Eighty percent of Americans consider themselves Christians—but today many of them consider themselves a persecuted remnant. Is it mere paranoia? Remember, even the paranoid have enemies.
An Anti-Defamation League poll in 2005 found that 64 percent of Americans believed religion was under attack in the U.S. It was 75 percent among Christians who attend church regularly. A Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum by lawyer Jay Alan Sekulow warned in 2012:
All across America, religious institutions and individuals are being subjected to increasing restrictions on their free exercise of religion and freedom of speech—a crackdown that can be seen in a variety of different contexts ranging from employers or health care professionals being required to provide or facilitate abortions against the dictates of their faith to street evangelists and public school students seeking to share their religious viewpoints with others. This rising disregard for religious liberty represents a marked break from the long-standing American tradition of accommodating religious practice and expression that predates the ratification of the Constitution.
Under the Obamacare health care law, religious employers will be required to pay for insurance to cover medical procedures such as abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization procedures they oppose on moral grounds. Religious individuals too will be forced to participate in such programs or pay fines. Employers and employees of actual houses of worship are excluded from the requirement, but not religious charities, schools, hospitals, or other related institutions at the center of Christian life. Some are opposing these provisions in court, demanding exemptions from the law. They are not optimistic. Many now believe the entire establishment is against them.
It is clear that not all of this is paranoia. The atheist professor, author, and producer Richard Dawkins is not even subtle about it. One of his scripts—aired on British television and later on American public TV—was titled The Root of All Evil? Evil, naturally, was religion. He criticized all “three Abrahamic religions,” because their “irrational roots are nourishing intolerance and murder” around the world. They “preach morality, peace and hope, in fact, they bring intolerance, violence and destruction.”
His main target is Christianity since he considers it the most powerful. Dawkins characterized Christianity’s belief that Jesus had to be “hideously tortured and killed so that we might be redeemed” as a “nasty sadomasochistic doctrine.” He complains that Christian religious schools promote a “poisonous system of morals.” He compares the teaching of religion to a virus that infects young people and spreads from generation to generation. He considers families teaching religion to be “child abuse.” These views are now suitable for prime time television.
Or consider former Yale dean and classics scholar Donald Kagan. He recently complained to the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski that democracy seems to have run its course in America and the West as the morality that has sustained them has atrophied. What morality? While the “Romans had no qualms about quashing their enemies, big or small” and the U.S. had relentlessly won two world wars “and imposed and protected the current global order, the recent record shows failed or inconclusive engagements.” The problem is that “We’re a certain kind of culture which makes it hard for us to behave rationally when the rational thing is to be tough.” The culture that makes this difficult is “unsubtle Christianity” and its strong strain of pacifism. “Who else has a religion filled with the notion ‘turn the other cheek’? Who ever heard of such a thing? If you’re going to turn the other cheek, go home. Give up the ball.” Today such sentiments about Christianity run in the country’s leading newspapers and pass without any notice at all.
Every day, even first-rate newspapers and quality television shows display total ignorance about the first 1,500 years of Western civilization. Following Voltaire, moderns consider the whole formative period of our culture to be a “dark age,” contrary to any serious modern scholarship about the period. No major Western worldview has had reason to look at the age favorably. Voltaire’s atheists believe all thinkers before themselves were unenlightened; Protestants saw the whole period as repressed under a corrupt Papacy; and even post-Trent Catholics wanted to forget the whole previous era and begin over again. A recent Discovery Chanel documentary did bring in medieval scholars who demonstrated—by displaying its actual discoveries—that most thinking about the period is simplistic, but that was a rare exception.
Even serious, Christian-friendly authors like Avi Beker get it muddled. As Hillel Fradkin noted about Beker’s wonderful history of the Jews and anti-semitism, The Chosen, the author made the “common error” of believing that Christian reaction to Jews was much worse than the Islamic reaction, whereas “Muslim persecution of Jews was equal if not greater than Christian persecution as Maimonides and Halevi both testified.” Part of the error was Beker’s “assimilation of the Holocaust to the history of Christianity.” Christian Europe often disposed many to be unfavorable to Jews, but “Nazism must be laid at the door of modernity,” not Christianity. While Beker is generous in praising modern Christianity for its toleration, his Enlightenment-centric history makes it difficult for him to understand the fact that “the most serious form of contemporary anti-semitism is not that of Christians but of Muslims and their sometimes secular allies on the left.”
The normal assumption is that such observations are the detached reflections of neutral experts merely reporting the facts. Take New York University Professor Thomas Nagel, the very model of academic objectivity. He wrote a fine book Mind and Cosmos that seeks a third way between materialism and religion, one that any theist could admire as a courageous and open-minded attempt at a reasonable solution. But his underlying thinking outside the book is not the cool rationality most assume to be the atheistic mind-set. The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson reported that Nagel told the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga that he always pursues truth, but “if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith.”
Nagel conceded that pure materialism is rationally a failure, but continued “I want atheism to be true and I am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Nagel has become the object of unfair leftist scorn for questioning materialism, but can one imagine any traditionalist admitting a similar bias and surviving at all?
In fact, many passionately dislike what Christians and other religious people believe. That is fine as long as the passion is from the Nagels of the world who are merely seeking truth, ardently or otherwise. Even threats from those such as Dawkins can be answered. It is only when opponents use coercion and raw political power to limit freedom that a real menace emerges. It is in an Obamacare law where the implementing zealots are convinced that they know what is good for everyone that the threat resides. Much more danger comes from those who claim the whole truth and are determined to force it for the other person’s good, no matter how much that person abhors it.
As Albert Camus once noted, “The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.”
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and is author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution. He was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.