As I was driving through upstate South Carolina on my way to Georgia last week, something caught my attention. Bored with the drive, I started flipping through stations on the radio, and my attention was drawn to the sheer number of stations that host conservative, evangelical Christian content and programs.
I must have run across at least ten such stations around Greenville, South Carolina, variously playing old school hellfire and brimstone sermons along with more contemporary, polished ones -- no frills, practically-focused Bible studies, focus-on-the-family-style parenting advice, conservative political commentary and different types of music, from the traditional to the immediately-recognizable contemporary Christian. All this, while passing billboards reminding me in one way or another that "Jesus Saves," roadside churches advertising worship times and billboards advertising evangelical guru Dave Ramsey's popular advice and opinion program.
I bring all this up because I think it provides some anecdotal, though well-founded and, frankly, rather obvious, evidence that challenges one of the pet narratives of the political and religious right: That Christians in the United States are being systematically marginalized and, perhaps, even oppressed by a secular, liberal agenda. That narrative has, it seems, become more prominent as of late, over issues related specifically to laws in numerous states that, in one way or another, seek to limit unwarranted government intrusion into the individual exercise of religion.
Critics, of course, contend that such laws not-so-subtly target persons who identify as LGBTQ. In the case of Indiana's own Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in March, that criticism translated into intense backlash, as opponents of the law panned it -- rightly, I think -- as using "religious freedom" as a legal guise to protect and, perhaps, sanction old-fashioned discrimination.
The backlash to such laws has, not surprisingly, generated its own backlash, with the troops rallied for the so-called culture wars. Or, at least that's what we're told. Hence, we hear someone like Bill O'Reilly say, "If you're a Christian or a white man in the U.S.A., it's open season on you."
I'll leave aside O'Reilly's appeal to gender and race, though it's important to note in passing that there's often a close rhetorical connection between the assertion of religious freedom and gender bias, white privilege and heterosexism. Nevertheless, it's hard to take seriously the narrative of widespread marginalization and, on top of that, oppression, when the American landscape remains saturated with Christianity in numerous shapes and forms. Although the idea that the United States is a "Christian nation" may be an invention of relatively recent vintage, it's undeniable that Christian assumptions, mores and symbols continue to shape the cultural, social and political landscape, for better or worse. That's one reason why someone like Bill O'Reilly even has an audience in the first place, and that's what struck me while driving through South Carolina.
Thus, although it's often claimed that the expansion of rights to persons who identify as LGBTQ indicates that the broad, cultural influence of a particular interpretation of those assumptions, mores and symbols is on the decline, Christianity still remains an extremely influential force in the American landscape. Indeed, in some places, it is the American landscape. Moreover, even if we accept the narrative of decline, that doesn't immediately translate into marginalization and, particularly, oppression.
For Christians to claim as much is not only ironic, in the sense that it co-opts the position of those who have been -- and, in many cases, continue to be -- marginalized and oppressed, many of whom, it's worth pointing out, also identify as Christian. It also completely devalues the very real persecution and sometimes lethal threats that individuals, groups and religions face on a daily basis. To put it bluntly, serving a gay couple at a business, even if you're "against their lifestyle," is a far cry from being executed for your religious beliefs. It's probably just what Jesus would do.
Indeed, rather than showing that it's "open season" on Christians, the very fact that 21 states now have RFRA-style laws on the books, with more considering them, shows the opposite. That is as much as the relative ease with which a federal law originally intended to protect the freedom of marginalized, minority religions can be turned into one that at the state level allows for discrimination on the basis of majority religious beliefs.
I'm not suggesting, here, that considerations of religious freedom are somehow unimportant. But any discussion of religious freedom and its scope in the United States must begin from the assumption that Christianity, albeit variously and in different forms, has been and continues to be the majority religion, with all the cultural, social and political influence that goes along with it -- and it is not, as a whole, marginalized or oppressed. To say otherwise is not only disingenuous, but counterproductive for everyone in the long run.
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