behave badly toward those with whom we disagree. Worst of all, it distracts us from the real problems of human suffering, to which Jesus instructed his followers to attend. What many Christians perceive as persecution is actually fear of losing their privileged place in society, a fear that is exploited by the very people who have the most to lose from this shift in status.
In this book, I look at how the persecution myth developed amongst American Evangelicals, what makes it so attractive, and how we can go about writing a new script regarding our place in society.
My hope is that by telling this story, I will encourage American Evangelicals to reconsider their role in the culture and work toward developing truly loving relationships with secularists, other believers, and those groups in America and abroad who are suffering from real persecution and injustice. Seeing as the persecution narrative has created so much bad blood between Evangelicals and their neighbors, I also hope this book will give outsiders a better understanding of how the Evangelical mind works as a foundation for future dialogue and reconciliation.