Do Christians face bigotry in America today? Recent examples suggest a troublesome picture of mainstream politicians and members of the media showing outright hostility toward people of the Christian faith. Let's examine the facts and see if this narrative holds weight.
We do not believe that Christians are persecuted in the United States.
But some definitions are in order.
By Christians, we focus on Evangelicals, Mass-attending Catholics and Mormons.
By persecution, we mean state-sponsored or state supported violent attacks on Christians because of their religion like occurred during phases of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the old Soviet Union or in North Korea or Cuba or in parts of the Muslim world today.
But we do believe that Christians are facing bigotry.
Three examples from the last couple of months:
President Trump nominated Bruce Buescher for the Court of Appeals. It turns out that Mr. Buescher is a member the Knights of Columbus which is a Catholic fraternal and service organization.
In the confirmation hearings, Senator Mazie Hirono said that “The Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions” and she noted the group’s contributions to California’s Proposition 8 campaign to legally define marriage as between one man and one woman. Her questions to Mr. Buescher:
• “If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this group to avoid any appearance of bias?”
• “Will you recuse yourself from all cases in which the Knights of Columbus has taken a position?”
The Knights of Columbus is an organization of about two million Catholics. JFK was a member. Popes including Francis routinely praise the Knights. The Knights views on marriage are about where President Obama was until about 2011, that marriage was between a man and a woman. This was a view that Mr. Obama said he held “as a Christian.”
Senator Hirono seemed to have concluded that since Mr. Buescher is affiliated with a certain religious organization, he is incapable of being impartial.
At least one Democrat disagrees.
Within days Representative Tulsi Gabbard wrote an op-ed, part of which read:
“While I oppose the nomination of Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus.”
Just so. But she is not well supported in this by her colleagues.
Karen Pence the wife of Vice President Mike Pence announced that she would take a part-time job teaching in a private religious school. The school appears to be evangelical of fundamentalist oriented.
It has a code of Conduct that reads in part as follows:
“I understand the biblical role of Immanuel Christian School is to partner with families to encourage students to be imitators of Christ. This necessarily involves the school’s understanding and belief regarding biblical morality and standards of conduct. I understand that the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission to an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student if the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home, the activities of a parent or guardian, or the activities of the student are counter to, or are in opposition to, the biblical lifestyle the school teaches. This includes, but is not limited to contumacious behavior, divisive conduct, and participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bi-sexual activity, promoting such practices, or being unable to support the moral principles of the school. (Lev. 20:13 and Romans 1:27.) I acknowledge the importance of a family culture based on biblical principles and embrace biblical family values such as a healthy marriage between one man and one woman. My role as spiritual mentor to my children will be taken seriously.”
Mrs. Pence has been lambasted for taking a job at a school that “bans” LGBTQ children. Here were some headlines:
• “Karen Pence’s Job at an Anti-LGBT School Is Definitely the Taxpayers’ Business”
• “Second Lady Karen Pence to Return to Teaching Art at Homophobic Christian School”
• “Karen Pence Should Not Be Teaching at an Anti-LGBTQ School”
• “Karen Pence’s New Teaching Job Is At A Homophobic School”
One CNN contributor: “This language (in the Code) is disgusting and insults millions of taxpaying American citizens, many who have served their country. That it is acceptable to the wife of the man who is a heartbeat away from the presidency should horrify and alarm all Americans.”
The “Guardian” saw in Mrs. Pence’s choice a reminder of “the vice-president’s dangerous bigotry.”
Lady Gaga told her fans that the Pences are “the worst representation of what it means to be Christian.” A former “Washington Post” editor tweeted: “How can this happen in America?”
A related line of attack went toward the support the Pences and other evangelicals give to President Trump.
Again, from CNN: “For all their professed beliefs, Pence, and his wife, show unwavering support for a man who has been married three times, divorced twice, has had five children with three women and who has been accused of (though denies) paying a porn star and a Playboy model hundreds of thousands of dollars to conceal affairs he’d had with them. …The hypocrisy here, and indeed from white evangelical Trump supporters, is astonishing….Mike and Karen Pence, where is your Jesus?”
