American Christians: Oppressed or Oppressors?

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:

Hater - gun war

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.

hater (1)

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.

Love letter

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.

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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.


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Starbucks cup photo by Becky Hood via Creative Commons.




8 replies
  1. Kyle
    Kyle says:

    Very well put, David. One of the main things that separates us is our ability to make a point without resorting to profanity sand name-calling.

  2. Sally
    Sally says:

    Thank you, thank you for this. You’ve articulated things that I’ve felt for quite some time but wasn’t sure how to express. Very well written.

    Oh, and those people are fucking terrifying.

  3. Will S
    Will S says:

    Once again, the so-called “Religious” Right attacks while pretending to be the “victim”. This sounds too much like King Frederick of Prussia – the original propagandist! Frederick, the original aggressor against neighboring countries was defeated and contained. Following this, he launched a propaganda machine, putting his opponents on the defensive by causing them to doubt themselves! Such is the propaganda machine of the GOP/Religious Right/Tea Party/etc. Don’t let them fool you! We know what they are rally up to!

  4. Will S
    Will S says:

    The “Religious” Right are the oppressors – while pretending to be the victims. They are violating our Secular Constitution, trying to convince us that it never was Secular! It’s amazing, the similarities between the Taliban, ISIS,m etc. – and the American Religious Right; they all think they are going to impose their so-called “Religion” on the rest of us. Well, it ain’t going to happen!

  5. Jud H.
    Jud H. says:

    I love the bad grammar one often finds in the most hateful emails. It’s even funnier when it changes the entire meaning of the message from what the sender most likely meant.

    You are right about people in the Bible Belt. I live in AR and one of the local ministers, Ronnie Floyd, is President of the SBC, a real piece of work. He is known for his over-the-top rhetoric and hateful views toward non-Christians. We are also cursed with having the Duggars, now known for protecting their child molesting son Josh.

    Keep up the good work fighting the good fight.

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