The short answer is “Yes, all the time.”
The not as short answer is: “Yes, Christians in America are persecuted, but not as frequently, consistently, or with nearly the intensity that Christians are persecuted in many other parts of the world.”
For a longer answer, keep reading.
What’s In a Word
I understand why non-Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. It doesn’t help their cause to make martyrs of rank and file evangelicals. And besides, many secular people still think the Christian Right is intent on instituting a theocracy and punishing all infidels. Persecution is hardly in their purview.
I also understand why progressive Christians would say Christians in this country are not persecuted. Christians on the left are apt to see evangelicals as the meanies, not secularists. Progressive Christians hold to a narrative that blames conservatives for instigating the culture war and driving young people from the church. Persecution is not the problem; intransigence is. Progressives long for the day when—if we would just beat our fundamentalist spears into NPR pruning hooks—our churches would be full of Christian activists attuned to the sensitivities of our cultural despisers.
I even understand why many conservative Christians are reticent to use the p-word to describe our troubles. We think of persecution as church bombings and physical violence—the sort of stuff our brothers and sisters in North Africa and the Middle East and in parts of Asia face every day. We understand, rightly, that getting a forced hiatus from Duck Dynasty is not exactly suffering on the same scale. If persecution means “there’s a decent chance this year that someone will try to kill me or a family member for being Christians” then no, we are not persecuted in this country.
Bringing in the Bible
But is that what the Bible means by “persecution”? Like most Greek words, the word translated “persecution” in our English Bibles (dioko) has a wide semantic range. According to the standard lexicon for the New Testament (BDAG), dioko can mean “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute.” In many place in the New Testament, persecution refers to violence toward Christians. Matthew 10:21-23 speaks family members killing other family members. Luke 11:49 references killing and persecution in the same breath. And in Acts persecution is linked with arrest, murder, and physical violence (Acts 7:52; 9:4; 22:4, 7; 26:11, 14; see also Gal. 1:13).
But there is reason to think dioko is not limited to these extreme acts of oppression. In Matthew 5:10, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed. Then in v. 11 he further explains what this persecution is like: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” It’s possible that reviling and persecuting and uttering evil are three distinct acts, but considering verse 11 flows out of verse 10, it’s better to see these as overlapping categories. When verse 12 says “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” Jesus does not mean every prophet was killed, but rather that all the prophets were reviled and spoken against, and in this manner (or worse) they were persecuted. Persecution may mean being put to death (Matt. 10:21), but it can also refer to being “hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matt. 10:22).
We are confirmed in this broader understanding of persecution by two other passages:
John 15:20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.
2 Timothy 3:13 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Persecution is not something that befalls only a few Christians. While it’s possible to read Jesus’ words in John 15:20 as a unique promise for the apostles, the passage from 2 Timothy cannot be read so narrowly. The point is plain: while martyrdom is a special category set aside for a select number of Christians (Rev. 6:8-11), persecution is the normal experience of every Christian everywhere. From stiff fines, to family shame, to being kicked off college campuses, to laws against sharing our faith, to unjust trials, to public mockery and scorn, to arrest and brutality, if we faithfully follow Jesus in this world we all will face persecution at some point in our Christian discipleship.
Why This Matters
So what? What’s the big deal in proving that “technically” Christians are being persecuted in this country? Is this about feeling sorry for ourselves and finding more ammunition to blame the media for our troubles? Not at all. We should not think more highly of our suffering than it deserves.
But neither should we make it out to be something less than it is. There are at least four reasons it’s important we realize that Christians in America will be, and often are being, persecuted.
First, we do not want to miss out on the privilege of suffering, even a little bit, for the name of Jesus (Acts. 5:41). Being hated for Christian beliefs and Christian virtues is no fun under any circumstances, but the pain is made worse when we have no category for joining in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering (Phil. 3:10).
Second, we should not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes to test us (1 Peter 4:12). If we expect persecution to only come in the form of imprisonment and death, we will not know what to think of slander, derision, and disdain. The New Testament assumes that being hated for one’s Christianity is the norm, not the exception.
Third, if we overly limit the scope of persecution, we will neglect the Christian ethic incumbent upon us to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14; see also 1 Cor. 4:12). When people slander us, mock us, or pass laws against us because we are thought to be anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-women, that is persecution. And as such, we are commanded by Christ himself to pray for those and love those who hate us so.
Fourth, if John 15:20 is true, and 2 Timothy 3:13 is true, and the expectation of the entire New Testament is true, then no amount of PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted. Where in the gospels did Jesus promise that the world would love us if we just kept our heads down and tried to be good neighbors? Where in Revelation is war with the dragon presented as anyone’s fault but the dragon’s? I know many outsiders think of the church as being very “unchristian” and evangelicals as being political operatives for the Republican Party. So let’s have the humility to see if we are as obnoxious and unintelligent as many people surmise. But let’s not assume that bad press with the world means we’ve done wrong by God. This is Holy Week after all, where Jesus was hated by the crowd and abandoned by his own disciples.
As followers of a crucified king we should expect to be like the scum of the earth to some (1 Cor. 4:13) and like the aroma of death to others (2 Cor. 2:16). We should not think misinformed hatred and intolerant harassment mean the church has gone off the rails. The presence of persecution is no sign that Christians have failed to engage the world properly. In fact, from everything we’ve seen in the passages above we ought to suspect something is wrong with us if we have avoided all of the world’s persecution successfully.