Seventy-five percent of all people today live in a country where persecution is a part of everyday life. Shocking? Yes. But almost as shocking is the relative lack of response from North American Protestants.
Violence and intimidation in the name of religion is expanding rapidly, and it has taken on unusual brutality. The most egregious offenders now have familiar names: ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab. But persecution also occurs in countless ways that get less attention: anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws from north Africa to south Asia that expose Christians and others to human rights abuses; government crackdowns in China that send unregistered congregations underground; faith-motivated mob violence in India and elsewhere that fuels cultures of fear and retribution. The examples could go on. According to the Pew Research Center, four out of 10 countries in the world, encompassing over three-quarters of the world’s population, have high levels of government restriction on or social hostility toward faith—and those numbers are increasing.
We might expect the North American Protestant church to have a vigorous response. After all, every large denomination in the United States and Canada has an outreach abroad. And indeed nearly every denomination has staff working in countries where persecution is prevalent.
So what have we heard from the North American denominations? Very little.
While over half the denominations have made some sort of formal statement about religious persecution, less than a third have an office or even just part of a staff member’s time devoted to this pressing, global problem. Only one in five provides worship materials, prayer guides, adult education materials or other resources for use by member churches.
It’s easy to make statements; it is much harder to put those statements into practice. Churches and church members have few resources to help them respond in productive and sustained ways to their suffering sisters and brothers in Christ or to others who are enduring religious persecution.
The lack of action is amplified by the fact that denominations don’t share a similar voice on the issue.
Some denominations argue that religious persecution is basically a problem of religious freedom, a failure of the state to keep society open for religious expression. Other denominations envision the problem as largely interpersonal, a matter of how people within civil society interact across lines of difference. They focus on reducing social hostility, increasing tolerance and fostering interfaith dialogue.
If you compare formal denominational statements, this difference in framing a response to persecution distinguishes evangelical from mainline traditions. In short, evangelicals tend to put more emphasis on personal conversion, the authority of the Bible and evangelism than mainline Protestants; mainline Protestants tend to have a greater emphasis on social outreach than evangelicals. Of course, there is a great deal of similarity between the two traditions, and a whole lot of variation within the traditions, but the differences are significant enough to predict a range of social behaviors and attitudes, including the attitude toward religious persecution.
The accompanying figures display some straightforward comparisons, using content analysis of formal denominational statements. The clear takeaway is that evangelical denominations are more likely to frame the issue of persecution in terms of religious freedom, while mainline denominations are much more likely to give attention to interfaith relations. These are revealing findings that raise questions about appropriate responses. For instance, should denominations devote most of their energies to protecting religious freedom, perhaps by advocating stronger foreign policy sanctions against abusive countries? Or should they give more attention to understanding and reconciliation across lines of religious difference? Whatever the answers, it is clear that churches should do more to address this growing global problem.
In our volume, The Church and Religious Persecution, Robert Joustra and I dig deeper into the lack of response from the North American church. We argue for the church’s revived presence as a moral protagonist in the fight against persecution. And in the concluding chapter, we offer practical suggestions for the way the church, as the body of Christ, can raise its voice against religious persecution.
Kevin den Dulk is a Calvin political science professor.