Let’s sort this out:
Are the Pences supporting bigotry?
Translated to normal English the school Code says that students and parents agree to not participate in sexual activity outside of marriage and marriage is defined as between one man and one woman. The school also retains the right to define stubborn (“contumacious”) and divisive behavior and to use it as a reason for disqualification.
This is standard language for thousands of churches and Christian ministries. These schools and ministries base their views on some relatively clear portions of the Bible and at the same time would say that they don’t ignore other parts of the Bible that require love for others. The practical application of this may be that as long as gays don’t have sex outside of marriage they are full members of the fellowships – and the same applies for heterosexuals.
It is not material whether Christians always live up to this language (they don’t) or whether they ignore other Biblical sins (i.e., divorce). It is not material whether celibacy for heterosexuals and gays outside of marriage is realistic for most people.
What is material is that to exclude those who hold these traditional views from public life or to shame them for these views is close to bigotry itself.
It is a new stance in our country and recalls Justice Alito’s dissent in the case that legalized marriage equality, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): “Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. . .. We will soon see whether this proves to be true.”
Are Christians hypocritical to support the twice divorced adulterer President Trump?
There are many reasons Christians might support Trump, but most come down to what his third campaign manager (after he had fired two men, one of whom was Paul Manafort who now sits in prison) Kellyanne Conway said: “There’s a difference for voters between what offends you and what affects you.”
Perhaps for the evangelical and Mass-attending Catholic Trump supporters abortion is the taking of an innocent life. Perhaps they hope that Donald Trump will work for more acceptable abortion policies than they think they can get from another president.
Perhaps they think that the Democrats considered them among the “deplorables,” and in reaction have gravitated toward Mr. Trump.
Perhaps they think Mr. Trump is likely to nominate Supreme Court Justices more in line with their values on what the job of a Justice should be.
Perhaps they like Mr. Trump’s foreign policies, particularly the dialog with North Korea, the destruction of ISIS’s Caliphate and the quitting of Syria.
Perhaps they support Mr. Trump because during his term unemployment is the lowest it has been in fifty years including for Blacks and Hispanics.
Whether we agree with the Christians on these things is immaterial. What is material is that they may have (for them) valid and nonprejudicial reasons for supporting Trump.
To say that they are hypocritical for supporting Trump is bigotry.
As many know, last month video footage came out of students from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky allegedly harassing both Black activists and a 64-year-old Native American Vietnam veteran named Nathan Phillips.
The students were said to have done this after the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, DC.
Some of the students were wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats and nearly all were white. The attached photo shows 16-year-old Nicholas Sandmann and Mr. Phillips.
In interviews, Mr. Phillips said the white boys were the “beasts” while the Blacks were their “prey.” He said he felt he needed to intervene on behalf of the Blacks. He began to drum an Intertribal song to help quell the “mob mentality” forming but then got bullied himself.
Mr. Phillips: “The looks in these young men’s faces … I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America) …and you’d see the faces on the people … The glee and the hatred in their faces, that’s what these faces looked like.” He added that the students yelled racist epithets and chanted “Build the Wall.”
Mr. Phillis was interviewed extensively.
The photo and Mr. Phillips’ interviews set off an avalanche of vitriol against the students and Covington High School.
• Writer Reza Aslan: “Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?”
• Trevor Noah let these school kids know that not only did “everyone” want to punch these boys out, but he did too.
• Sarah Beattie, a contributing writer for Saturday Night Live offered oral sex to anyone who managed to punch Nicholas Sandmann in the face.
• Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” producer Jack Morrissey fantasized grotesque murder: “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” The execrable Mr. Morrissey tweeted this alongside a photo from the movie “Fargo” featuring a body being shoved into the woodchipper.
