After the release of the song, DC Talk stayed on the martyr kick. They partnered with the Voice of the Martyrs, an organization for persecuted Christians around the world, to publish Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus, the Ultimate Jesus Freaks, a collection of accounts of Christian martyrs ranging from ancient Rome to contemporary China. They published a sequel and a daily devotional in the same vein. These books encouraged young Christians to repeatedly ask themselves what they would do if faced with the command to deny their faith. As I look back on my reading of these books as a teenager, it now seems self-indulgent to fantasize about such a moral dilemma; there are so many pressing social problems—that are actually happening, right here and right now—that demand a response from me. But at the time, I thought I had to be prepared to suffer for my faith, even in the United States. I remember a pastor saying that he could imagine a future where an American could be jailed just for being a Christian. Why did he think this, and why didn’t it strike me as absurd?
The evangelical martyr complex, one increasingly shared by other Christians in the United States, can be traced to two types of misunderstandings. This first misunderstanding is the evangelicals’ appropriation of the early church’s persecution—a kind of interpretive anachronism. In the beginning of the Jesus movement, the Roman Empire put Christians to death for preaching a faith that left no room for worship of the emperor. Its victims included most of the twelve apostles and, of course, Jesus himself. But when Constantine converted and became emperor in 312 AD, this dynamic reversed. Not only did the Roman Empire end its persecution of Christians, it adopted Christianity as its official religion.
In John 15:18–19, Jesus tells his disciples: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” Early Christians would have heard these words and thought of the often brutal physical harm they faced. Today in the United States, Christians read these words and might fear trans-inclusive policies or lament the ubiquity of political correctness. Others focus more specifically on the legal tangle surrounding if or when conservative Christians can deny service to gays and lesbians. The problem is that, in all these cases, invoking the early Christians who were beaten, crucified, and killed does nothing but distort the place of conservative Christians in the United States. The white suburban evangelical is not the poor convert on the margins of the Roman Empire, yet too many Christians have lost none of this sense of being the outcast.
The second misunderstanding sustaining the martyr complex relates to the way evangelical and other conservative Christians interpret their eroded hegemony as evidence of persecution. This argument begins with that familiar sentence: “America is a Christian nation.” Although the American colonies flirted with theocracy, the writers of the Constitution settled on a secular state with no established religion. But Christians often struggle to recognize that, although Christianity has always been the majority religion in the United States, this does not grant it any special status in the eyes of the government. Christianity’s primacy is a historical fact about our culture, not a mandate for our politics.
Here is where Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” comes into play. It’s easy to see how the slogan harks back to a whiter and more racially segregated America. But evangelicals may also be thinking of a past when there was prayer in public schools, gay marriage was illegal, there wasn’t any mainstream discussion of trans rights, and, of course, you’d only hear “Merry Christmas” during what we now call “the holidays.” Conservative Christians see religious pluralism—and the state’s reflection of that pluralism—as encroaching on their right to practice their own faith. This response to social change mirrors the logic of the white nationalist, who views immigration as an assault on “white culture” and interracial marriage as a form of genocide. Those in the dominant group see the inclusion of minorities as an attack on their rights, rather than a demand for basic fairness and justice.
I first started thinking about this martyr complex in 2013, when I read a story on a then-college student at the University of Arizona who called himself Brother Dean. His “ministry” consisted of standing on the sidewalks of campus and preaching about the evils of extramarital sex, feminism, and homosexuality—all in a highly inflammatory way. He once followed around a Take Back the Night demonstration carrying a sign that said, “You deserve rape.” Reflecting on his approach in an interview, he seemed aware of the social cost of his shocking language, but he managed to justify it by appealing to the Bible. “When I decided to start preaching, I decided that I was willing to give up everything,” Brother Dean said. “The preaching puts someone into a wilderness, a wilderness of aloneness. If you decide to do what the Bible says, you will be alone most of the time.” In using this language, he was invoking Christ’s martyred forerunner, John the Baptist—and in a way that doesn’t sound all that different from DC Talk. Brother Dean’s rationale demonstrates how Christians can interpret John 15:18–19 to justify offensiveness for its own sake. Jesus’ words made people so angry that he got himself killed. If Christians inspire a similar level of rage, they must be imitating Christ. I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.
This is the theology of the internet troll. Is it any wonder that conservative Christians who think this way could forgive Donald Trump for pretending not to know anything about the Ku Klux Klan to avoid repudiating their support, praising Vladimir Putin for having “very strong control” over his country, suggesting the assassination of his political opponent, and admitting to sexual assault? It’s possible that the very fact that Trump provokes such outrage earns him credit in their eyes. He is the brave dissenter in a world of political correctness. He is the natural ally of the Christian who dares to “tell it like it is” in saying that gay men are pedophiles, or that trans people are mentally ill. The more that nonbelievers denounce Christians as backward, the more some Christians are assured of their righteousness. And the more that liberals call Trump “offensive,” the more he seems like a friend to the church—even a martyr, perhaps.
Of course, many evangelicals balk at Trump’s behavior, particularly when it comes to his misogyny. And we can’t talk about the religious vote without acknowledging that many Christians will always vote Republican solely because of their opposition to abortion. I’m not trying to work out the calculus of how we arrived at a Trump electoral victory. But the church has been on the defensive for a long time—especially since the sexual revolution, and that fact is essential for understanding Trump’s appeal for evangelicals. Today’s conservative Christians condemn unbelievers (or progressive Christians) for violating the Bible’s rules of sexuality and gender; when unbelievers express outrage at that condemnation, the church sees itself as persecuted by a regime of political correctness. It’s a toxic dynamic, but it certainly benefited a politician who defined himself by his defiance of that political correctness. It’s no surprise that evangelicals ally with him, even if that alliance requires tolerating a staggering amount of hypocrisy.
The word “holy” means “set apart.” You could say that holy means “other.” But from the perspective of the Christian who surrounds himself with other Christians, you could also say that being holy means seeing everyone else as “other.” In this sense, the church can see itself as marginalized while in the act of marginalizing others. Understanding how this is possible goes a long way toward explaining the alarming political situation we now face.
“Jesus Freak” was the anti-establishment ballad for good, abstinent Christian kids, in which the cool kids were the establishment and the church was the revolution. I remember feeling pretty cool while listening to it, but now it mostly makes me sad. I didn’t think to question the gulf that exists between hurt feelings and violent persecution. And now that my generation of evangelicals is all grown up with a President Trump, there’s no guarantee they’ll learn to make that distinction either. One would think that Trump’s election would prove that political correctness hardly rules with an iron fist, but that’s no reason to think that the martyr complex will weaken. We may be entering a baffling era when evangelicals continue to cast themselves as martyrs even as their man, Vice President Mike Pence, whispers into Trump’s ear and Steve “Church Militant” Bannon churns out executive orders—a period when the evangelical Christian fantasizes about dying under Diocletian even while living under Constantine. It’s possible to see yourself as a victim while you’re assaulting others’ civil rights. And it’s possible, as Constantine did, to march into battle under the sign of the cross and fail to notice the irony.