Recently a staffer with an advocacy group for persecuted overseas Christians suggested American Christians should step back from defending religious liberty in this country.
“When we busy ourselves with fighting legal battles to maintain a place of privilege, we are spending time, money and energy that would be better spent helping the poor and disenfranchised,” she wrote. “When we get so wrapped up in following those who claim to protect a Christian nation, it becomes difficult to analyze whether they are truly working to advance the kingdom of God.”
This indifferent attitude to religious liberty in America by some Christians is increasingly common. The narrative typically argues against Constantinianism, Christian nation, nationalism, etc., Christians need to abandon their ostensible privilege and imperil themselves for Gospel witness.
“The Church in America often laments about losing its status as a Christian nation when a culture war occurs,” this writer opined. “But could it be that we were never intended to Christianize a nation?”
She argued that “when we pour all our energy into preserving a Christian nation, we risk losing focus on our work of kingdom come,” evangelism is “impacted because our energy is spent elsewhere, and because abrasive Christians who fight for their rights over the rights of others turn off those they are trying to reach.” Predictably she cited a “warped version of nationalism,” the crusades and imperialism.
Of oppressed Christians overseas, she observed that “it is enduring persecution that has deepened their faith, not being part of a Christian nation.” She insisted she’s “not advocating that we seek persecution, but rather that we do not try so hard to avoid it.” And “we need to accept the challenges inherent to faith rather than strive for Christian nationalism — which results in a watered-down version of what faith should really be.”
American Christians, she concluded, should “go back to the roots of our faith, so we can have a better chance of expanding the kingdom of God — both here on earth and the one that awaits us.”
What is the Kingdom of God and how does it expand?
Certainly evangelism is central, but persecution is no guarantee of successful evangelism. Ask Chinese Christians of the 1300s, Japanese Christians of the 1600s, the once populous Nestorian Church of Central Asia in the early Middle Ages, the North African church extirpated by the early Muslim conquest, or the Christians of Asia Minor, once a majority, who are now near nonexistent. Christianity exploded in modern China only after Mao’s death and the Cultural Revolution, when restrictions became less onerous.
Christianity’s greatest growth in ancient Rome likely occurred in between the great persecutions and even then Christianity remained a small minority until after Constantine legalized it. Today some of the last remaining major Mideast Christian populations are being driven from their ancient homelands after declining demographics for many centuries. Once vibrant Christianity in North Korea is now virtually invisible.
Generally evangelism on a large scale requires some level of legal protection or at least minimal restrictions. Severe persecution may produce saintly martyrs, who are often single people who can afford the risk. People with family responsibilities are understandably less prone to accept the risks of endangering their children.
Besides evangelism, works of charity are central to expanding God’s Kingdom. Christians under severe persecution don’t have lots of leeway for generosity when they are trying to feed and clothe their own families and community. Many are sacrificial. But persecution and poverty can embitter and poison the human spirit, even for strong Christians, as much as ennoble. Suffering is no guarantor of sanctification.
And then there is justice, which is surely central to the Kingdom of Him Who is Judge of all the earth. Christians everywhere and in all places are called to enact societies where all persons are recognized as image bearers of God, equally both men and women, including the poor, the sick, the elderly, the handicapped, children, the terminally ill, the unborn, all racial and ethnic minority groups, adherents of all religions and no faith, the unpopular, and even the criminal and despicable.
To enact such a society requires Christians unceasingly to advocate human dignity for all people in custom and law. Such advocacy might be called Christianizing a society. Critics might disparage it as imperialism or Constantinianism or a form of Christian nationalism or even theocracy. This idea of intrinsic human rights and human equality bequeathed by God originates with the Hebrew scripture and has been universalized by the church. Should it be abandoned in favor of romanticizing persecution?
Nobody in America suffers religious persecution like Christians overseas. But persons who have faced discrimination are usually not the high and mighty. They are charities or small business people derided by politically correct groupthink and driven to bankruptcy by coercive state power. Why is it “abrasive” to defend them? And should injustice against them not be fervently resisted so that even greater injustices don’t arise later? Should we not jealously safeguard a rich and holy legacy of religious freedom purchased dearly for us by the sacrifice of earlier less privileged generations?
This advocacy group staffer who disparages American Christian privilege should ask the overseas persecuted Christians whom she knows what they think. Would they prefer a society where religious freedom for all is protected by law and custom? Or do they prefer living in constant apprehension that their villages might be torched and their families kidnapped or murdered?
We already know their answer, don’t we? And we should work and pray for a day when nobody in the world is persecuted for their religious faith. If American Christians are privileged, they should exploit that privilege on behalf of the less privileged, not grandiosely regret their privilege.