• Kathy Griffin who once expressed a wish to go after 10-year-old Barron Trump and who once appeared with a bloody replica of President Trump’s head tweeted: “Ps. The reply from the school was pathetic and impotent. Name these kids. I want NAMES. Shame them. If you think these f—ers wouldn’t dox you in a heartbeat, think again.”
• Todd Essig writing in “Forbes”: “…sporting MAGA-wear at a political rally means that they are at the very least expressing solidarity with the most vile and violent anti-Semites and racists our country breeds.”
• Andrew Gillum former mayor of Tallahassee and near miss as Democratic candidate for governor of Florida who is currently under an ethics investigation for such things as trips to New York City, where he went about town with a lobbyist friend and people who later turned out to be undercover FBI agents: “It only seems appropriate to honor Vietnam War Veteran, NATIVE American and Omaha elder, Nathan Phillips, over those who spew hatred and ignorance.”
• Comedian Patton Oswalt: “This is the Vietnam vet the kids from @CovCathColonels were mocking. Chanting “BUILD THAT WALL” to a Native American. This clip is VERY hard to watch, fair warning.”
• Meghan McCain: “I am absolutely disgusted by the mass of students disrespectful and vile treatment towards Nathan and Native Americans in general. Bigotry is bigotry, is bigotry, is bigotry. It should ALWAYS be recognized and condemned! Those students could learn a thing about respect from him..”
• CNN political analyst April D Ryan: “Entitlement, arrogance, ignorance and racism right here in full display. Any parent of these kids should be ashamed.”
• Movie producer Michael Green on Nicholas Sandmann: “Plus side: A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”
• The journalist Kara Swisher linked the Covington incident with contemporary conservative dispute over the advertisement of a razor blade company which projected a message that some conservatives thought was critical of traditional manhood tweeted: “And to all you aggrieved folks who thought this Gillette ad was too much bad-men-shaming, after we just saw it come to life with those awful kids and their fetid smirking harassing that elderly man on the Mall: Go f— yourselves.”
• CNN described the Blacks who the boys encountered as “four African American young men preaching about the Bible and oppression.”
The “New York Times” titled its first article: Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March.”
• Joe Scarborough: “Where are their parents, where are their teachers, where are their pastors?”
• Actress Alyssa Milano: “This is Trump’s America. And it brought me to tears. What are we teaching our young people? Why is this ok? How is this ok? Please help me understand. Because right now I feel like my heart is living outside of my body”
• Howard Dean who when he ran for president fifteen years ago described himself as “a committed believer in Jesus Christ and said he expected to increasingly include references to Jesus and God in his speeches as he stumped in the South” and who later said that “I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for” weighed in on the high school boys: “CovingtonCatholic high school seems like a hate factory to me”
• The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington apologized for the incident, promising an investigation that could lead to punishment up to expulsion if any wrongdoing by the students was determined.
So, this was, as the expression goes, the narrative that set in: That privileged white boys from a Christian school at an anti- abortion rally bullied black activists and Native American Vietnam Veteran.
Until, because of additional video footage, commonly known facts and Mr. Phillips’s lies and deceptions it all fell apart.
The best reporting on the whole event came from Caitlin Flanagan writing in “The Atlantic.”
It turns out that the four Black men were part of a cult called the “Black Hebrew Israelites.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has said that the Black supremacist wing of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is spreading, that thousands of men and women have joined Black supremacist wing, and that this group is “obsessed with hatred for whites and Jews.”
Moreover, in the Covington incident the Black Israelites taunted the Covington boys for over an hour calling them “faggots,” “pedophiles,” “dusty-ass crackers,” and “future school shooters.”
Moreover again, Nathan Phillips was not mobbed by the boys but instead marched into their midst, they parted for him, and he continued to bang his drum reaching the encounter with Mr. Sandmann.
Moreover again, there is on the tapes no evidence of Mr. Phillips’ claim that the boys shouted “build the wall” or said ethnic slurs. But on the tape one of Mr. Phillips’s colleagues shouted at the boys:“You white people go back to Europe where you came from! This is not your land!”
