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David Limbaugh, brother of Rush, has been making the rounds lately, promoting his new book, Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity. Therein, Limbaugh claims that the left, broadly defined, is doing everything possible to eliminate all mention of the nation’s majority faith from the public square.
Limbaugh digs up hundreds of cases that ostensibly make clear the systematic campaign of denigration aimed at Christians. Most of these involve instances of so-called religious persecution in public schools, from which, to hear Limbaugh tell it, God has been fully expunged and where expressing one’s faith is sure to result in suspension, a failing grade, or having one’s Bible thrown in the trash by a humanist teacher who proclaims “this is garbage,” as she slings the good book to the paper receptacle like so much refuse.
How telling and appropriate then, that in the same month Limbaugh’s book became a best-seller, what with its hyperbolic claims of a leftist putsch against followers of the man from Nazareth, we should also learn of the comments of U.S. General William Boykin, who has announced a jihad of his own against Muslims.
Boykin, for those who have been living under a rock for the last several weeks, has claimed that God is on the side of the U.S. in its fight against terrorism, and that Islam is essentially a “Satanic” faith, led by idol worshipers whose God isn’t as big or real as the God of Christianity. That Allah, the name for God in Arabic, is actually the exact same God as the one Boykin worships naturally escapes him. After all, everyone knows the Lord only speaks English.
Boykin’s comments, far from being attacked by those in positions of power and authority, despite the supremacist mindset behind them, were shrugged off by the Bush Administration. Boykin himself was praised by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and isn’t even being reprimanded, let along persecuted for his nuttiness. That’s what it means to be a member of the majority faith: you can be a bigot, spew intolerant and ignorant diatribes against those of other traditions and never get in trouble. On the other hand, let a Muslim with any real position of authority go around attacking Christianity, especially after 9/11, and see how quickly they would end up on John Ashcroft’s shit list, investigated under the Patriot Act.
Sorta like Ann Coulter, who said right after 9/11 that the U.S. should invade Muslim nations, kill their leaders and convert everyone to Christianity: a vacuous stream of putrid bombast that not only didn’t hurt her career but has helped it, making her more ubiquitous than ever. Imagine for a second that an Arab writer, perhaps the late Edward Said, had written that because of U.S. policy in the Middle East or because of our support for Israel, a force of Muslim armies should invade this country, kill its leaders and convert everyone to Islam. How long would Said have remained a free man, let alone a free and employed man?
Or consider the President, who said during the 2000 campaign that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher. In a land where professing Christianity was a one-way ticket to the gulag, such a person could never get elected by the people, or even close to elected the way Bush almost did.
On the other hand, if a candidate for any major office were to say that his favorite philosopher was Mohammed, or Buddha, or some prominent atheist, well, not even the Supreme Court and a rigged ballot recount would be able to dig that candidate out of the hole in which they would find themselves. Indeed, imagine what would happen if a Presidential candidate were to announce that there was no God, or even that they were agnostic and simply unsure as to the nature or existence of God. Persecution of the faithful indeed.
That Limbaugh’s case for Christian victimization is weakened by these kinds of examples, however, is hardly the full extent of his book’s deceptive and nonsensical claims.
Within weeks of Persecution’s release, intrepid web bloggers had already discovered the falsity of several of the most dramatic examples of anti-religious oppression in the volume. Like the kid who was supposedly “pounced on” by teachers when he dared to pray in his school’s cafeteria (actually he was punished for fighting, the prayer part was made up).
Although there are surely true examples of heavy-handed school administrators, employers and others overstepping legitimate concerns about church/state entanglement and unfairly limiting religious expression, Limbaugh has hardly made a case that such a problem is endemic to the culture as a whole. After all, with more than 30 million kids in school in the U.S., even a thousand legitimate cases like this would constitute nothing even remotely resembling a trend.
Indeed, if a few hundred examples out of 30 million kids amounts to a conspiracy, then there must likewise be a conspiracy of food poisoning, since at least that many will get sick eating lunchroom food each year.
There are plenty of things that school children have to worry about, and being punished for expressing their religiosity is simply not among them, especially if they are in the majority, that is to say, Christian. On the other hand, to be of another faith, or purely secular is to invite regular abuse from peers and authority figures alike.
Don’t believe me?
Well then, you can go to hell.
Now tell me, how did that feel?
Probably not very good, right? Well keep reading, and try and put aside how offended you may be, and should be, at the above epithet hurled your way so as to make a point, for indeed there is a point to be made here.
You see, when a person says “Go to hell,” as I just did, we all recognize it as a personal attack, a slur of sorts, an ad hominem invective that is wholly inappropriate to rational discourse. It is not a comment that invites discussion or debate, rather it shuts down both. It is a period at the end of the sentence, not a comma or colon leading to something more prosaic.
