Amid mounting allusions to “persecution” because of the closure of churches on health grounds due to the pandemic, I want to provide some respectful perspective for my fellow American Christians.
I’ve worked my entire 20-year career on international religious freedom, meeting persecuted Christians from around the world. I’ve heard their stories, seen their tears and wounds, and lost friends. From those encounters, I’ve learned persecution is intense, and it is violent.
Therefore, I hope Americans will set the term persecution aside, so it doesn’t lose its intensity or veracity.
The United States is one of the most open and liberal countries for freedom of religion and belief. From our first settlers seeking freedom to practice their faith, to our founding values starting with the First Amendment and consequent laws and now a long-running string of Supreme Court victories, Americans of all faiths (and no faith) have become accustomed to ever-expanding religious liberties. It’s part of American exceptionalism.
And this exceptionalism carries over into how our country promotes and protects religious freedom for all internationally. During my time at the State Department under both the Obama and Trump administrations, we helped carry this out, preaching the values of religious liberty as a social good as well as confronting persecutors. The US is the foremost advocate internationally—full stop. Persecuted people of all faiths pray for our intervention and desire to flee to our shores.
With the pandemic, it’s been unsettling for Americans to see local and state governments direct the closure of churches (as well as synagogues, mosques, and temples) for health reasons. It’s not something most of us have experienced before. However, I know many churches have found innovative new ways to gather virtually, or outdoors, for Sunday worship or fellowship. My church is no exception. It’s better than nothing, and we benefit from our communities of faith during these challenging times.
While the temporary closures are jarring for Americans, foreign governments permanently shut down places of worship all the time. Sadly, it is not unusual, but common. Persecution levels are at all-time highs worldwide, with more than three quarters of the global community facing severe limitations on the free practice of faith. Consequently, Christians of every denomination, people of other traditions, and individuals practicing no faith face persecution every day for what they believe.
In my diplomatic work, I’ve seen churches shuttered and worship criminalized. My bookshelf holds pieces of churches and mosques and synagogues torn down by authoritarian governments. Based on these experiences, I believe American Christians would be wise to avoid labeling the current situation as persecution for three reasons.
First, a significant difference is motive. From what I’ve observed, most state and local officials are searching in good faith for the least-bad options during these uncertain times. For sure, there are some with an anti-religion or anti-Christian agenda. I’ve seen frustrating decisions that appear inconsistent or arbitrary. But if their decisions are unconstitutional, our judicial system provides strong remedies. Most public servants are trying their level best to balance civil rights against concerns about public health, all with imperfect information while under a microscope in an unprecedented situation.
A second difference is duration. When churches are closed for health reasons, the move is temporary until conditions improve. When local officials make these decisions, our faith isn’t banned or made illegal. In fact, I’ve seen officials encourage worship, just online. In many jurisdictions, you can still gather in different ways or in smaller groups without consequence.
Third, and most importantly, the biggest difference is that persecution is brutal and violent. Hebrews 11:35–37 gives vivid examples of the persecution of the early church, which believers faced for centuries. In modern times, here are some examples that I’ve grappled with:
- Persecution is the imprisoning of Christians because they are Christians, as pastor Andrew Brunson was in Turkey or converts now are in Iran.
- Persecution is the sudden closing of or commando-like police raids upon your church, as in the former Soviet Union.
- Persecution is bulldozing churches to the ground, as today in China and not too long ago in Sudan.
- Persecution is when ISIS attempted genocide against Yezidis and Christians, or the genocide the army of Burma (Myanmar) is committing now against Rohingya Muslims.
- Persecution is China’s unrelenting assault on Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.
- Persecution is the murder of Christians for their faith, like when the Pakistani Taliban assassinated my friend Shahbaz Bhatti for his defense of Christians and other religious minorities.
- Persecution is public flogging in Saudi Arabia for merely questioning on the internet their Salafist orientation.
- Persecution is the kidnapping, forced conversion, and rape of Hindu and Christian girls in Pakistan, with no recourse for the family.
Based on these examples, American Christians should be very careful about labeling our current situation as persecution. There is a continuum from administrative limitations to outright persecution. If there are problems, Americans of faith can petition the courts and fight like hell through any number of pro-bono groups well situated to argue their case. Or American believers can ask their elected representatives to change laws. But these strong tools are often unavailable in other countries.
In short, what is happening in the US is not persecution. It’s disruptive. It’s painful. It’s inconvenient. It’s possibly illegal in some cases. But it’s not persecution.
Americans often forget how blessed we are to enjoy tremendous religious freedom at home. We are not perfect—anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, racism, and other ills still exist—so we must continually strive for a more perfect union. At the same time, a bad day for religious freedom in the US still beats a good day just about anywhere else.
We therefore should retire the term persecution when talking about what’s occurring in America during this tragic pandemic.
Knox Thames is the former special advisor for religious minorities at the US Department of State, serving in both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.