One of the powerful messages in the original story was that Mr. Phillips was a Vietnam veteran.
He was not.
He was in the Marine reserves from 1972-76 but not deployed. The peace treaty ending US military involvement in Vietnam was signed in January 1973.
The fallback position for the media and his followers was that he never said he was a Vietnam veteran, that he only said he served in the Vietnam era and it was others who said he was an actual Vietnam veteran.
But the full story is that at different times, Mr. Phillips has said different things to the uncurious media. At times he has represented himself truthfully but perhaps misleadingly as a Vietnam era veteran (or in his strange locution “Vietnam times.”)
But at other times he was been less guarded and lied. Here is Nathan Phillips in two different interviews in 2018:
• “You know, I’m from Vietnam times. I’m what they call a recon ranger. That was my role.” We note that according to a Marine Corp job posting: “The reconnaissance man is responsible for providing the amphibious, long range, small unit, ground reconnaissance, and raid skills. He or she is the nucleus of a reconnaissance team in the reconnaissance battalion or the reconnaissance or assault team in the Marine Special Operations Company (MSOC’s).” Mr. Phillips’s job in the Marine Reserves was listed as a refrigerator technician.
• “I’m a Vietnam Vet. I served in Marine Corps 72 to 76. I got discharged May 5, 1976. I got honorable discharge and one of the boxes shows peacetime or, what my box says is that I was **in theater**. I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times.”
Mr. Phillips is either too stupid to understand the power of modern search engines and the way by which average people can check out false claims like his or he knows that many people won’t read the follow-up story and are left believing the false story that a bunch of Trump supporters mobbed a Vietnam veteran. We are betting on the latter because Mr. Phillips like other publicity seekers knows that he can rely on a class of people that the communists used to call “useful idiots.” People like: Reza Aslan, Meghan McCain, Trevor Noah, Sarah Beattie, Jack Morrissey, and the rest.
But whichever it is, he is not a truthful man and no version of the Covington incident that stands on his testimony is reliable.
One does not need to call the Covington boys angels to make the case that they were the victims of anti-Catholic discrimination and the victims of violent threats from adults. There was some dancing to Mr. Phillip’s drum beats that some see as disrespectful. But a fair reading of that needs to take into account their explanations: They were dancing to some school spirit songs and chants designed to drown out the Black Israelite insults and they thought Mr. Phillips and his coterie might have been on their side. (The Black Israelites had also been taunting the Natives). We might disagree, but this is plausible.
One boy apparently did a tomahawk chop near Mr. Phillips. He probably should be asked for explanation and perhaps counseled. (He might say that he saw Jane Fonda do the tomahawk chop often when she used to attend Atlanta Braves baseball games in the 1990s with her husband Ted Turner except that was before he was born.)
The Catholic diocese that weighed in early with an apology should be ashamed of itself. As a Protestant who often defends the Church, we register our disgust this way: You attacked your own children based on the “testimony” of others without hearing the full story. Given your current problems, do you really want to be seen as abusing children?
Some final notes on all these examples:
When US senators find the Knights of Columbus unacceptable – in addition to Senator Hirono’s attacks, Senator Kamala Harris referred to it as an “all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men.” And,
When a quasi-public official is shamed for associating with evangelical beliefs held by millions of Americans. And,
When celebrities and the news media go after young Catholic boys and urge violence and ostracism without facts:
Christians are entitled to call that bigotry.
Let’s close on a positive note.
Journalist Kara Swisher who posted perhaps the most self-righteous anti-Covington post – and who spelled out the word we left as “f—,” – apologized: “I was a complete dolt to put up this and several other obnoxious tweets … without waiting to see the whole video of the incident and I apologize to the kids from Kentucky unilaterally…”
The Covington boys are surely taught about forgiveness. Perhaps they will forgive her and others. That’s up to them.