The topic of the White Fundamentalist Christian Persecution Complex is one I have wanted to write about for years as it’s at the heart of the discordant, hypocritical attitudes we see among many Right-Wingers, Conservatives, and a-political but yet ideologically and culturally Conservative and right wing Christian groups. Needless to say this article on the subject from The Atlantic by Alan Noble got me excited to finally write my thoughts both in regards to the complex and in response to the piece itself. I have modified his term “Evangelical Persecution Complex” to include other Christians guilty of this who are not Evangelicals and to center whiteness in the phenomena.
I grew up one the few Brown girls in the Reformed Baptist church in West Michigan among Calvinists. Through cycling in various white fundamentalist Christian circles and spaces I was often in the company of many white evangelicals as well.
As cisgender straight White fundamentalist Christians in a cisgender straight White fundamentalist Christian culture, these people are a part of the most socially powerful group in the world, a world colonized through Christianity. As such, the West Christian at its heart and so Christianity permeates every aspect of culture, the way we think and eat and talk and exist, everything. Yet, any questioning of this imposing dominance or the allowing for other opinions, religious beliefs, or ways of life they cry persecution. The most powerful religious group in the world literally thinks they are marginalized. They cry about the war on Christmas and that LGBTQ gains are an affront to their religious freedom. Between the people who actually believe this shit and those who are truly too exasperated by the utter senselessness of this non-logic to the point of inability to engage, I’ve seen few conversations around the phenomena.
As was touched upon in Noble’s piece, in the beginning of Christianity, early Christians were persecuted both by Jewish leaders and The Romans. So, many of the stories we read in the New Testament are all about persecution due to passion for a fledgling and religiously and politically unpopular faith. The Old Testament also has many much-loved, storied narratives of Jewish faithfulness in the face of persecution and genocide. Martyrs are the true, self-sacrificing heroes willing to die for their faith we were taught to aspire to.
However, in reality, the days of those Christians being oppressed and persecuted only lasted until the Roman empire became Christian, and through them its position in society switched from “fringe sect practicing in secret catacombs” to the religion of power, colonialism, conquest and authority and has kept that position for well over 1500 years. And stories of Jewish persecution are tokenized, Christian-washed and Anglicized in ways that many Jewish folk rightly find antisemitic and offensive, especially given that none of those Christians give a shit about the persecution the Jewish community has faced over the hundreds of years since then up until now, specifically at their hands. But of course, Western white fundamentalist Christians love to skip over the parts that don’t serve them.
These white fundamentalist Christians also don’t necessarily see themselves as white either, let alone acknowledge their power in that. Beyond the intentionally-calibrated barriers to white people in a white supremacist society to understand themselves and their role in it, White fundamentalist Christians are taught they are Christians before they are anything else, including white or middle/upper class or straight. Couple that with a false, a-historical, self-centered and hollowed sense of reality and an Anglicized, self-aggrandizing understanding of scripture and it all adds up to the idea that being persecuted and sticking to your guns as a white fundamentalist Christian means you’re oppressed for being a white Christian and that makes you an even BETTER and more real Christian. Naturally these martyr fetishists they’re going to try to read any instance of push-back as persecution.
This is all exacerbated by the fact that in this country, white people equate being a literal minority in regards to population to being institutionally marginalized. If you are a Quiverfull Christian, believe in The Rapture, read and take the Bible literally, are a complementarian and/or or very strictly anti-LGBTQ, anti-women and anti-reproductive health care rights, increasingly, you are most definitely going to be in the minority. But that’s because being small-minded, moralizing and judgmental towards people who don’t look, worship and believe exactly like how you think they should is definitely going to make you unpopular and isolate you socially because you’re being an ideologically sever, overly-zealous jerk, and no one likes that. It doesn’t mean you’re marginalized. You freely choose to hate gay people, have your women and girls wear long skirts, home-school and abuse children and have a bunch of babies you name shit like Josiah and Faith and Hope, that doesn’t mean you’re socially oppressed. If anything, in a world that punishes and demonizes people of color for having lots of children, trying to create or sustain sovereign nations or being orthodox or Conservative, White Christians have a lot of privilege in the ways that they isolate themselves from mainstream secular culture and create their own private communities that they do not let the government or others outside, even non-fundamentalist family members, dictate or look over.
