George Smathers was a US senator who represented Florida from 1951 to 1969. During the 1950 election, Time magazine reported that Smathers attempted to disparage his opponent during a speech by saying,
“Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known Homo sapien, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”
This speech is now known as the Redneck Speech and is believed to be the creation of a reporter, not of George Smathers. He likely never made such a speech. It is a believable story though, because we understand the propensity of politicians to instill fear in their constituency. This kind of fear mongering is not much different from what we hear out of those who claim that religious liberty is being stripped away from Americans. The continual diet of “sky is falling” served up by Franklin Graham, Albert Mohler, James Dobson, Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin and many others is simply an attempt to instill fear in in their listeners.
As we approach the 2016 presidential election this message will be served up to us more and more frequently and with increasing fervor. Consuming these messages can easily convince us that we are on a slippery slope away from the grace of God and toward secular anarchy.
While some of those warning America of anti-Christian persecution are sincere, many of them use this message as an easy route to fame, fortune, and especially political power. The persecution narrative sells books, increases television viewership, and swells voter turnout. When politicians claim we are being oppressed, and they rally us to a cause, the nation does not benefit. The politicians benefit. More political contributions are made, and more people show up to vote, but the nation becomes more polarized, more divided, as a result.
Over the past decade or so, numerous commentators have used the persecution narrative as a central theme to sell books. Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Todd Starnes are just some examples. Nearly every one of their books landed on the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly, the persecution narrative is quite profitable.
In 2014, Dinesh D’Souza released a book titled America: Imagine a World without Her, followed by a film of the same name. America highlights the greatness of the United States, downplays its flaws, and warns readers of the Obama Administration’s policies that will destroy the country. While it is not specifically religious, the book and film fit neatly into the persecution narrative.
In July 2014, an uproar began when Costco removed America from its shelves. Accusations of anti-conservative bias and persecution swirled. At the same time Google was being accused of a similar bias because the word America did not automatically result in local movie theater schedules, as did searches for most other film titles. Both Google and Costco insisted there was no political motivation on their part. Costco claimed its decision was based upon sales, and Google claimed the word America was so generic that it did not trigger a movie theater search. Neither company wanted to be the center of a controversy, so America the film was placed at the top of Google’s search results, and the book was returned to Costco’s shelves.
The result of D’Souza’s claim of persecution and this artificial controversy was that America the book became a bestseller, and America the film became a minor box office success.
Who benefits from the religious persecution narrative? Candidates who want more votes, politicians who want more power, commentators who want more viewers, authors who want more book sales, and preachers who want more media coverage, bigger churches, and richer coffers. The idea that we are persecuted, whether for religious beliefs or any other ideology, is a myth perpetuated by the powerful. We should be suspicious whenever those in power claim persecution or try to rally the “persecuted.” We should be especially suspicious if those in power claim to have the solution to this persecution.