Most sensible Americans can chuckle at the idea of a red coffee cup as a symbol of Christian oppression. As Donald Trump calls for a boycott of Starbucks, the implied message is that cups lacking holiday symbols are evidence of hostility toward Christianity in American culture.
I understand how some would laugh at such lowbrow politics, but I can’t. Having litigated church-state cases across the Bible Belt in recent years—thus seeing the aggressive, malicious nature of religious culture in some of America’s most pious communities—I know what underlies those absurd claims of Christian persecution, and it’s not pretty. Consider this message I received after notifying government officials in Pensacola, Florida, that a large Christian cross on public property violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause:
Not only are Christians in America rarely oppressed, quite often they are actually the oppressors. Just ask anyone who has challenged religious privilege in a Bible Belt community. Venom and intolerance can quickly become defining characteristics of towns where locals consider themselves upright and God-fearing. This is why plaintiffs who bring church-state cases must often seek anonymous “John Doe” or “Jane Doe” status—they truly risk their jobs, their safety, and their standing in the community if discovered.
As the small sampling of messages provided with this article show, meanness and bad grammar are the two consistent traits demonstrated by my religious adversaries. The sloppy writing is inconsequential, but the belligerence certainly justifies the fears of plaintiffs and other nonbelievers in these communities. If Jesus preached goodwill and harmony, many of his followers apparently didn’t get the message.
Another common theme in these interactions is the suggestion that nonbelievers are not true Americans. Thus, though Bible Belt Christians like to talk about religious freedom, what they often demand is national religious homogeny. It seems patriotism can be understood only through a prism of Christianity.
Only a small fraction of the inquiries we receive at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center actually result in litigation, because many who notify us of church-state violations are afraid to proceed with a formal complaint letter or lawsuit. They want to tell us about the violation, but they’re terrified of being discovered in their community. So they’ll provide a detailed description of a proselytizing coach, a preaching teacher, a principal who promotes religion, or a sheriff who thinks his job includes instilling God-belief in the citizenry, but then they’ll end their communication by adding: Please don’t use my name. Often this fear isn’t just for themselves—jeopardizing their own job or personal safety would be bad enough—but for the well-being of spouses or children.
To be fair, there’s no question that only a small minority of Christians live on the wing-nut fringe sending hateful emails. But it isn’t a small minority that creates the insular and overbearing Christian culture in many Bible Belt communities, an atmosphere that demands Christian privilege in schools and the public square. Nor is it a small minority that nurtures a delusional mindset that Christianity is under attack in this country. In Syria, yes, but in rural Georgia, no. To create a community-wide aura of fear and anxiety, it takes a village.
Christian hegemony has gone unchallenged in much of the United States for generations. Today, however, nonreligious Americans comprise about a quarter of the population (higher among young people) and they want to be treated as equal citizens. It’s unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising, that many Christians interpret nonbeliever demands for equality as oppression.
What America really needs is a religious landscape wherein nobody plays the role of oppressor or oppressed. For that, all we need is an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the public arena.