I always find it laughable when Christians, who collectively make up the vast majority of people in the US, cry about how they're being persecuted for their beliefs in today's secular society--laughable to the point of disdain, actually. Christian churches in the US are no more persecuted than a dog is persecuted by a single flea--that's the difference in power here. Atheists in this nation can't be considered more than a vague annoyance to churches--we just don't have the numbers or the representation among elected officials. But that doesn't stop religious people from claiming victimhood all the same.

The latest example I've come across is this one in the NY Times about religion in the military. Now I'm not going to get into the wisdom (or lack thereof) of combining the two in this post--it's a far more complex issue than I have the time or energy for this morning. This is what I'm more interested in:

Leaders of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation “would be happy if there were no religion whatsoever in the military,” General Fister said in an interview. “But the problem is that Christians are going to operate one way or the other, and whenever the church has been persecuted, it’s grown stronger.”
Set aside the first part of Fister's comment--what would make the MRRF happy is irrelevant to the discussion. The MRRF's mission is to ensure religious freedom for everyone in the military--particularly freedom from religion--and to make sure that soldiers who don't believe don't have their careers affected negatively because of that. That's right--the group that complains of persecution is the one doing the persecuting in most cases.

Not that this tactic is new, or that it's as contradictory as it might seem at first. Don't get me wrong. Christians are just as capable as anyone else of holding opposing ideas simultaneously. In this case, it has to do with the way we define religion. The world of Christianity is wide--thousands upon thousands of sects each with their own doctrinal differences, many of them convinced that they and only they have the correct interpretation of The Bible. So while 84 out of 100 people may claim to be a Christian in a general sense, they identify more with their individual churches, and there's no group in the US that can claim more than a plurality, and a small one at that. And since the smaller the church you belong to, the more likely that your beliefs will be considered extreme (think Amish or Quaker, Mormon or Jehovah's Witness), it's easy to look at yourself as a potential victim of persecution.

Which is what's happening in this case. I don't know what denomination General Fister claims, and it really doesn't matter. What matters is that when he talks about "the church," he's not just talking about his church; he's conflating his church with Christianity in general. If I'm kind about it, I'll say he doesn't even realize he's doing it, because in his mind, there's no real difference between the two. Even if he thinks, as some Christian extremists do, that people not of his denomination will incur God's wrath at some point, he still thinks that heretics are closer to him in belief than atheists or people of other belief systems are, and so he's able to identify on some level with them. Christians not of his church are less "other" than non-believers, in other words.

The problem with that attitude is that we live in a multi-religious society, and the military reflects that. People like General Fister seem to think that the military owes Christianity some sort of special deference because they're the majority, and I'll certainly concede that if we as a society are going to have chaplains in the military, for example, then it would make sense from a logistical standpoint to have more of them be Christian than anything else. But as is the case when you have any minority group, the rights of the minority have to be respected as well, and people who do not believe in Christianity--whether they be atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Scientologists or anyone else--shouldn't be punished for that, nor should they see their careers hampered because of that. What the minorities go through, that's real persecution. What Fister is talking about is a reduction in the vast amount of privilege those in power have enjoyed for a long time. And we have to call them out on it.

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