Dean Rob Vischer and I on Discrimination Against Christians

Dean Rob Vischer (U. St. Thomas) has a comment over at the Mirror of Justice site concerning discrimination against Christians, in which he concludes by arguing that:

religious liberty is only as strong as the degree to which it protects the most vulnerable among us.  If millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground.  This is an argument that some conservative Christians are championing — Robby George and Russell Moore are two leading examples — but it faces an uphill climb, in part because Christians have been hearing about our own persecution for a very long time.

Christian leaders and scholars need to cultivate a new commitment to discernment: distinguishing between the discomfort of holding increasingly unpopular beliefs and the real persecution that — thus far, at least — been far more prevalent in our lyrics than in our legal system.

I responded to Rob as follows:

I see things a little differently than Rob does in his latest post concerning discrimination against Christians. I hasten to add that I am neither an Evangelical conservative Christian nor have I ever listened to Christian rock. I also have not read the original piece to which Rob links. The disagreements run to a number of issues, and as to some I am not sure they are disagreements at all. But for purposes of this post, let me point out three:

Objection from demandingness: Rob says that “[i]f millions of Americans who (should) care deeply about religious liberty fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats are aimed, religious liberty for all is on shaky ground.” I am not sure this argument is correct. A person could perceive certain threats to religious liberty and not others, and still make contributions to the protection of religious liberty. He or she could defend certain principles in certain contexts and not in others, and still help toward the defense of those principles. That person need not have to perceive all threats, as well as the relative strength of those threats, and make all possible defenses. But Rob seems to say that if one does not do this, then one is contributing to the weakening of religious liberty. That imposes a very high standard on people to perceive accurately the quality of all threats and defend religious liberty accordingly. Otherwise they are weakening religious freedom.

Global context: Rob may not have been saying this, but I also do not agree that Americans should recognize that discrimination and persecution of Christians is, at least as a global phenomenon, of lesser importance or significance or urgency than discrimination against other religious groups. In fact, if anything it is secular Americans, not Evangelical Christians, who fundamentally misperceive where the most potent threats to religious freedom are aimed. Those threats are aimed at Christians in the Mideast. The American political regime that preceded this one consistently, almost willfully, misperceived that threat to religious freedom. Many American Christians seem not to perceive the atrocities that have been and are occurring to their co-religionists, and that my colleague, Mark Movsesian (among others), has documented. But I am not sure that I blame them for this. Here again, I revert to the first point of disagreement. It will be very difficult to protect religious freedom if every person has to accurately assess the relative strength of various threats to religious freedom and protect them in corresponding proportion. Whose metrics will be used? What happens when we disagree about the relative power of the threats? Is it not better to allow for different constituencies to emphasize and advocate for different problem issues? Is it not a more realistic approach that might result in the collective strengthening of religious freedom?

Just Wait Until It’s Worse!: Finally, I disagree with an implication of Rob’s post: that until Christians in this country have it as bad as other constituencies, they need to recognize their own relatively insignificant lot and wait for things to get worse before they can really start to complain. Rob almost certainly did not mean to say this, but the argument he makes reminds me very much of the ‘now that’s real persecution‘ style of argument. It is of course true that people ought to be concerned with severe violations of religious freedom. But I do not think it is true that people ought to measure or evaluate the state of their own religious freedom only by comparison with its worst violations. There is inevitably a kind of recursion to the lowest common denominator in these kinds of arguments, a suggestion that until American Christians endure the same sorts of threats as others, they are just “whining.” I must say that this argument (as I’ve written before) has always been mysterious and borderline perverse to me. Assuming the threats to religious liberty (as in point 1) to be of differential urgency, why is it necessary for those threats to become much, much worse before we will acknowledge their legitimacy?

Rob has responded to me, in part agreeing, in part disagreeing. I’ll try to put up another post on two specific questions raised in his responsive post: (1) Does it in fact follow that advocating for religious freedom in one context but not in another makes it more likely that religious freedom in the first context is threatened?; and (2) Is the “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon described by Rob in fact an accurate description of the way in which claims for religious freedom succeed or fail. That is, is Rob right that Christians ought to save their complaints for really bad sorts of discrimination, lest they be ignored when those really bad sorts of discrimination arise? Suffice it to say for now that I am skeptical on both counts, but particularly the second.

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