Now try this one on for size: You are going to hell.
A little more abstract, a few extra letters on the end of the word go, and stated as opinion rather than exclamation, but overall pretty similar.
And to some of us, every bit as offensive.
Yet “you are going to hell” is what many of us hear day in and day out, from the time we are children, if we fail to adhere to the “one true faith” proclaimed by the likes of William Boykin and most every evangelical Christian in the United States.
To we who are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Sufi, Sikh, some combination of these or of no faith tradition at all, being told that we are going to hell is no different than being commanded to go to said place in a moment of anger. In fact, the former is more offensive than the latter precisely because it comes from a place of judgment, it involves casting aspersions not just upon our persons (which is also implicit in telling someone to go to hell) but our souls. It is to say that we are less than whole, less than precious in the eyes of the Creator of the Universe. It is to say, in short, that we are inferior peoples.
And it is something that no Christian has ever been told by a single one of our number, so no, they cannot possibly relate. Christians may think they are persecuted because the law won’t allow them to read Christian prayers over the school intercom, or because they can’t plop a giant monument of the Ten Commandments down in a public building, but trust me, that is not persecution.
It is not persecution to be given a failing grade when your class paper on Jesus as an historical figure uses only one source, the Bible, as a reference, as happened to one student a few years ago. Such a paper deserves an F, and the student who thinks a few lines from John or Matthew constitute an acceptable bibliography should put down scripture, pick up a dictionary and look up the meaning of the term research.
It is not persecution to be told that you can’t send a stack of Christian comic books to your son serving in the Middle East, as happened to one family recently, and as Limbaugh laments in his book. Such a prohibition owes to the admittedly repressive customs laws existing in many Muslim countries, which restrict importation of large quantities of non-Muslim religious literature, and has nothing to do with political correctness in the United States, let alone its military for goodness sake.
It is not persecution to be told that you can’t pray out loud in a classroom when such prayer would disrupt other students who for whatever reason don’t want to be subjected to your verbalized pronouncement of faith.
It is not persecution when schools, seeking to be more inclusive of non-majority students, change the annual Christmas pageant or celebration to a generic holiday celebration. It may be silly, it may or may not be Constitutionally-required, but it is certainly not a form of anti-Christian repression.
Persecution is having a teacher tell you that the faith of your family is illegitimate and that you are going to spend eternity in a lake of fire surrounded by demons, and being told that all of your family who have died heretofore are already there preparing a space for you. Been there, done that.
Persecution is being corralled into an assembly in your public school and being forced to listen to a proselytizing representative of a Christian youth group call the students to proclaim their devotion to Jesus, and to imply that those who won’t do so are lost souls. Been there, done that.
Persecution is writing an eighth grade term paper in that same public school, in which you examine both sides of the school prayer issue evenhandedly, but are graded down because the title you chose, “Our Father Who Art in Homeroom?” is deemed sacrilegious by your fundamentalist teacher. Been there, done that.
Persecution is having a teacher place anti-abortion pamphlets on every desk in his room, which not only call for an end to the procedure but do so in explicitly Christian terms, insisting that all who disagree are de facto baby-killers and agents of Satan. Been there, done that too.
Persecution is, in short, being told that your personal relationship with God is based on a lie, and that you should turn against the faith of your family in order to be saved: an interesting variation on “honor thy father and mother” if ever there was one.
Persecution is being told that you are cut off from the Creator; that you are spiritually bankrupt. It is having to listen to the likes of William Boykin and know that most Christians at least implicitly agree with him and want nothing more than to see your faith eliminated from the face of the Earth.
That those who adhere to the fundamentalist, evangelical line can’t possibly understand how terroristic their actions are to the rest of us only serves as proof of just how privileged they are in this society, how un-persecuted they have really been.
Having atheists make fun of you for being superstitious, as offensive as that must be, simply doesn’t compare to having someone tell you that you are unholy. Especially when those atheists hold almost no power anywhere in the culture, unlike fundamentalist Christians. The power of Christians is what makes their absolutism so much more dangerous than that of even the most militant non-believer. It is the power, plus the prejudice towards other faiths, that amounts to religious persecution, to faithism if you will.
Persecution of the dominant group in a society is an oxymoronic concept, because only the dominant group can persecute by definition. Less powerful folks might be able to offend, they might be able to mistreat on an individual level, but they can not oppress. They can not materially and substantively limit one’s life choices and chances because of their non-belief, or different beliefs.
Ultimately, if David Limbaugh thinks it’s tough being a Christian in the United States, he should try being anything else.
TIM WISE is an essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org