Please do not feed the paranoid

Western Christians seem to be developing a rather unhealthy persecution complex.It can be seen in the ways in which Christians have assessed early media interviews with Tim Farron. It can certainly be seen in a recent (well almost any vintage) story from the Christian Institute, which I noticed when a Facebook friend shared it at face value. It’s growing more common.

I want to offer a couple of brief observations, starting with the Farron election and subsequent interviews. Gillan Scott, in one of the more thoughtful reactions, provides the key links from The Times (paywall), the Spectator’s transcription with comment of the Today Programme, and Channel 4 News. He signs up to the persecution reading of these:

This whole episode has demonstrated that it is not Tim Farron who is being illiberal in his views and beliefs, but rather those who have set themselves up as a liberal elite, casting scorn and treating as pariahs those who do not bow down at the throne of secularism. God has been pushed to the margins, and religious illiteracy glories in its own folly.

I am not so certain this is the right way to read it, and Gillan’s comment about “religious illiteracy” seems to me nearer the mark. The more interesting reaction, and to my mind the more helpful one, is the reading offered by Ben Ryan at Theos. Media stories rely far more than we usually allow on two factors, a pre-existing script or story template into which the story can be fitted, and an easy controversial point, ideally with a completely contradictory view for balance.

When you take the religious literacy problem prevalent in our media into consideration, then Humphrys’ and Newman’s crassness becomes rather more understandable as floundering for cheap controversy without a decent story template to help them.

The problem with the easy cry of “persecution” or even just “marginalisation” is that it doesn’t put the core problem, media ignorance of a subject that is central to an increasing amount of global reporting, into the spotlight. (To which we should add Christian incompetence at providing accessible and intelligent presentations of the faith that sound like there may be a though worth pursuing.) And developing religious literacy in the media is key to developing it in society. See these repeated calls for a BBC Religion Editor to give the area due weight and competence.

The other story I saw today which illustrates the Christian persecution problem comes from the Christian Institute. Sadly, I came across it from someone on Facebook seeming to take the CI’s headline as gospel: Police to crack down on street preachers in Manchester. Their overblown news release starts off with “Police and council officers will target street preachers in Manchester city centre.” Their cited source, however, from which it appears the whole story has come, says something rather different:

Council officers will target pedlars and chuggers but officers will also crackdown on any nuisance booksellers, preachers and noisy musicians (emphasis added)

Frankly, if Manchester is anything like Birmingham, my sympathies lie largely with the council and police. By the time I’ve passed several stalls of Muslims on da’wah, a troupe of Hare Krishna, endless charity collectors, competing Christians with shouted KJV verses, Yoda impersonators, more charity collectors round the corner and so on, I sometimes wish I hadn’t ventured out.

Treating a crackdown on cacophony as “persecution” shows just how deeply this narrative has embedded itself in some people’s psyche.

The first problem with this modern Christian persecution mania is that it is not going to encourage us to find creative ways to address the key problem of religious illiteracy, especially in and among media people. The second is that it is likely to lead to short-term and knee-jerk thinking about campaigns, most of which show every sign of being fought in the wrong ditch. The third is that is likely to grow an us-and-them mentality and so become a self-fulfilling prophecy.