While the rest of us think they’re ridiculous, there are some Christians who genuinely believe their religious freedom is in jeopardy. Just how difficult is it to be a Christian in the United States, exactly?
I’ve wracked my mind, and can’t come up with anything close to persecution, save for my initial (and, thankfully, unfounded) fear that my family might disown me. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of genuine discomfort, however.
At a liberal party school like mine, it certainly wasn’t popular to be religiously devout. I can recall a few times I faced some heat for having certain convictions, which mainly had to do with sex. As a freshman living in an all-girl dorm, there would always be a group congregating in the lobby area, and let me tell you, women gossip about sex just as much as men do in locker rooms. I’d listen to these conversations with voyeuristic interest, but when someone asked me about my level of experience, I quietly and humbly confessed that I had none. This surprised some, who thought I was “too cute” to still be a virgin. No, I explained – actually, in hindsight, I don’t know why I didn’t just respond with “That’s none of your business” – I’m a virgin by choice. Until marriage.
I don’t think I said this with any arrogance or derisiveness, but that didn’t stop a few girls from mocking that decision, calling it “archaic” and “ridiculous.” That was wrong on their part, as I didn’t criticize their choices not to be celibate, but persecution? Hardly. I wouldn’t even quantify that as bullying. My reputation as the “Third Floor Virgin” barely lasted a week.
There were other ways to feel like an outsider as a believer, though. It’s true that many modern American values – “Do what feels good and makes you happy,” obsession with wealth and consumerism, defining worth in terms of status – do run contrary to traditional Christian ones. And on a college campus especially, having to say no to tempting activities out of conviction – drinking, clubbing, sex – can mean missing out, perhaps even cost some friendships. But one need not be Christian or even religious to say no to activities they aren’t ready for, or instinctively know just aren’t wise. And friends who can’t respect your choices aren’t real friends, anyway.
I will say that most of the pressure I felt was put upon me by my Christian peers, not my secular classmates. I remember a session in English class in which we did a unit on modern romantic poetry. One assigned poem was written by a woman about her lover – also a woman. The poem itself was not explicit, but clearly it endorsed homosexuality as normal and okay. Never mind that homosexuality wasn’t an issue I had too many moral concerns about, personally. To my peers in Bible study, this was a “God moment”; a witnessing opportunity. My silence would imply that I didn’t see anything wrong with the sexual nature of the poem, thus compromising my witness. Interestingly, the heterosexual love poems that were more graphic in detail didn’t bother me as much.
It was moments like these, moments where I felt at odds with the majority opinion of a secular group, that I felt the most pressure. I never cared so much about what other people thought of me than when I was a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. Everything I did, and I mean everything, even walking inside my dorm with a male acquaintance (because that could imply we were about to sleep together) was under a microscope. If I screwed up, I could lead someone to hell, and I’d have to answer for that on Judgment Day.
As a result, I found myself speaking up about issues that really didn’t matter – issues like the “inappropriate” love poem – so my witness would be saved, but my peers definitely weren’t. After that, they would avoid me, but my Christianity had nothing to do with it. They avoided me because I was acting like a self-righteous jerk, to which my Bible study friends would pat me on the back and reassure me that I was doing it right. Jesus said we would have enemies for following him, after all.
And I believed that. I don’t anymore. If you perceive all non-Christians as enemies, that can very well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will convince yourself you are standing up for your God, never mind that a being so powerful and omnipotent probably doesn’t need defending. Your self-made enemies will convince you that you are the “other,” and you will completely miss the fact that minority groups feel like “others” because there are not enough members to normalize them. You will forget that most rational people don’t care what you believe about sex or R-rated movies or anything else, so long as you don’t impose those values on them.
I am ashamed now that I lost sight of those facts, which to me feels like the bigger sin than embracing Jesus as a Jew. The real sin, the biggest sin, was forgetting who the real one-percent is. And it isn’t evangelicals.