Caravaggio’s depiction of the crucifixion of Peter.
In accepted social science parlance, terms like social exclusion and marginalization typically refer to situations in which individuals or communities face real barriers from participation in society. That is, they are too poor to participate in the economy or afford the minimum standards for meaningful engagement with society. They are unable to afford the clothes they need to appear “presentable” or, too consumed with the task of making ends meet, incapable of investing enough time and energy in their children to sculpt stable and productive members of society. Alternatively, they might face discrimination based on their ethnic heritage or perceived racial differences. In some cases, they might even be systematically disenfranchised, legally or practically barred from participating in processes of self-governance.
None of this is true for a large portion of the Religious Right, who nonetheless feel persecuted and alienated by everyone else’s efforts to build a better world. To my knowledge, no is preventing them going to church, no one is crucifying them or feeding them to lions, no one is telling them they can’t go certain places on account of their beliefs.Their sense of having been ostracized from society at large is mostly a product of their imagination. But to the extent that their feelings are rooted in anything observable in the real world, it is the decline of their dominant hand in dictating the social agenda. Frankly, they are upset that they no longer get to call the tune to which everyone else must dance. No longer in a position to legally arbitrate moral issues and foist their beliefs on others, they feel their hold on society – poisonous as it is and has always has been – slipping away.
19th century depiction of Christian martyrs in Roman Colosseum.
As a result, the Religious Right has taken to nurturing a persecution complex. For the most part, the results are innocuous – if obnoxious – complaints registered from the pulpits of Fox News or the endless recesses of social media. They whine and complain, occasionally throwing themselves on the ground to scream and kick in a full blown tantrum. But for the most part, their erroneous feelings of persecution have registered as little more than an incessant source of annoyance for those living under the auspices of more enlightened, forward-looking segments of society.
However, I see in these conditions a strong potential for ugliness. There is a sense in which Dylann Roof and John Russell Houser can be taken as symptoms of White Conservative Christian Persecution Complex, and harbingers of what is to come. Though Houser’s crime is almost certainly attributable to mental illness, he and Roof share a set of motivations rooted in far-right ideology. The same can be said for the recent spate of arson targeting black churches throughout the American south.
Additional ominous rumblings might be seen in the Cliven Bundy standoff, when armed right-wing militants gathered at a Nevada ranch to defend its owners right to exploit public lands with impunity. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the event speaks volumes concerning the feelings of its participants: a willingness to use violence to remedy a grievance that could be – and should be – resolved through peaceful, legal means.
Now, a handful of crimes and social disturbances – however horrific and baffling – do not a trend make. So let me absolutely clear that I am not trying to sound an alarmist note, offering some dire prognostication for the world over the horizon. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that when people feel disenfranchised, they tend to act out. Never mind that the sense of marginalization experienced by the Religious Right is one they’ve conjured out of thin air. The fact remains that they think it is real, and a community that believes strongly enough that they are losing their grip on society, having lost sight of all avenues for reasonable action, can be expected to produce a handful of members willing to take radical action.
I do not see a future in which the United States has descended in the chaos of racial strife or sectarian conflict. Nevertheless, I have a strong suspicion that as our society becomes more and more equal, more and more diverse, the Religious Right’s feelings of persecution are going to become ever more exaggerated. Keep in mind, the Klu Klux Klan – perhaps the United States’ oldest terrorist organization – is a product of 19th century conservative religious extremism, formed at a time when their ability to inflict their views – and their abject oppression – on others had been revoked. Today, visitors to the KKK’s official website are greeted with this sentiment:
There is a race war against whites. But our people – my white brothers and sisters – will stay committed to a non-violent resolution. That resolution must consist of solidarity in white communities around the world. The hatred for our children and their future is growing and is being fueled every single day. Stay firm in your convictions. Keep loving your heritage and keep witnessing to others that there is a better way than a war torn, violent, wicked, socialist, new world order. That way is the Christian way – law and order – love of family – love of nation. These are the principles of western Christian civilization. There is a war to destroy these things. Pray that our people see the error of their ways and regain a sense of loyalty. Repent America! Be faithful my fellow believers.
This is pure nonsense, liberally seasoned with racial animus, paranoia, ignorance, and vitriol. There is no war on white people or Christians, only an urgent and entirely justified need to prevent one group from telling other groups how to behave. Yet some people believe there is. Indeed, strike the white-power rubbish from the quote and you have an opinion not far off from those expressed by Republican presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, who stubbornly lament the decline of Christian liberty, absent even the slimmest shred of evidence for the existence of such a decline. Christians – along with members of all other denominations – are as free to practice their religions as they have ever been. Likewise, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly has expressed concern over the demographic changes eroding the Republican base, which is a poorly cloaked way of expressing concern over the prospect of living in an increasingly diverse country. Though this perspective is not the same as that outlined by the KKK, it is definitely somewhere in the same neighborhood.
As a nation, the United States has been making gradual, faltering steps toward progress. The legalization of same-sex marriage, steps toward the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, demographic changes making it more and more difficult for hard-line conservatives to win the Oval Office, broader and broader acceptance of different forms of consensual love and gender expression, and gradual trends toward the increasing secularization of society are all good things. Problematic, is that there is a non-negligible segment of society that thinks these things are not only bad, but a direct threat to their way of life. And as a result, we can expect more and more members of that community’s most disadvantaged and ideologically intransigent fringe to act out more and more frequently. Much of this acting out will probably take the form of white-trash assholes hurling insults and racial epithets at children’s birthday parties, or causing a ruckus on some state capitol grounds. Yet some fraction of it is bound to be violent, and this violence cannot be entirely divorced from attitudes common on the Religious Right.
The point here is not to single out conservatism as a particularly fertile ground for the growth of ideological extremism. To that end, I have taken pains to limit the target of my discussion to those who fall under the heading of Religious Right, courteously minimizing the signal fact that many of beliefs that fall squarely under that heading have become mainstream in the Republican party, driving their political primaries to a realm of ever increasing ideological extremity. Nevertheless, there have been plenty of acts of violence committed by people who adhere to extreme leftist ideologies – think of the FARC militants in Columbia or the Red Army Faction in Germany. Radicals on both sides of the political spectrum seem to be motivated by a similar authoritarian streak. Presently, one of the more salient differences lies in the fact that the U.S. Religious Right expresses feelings of victimization and political defeat that lend themselves to unsavory behavior far more frequently than the far-left. Yet one could easily imagine how worsening income inequality, coupled with the increasing disenfranchisement stemming from the Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutcheon vs. FEC Supreme Court decisions, might stimulate far-left zealots to egregious action. But here we have yet another difference: the problems associated with income inequality and the decline of voter’s ability to influence policy are real and the problems bemoaned by the Religious Right are not.