I saw the White Fundamentalist Christian Persecution Complex used to commit and justify real persecution against marginalized communities at the hands of white people who, having seen themselves as Christian before seeing themselves as white, then compared themselves to oppressed global Christians, which the Atlantic article mentions. The author writes that Christians with “global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as part of a persecuted people in the 21st century.” However, that mentality is colonialist, fetishizing and white supremacist. It is used to further fuel an out-of-touch, misguided ideas of global south folks and a sense of oppression while ignoring the real oppressions White Christians commit and justify like mission trips to the global south and in poor communities and the often-exploitative Christian Adoption industry. The dynamics in those nations where non-Western Christians are persecuted are very different and far too complex and Western, especially white, Christians don’t have a right to claim those narratives for themselves, even if they wish to ally themselves with and support those Christians.
Another falsehood this article posits is that White Christian ideas of religious persecution are not baseless but rather jump the gun a bit, saying “Some Christians anticipate major restrictions to religious liberty in the future as a result of these tensions, a concern that is not unfounded”. But the thing is these fears are unfounded. Just like racism against white people doesn’t exist, an Anglicized religious group with vast amounts of social power in societies they created through conquest and colonialism is not going to be reverse-oppressed by space being made for people they conquested or who do not share their religious beliefs and should not be behold to them, communities that often overlap. The “traditional values” white fundamentalists Christians talk about and demand we all ascribe or “go back” to aren’t ideal, universal or innate models that accommodate and protect all people; they are superimposed White Christian values that posit white patriarchal falsehoods regarding racial, familial, social, sexual and economic norms and structures as supreme and superior and others as automatically “deviant”, “sinful”, “dangerous to society”. “Traditional values” are plain dangerous and unsafe to marginalized communities.
We must strive for a secular world that is meant for all peoples and rejects a white, binary, patriarchal, Christian dominant view of the world. Decolonizing and enabling the freedoms and rights of women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, non-Christians, reproductive health rights, the poor etc is the neutral, just thing to do. It isn’t persecuting fundamentalist white Christians to say public realms we all inhabit must serve all peoples equally and justly. Blocking those freedoms and rights because it goes against the beliefs of those with power is the definition of oppressive. We should be naming this dynamic and truth, not suggesting that Christians are oppressed by an increasingly secular world because they can’t tell people how or when to have sex or that same gender relationships and single mothers are ruining society. They are still free to practice and believe what they want, but they do not have a right to enact spiritual, colonizing violence on other people as they have done for centuries. Even as fringe aspects of it are unsavory even to other white Christian people, White fundamentalist Christian morality isn’t “increasingly [coming] into conflict with dominant cultural mores,” it is yet the dominant norm. In the case of evangelicals and the other more fringe groups mentioned here, it is just a more strict manifestation of it.
Noble’s article mentions the 1990s Jesus Freak movement as being the advent of the White Christian Persecution Complex, but having grown up in a very religious community that still yet rejected pop Christianity as a slippery slope into evil secular music, I’d say it was just a smaller manifestation of the already existing complex, but still typical of what it entails, that you’re cool or hip for liking this fringe weird thing that allegedly no one knows about, because the Bible isn’t the most read book in the world or anything. If anything, I would say that the fever pitch of the persecution complex was reached in the 90s because in the decades leading up to it, the world has changed and White Christian colonialist powers and their institutions of misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia and heterosexism etc are being questioned. They feel their grip on the world-not their rights-slipping, and to the oppressor, when you’re accustomed to power, freedom and justice of marginalized folks who you can’t moralize at, demonize and control feels like oppression.
At the end, the most toxic aspect of the White Fundamentalist Christian Persecution Complex is a distinct inability or straight up refusal to understand the real dynamic that exists between them and the rest of the world, that they have been the ones who abuse and persecute, and most, if not all push-back they are receiving is people finally question their religious and racial power and hold on society.