BUDAPEST, Hungary — Despite being the most persecuted religious minority in the world, Christians suffering persecution are often overlooked in the media and hardly given priority or special attention in government policy. This is particularly the case in Western countries whose foundations are, ironically, by and large Christian.
So why is there this dearth of coverage? In this Nov. 27 interview in Budapest with the Register at a conference on persecuted Christians, professor Paul Marshall, explains that various factors are in play.
Marshall holds the Jerry and Susie Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. The main factors in Christian persecution, he says, include “secularization theory,” which implies religion is “going to disappear,” ignorance among diplomats and journalists, and the culture wars, which have been projected onto non-Western persecuted Christians.
Why does the issue of persecuted Christians seem to be hardly covered in the media? Some in the media say it’s a “ratings killer” — does it, therefore, reflect a lack of interest among the public?
Two things: One, I would say, is that there is interest among the public; maybe not among professionals in the media, but among audiences there’s strong interest in religion stories, but the media usually doesn’t want to provide them. There is also interest in stories of persecution. I know people who are not Christians and not so involved in this, but they get struck by those matters.
Why is there also lack of compassion on this issue in many parts of the West?
One reason there is less interest, less compassion, is that many people in the West, in the professional classes, are still in the grips of secularization theory — that is, as human beings advance with technology and science, they become more and more secular. Religion is going to disappear [they say], so why pay all that attention to it?
But secularization theory doesn’t work. One is seeing it [continue] in Europe. Maybe we’re now seeing it in the United States, but worldwide [secularization theory] isn’t [there]. And even in Europe, it’s a complex phenomenon. A lot of people are not becoming atheists — they’re just becoming de-churched.
But as a worldwide phenomenon, religion is not becoming less important. It’s becoming more important. So, when people aren’t aware of that, then they miss out on the religious persecution, because they miss out on religion.
What other reasons are there?
There’s another involving Westerners in what are often now called “culture wars” — arguments about abortion, assisted suicide; now gender identity, gay marriage — there’s this whole complex of issues around sex and the beginnings and ends of life. Often antagonists to a more secular, liberal consensus are conservative Christians; others, too, but largely conservative Christians.
So conservative Christians are seen as the enemies in the culture war, and then this gets projected onto poor Christians in China, who have nothing to do with this, or in India, or Nigeria. So they’re treated as perhaps a surrogate enemy, or someone not on our side. And we feel sad about them, but they’re not really going to take it up as an issue.
So, in this sense, you’re saying it’s seen as an orthodox Catholic or Christian issue, and this is one of the hindrances to getting the message out?
It is. That’s a good clarification, because it would be the more orthodox, theologically traditional Christians in the West who are more often on one side in the culture wars. And for most Christians in the rest of the world, nearly all of them are orthodox — whether they’re Catholic, Orthodox with a capital ‘O,’ Protestant or whatever, or would be orthodox with a small ‘o,’ with traditional beliefs. So that strengthens that connection.
And you get this resistance not just in the media, but in bureaucracies, too?
Yes … but there’s another tendency, which fits with secularization theory, but is a type of materialism where religion is always seen as an epiphenomenon. In the Marxist sense, it’s a superstructure, such a small, superficial, evanescent thing. People are saying this may not be Marxist in the communist sense, but the idea is that the material things are which make the world go round, and so religion is just this superstructure carrying it.
It’s incidental to it.
It’s incidental. So, if something appears to be a religious conflict in Nigeria, or you’re dealing with ISIS, there’s this tendency to say, “Yeah, but what’s the real reason?” Because [this thinking says] religion can’t be real. It’s seen as not real — it’s always a mask, a cover, for some motive, usually to do with money, sex or power.
So, with religion, people are always trying to look underneath religion. And sometimes it is about these things. We all know religion can be a mask for other motives, but there’s a tendency, almost a method, always to say: “We need to find the real reason, because it can’t be religion.”
I’d add one more thing, and this is, I think, to defend diplomats: It’s difficult to deal with religion. If there’s a religious element in the conflict, it’s hard to resolve. So usually they ask: “Can we deal with it? We know religion is there, but let’s see if we can deal with that, without touching that because it’s so difficult.” And I sympathize with that.
So, in terms of a compassion gap, do you think that’s really not as big of a problem? It’s more the factors you’ve said, than a real lack of compassion for persecuted Christians?
I think that identifying overseas Christians with your political opponents in your own country, I think that does produce a compassion gap. That’s also an important factor. It’s not the only one. It’s also the others I mentioned.
What can be done to help resolve this, do you think?
Pushing on a few levels, one is educating diplomats and others, and another is to educate journalists. You have journalists who are opposed to conservative Christians. And you have journalists who just don’t understand what’s happening; there’s not an animus — there’s simply an ignorance.
A group I’m involved with is called The Media Project, which is seeking both to train journalists to understand religion, not only religious persecution, but religion generally. Because if they don’t understand that, they won’t understand why people are willing to die rather than betray their faith.
Another thing is to encourage Christians to go into journalism. Journalism is extremely secular, by and large. There are many reasons for that, but one is: Christians tend to shy away from it. And I think we’ve got to push Christians: Go in there, and be good journalists. So, we’re working on that, with them and others, to reorient their view of the nature of Christianity. Because in the West, there’s another mindset still: That Christianity is white and Western.
So people need to become aware of this: that Christianity came to India in the first century, or that the Christian communities, of which we see so many here, at this conference, go back to the first century. They were around long before anything else.
I have a little phrase I use in my speeches that says: “Christianity was in Africa before Europe, in India before England, and in China before America. We need to reorient our own minds around that.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.