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I’ve been remembering recently how martyrdom was such a prominent feature of my evangelical upbringing. I mean, no one I knew was martyred but there was a pervasive sense that persecution and martyrdom were inevitable. These memories have resurfaced in part because I’ve been doing some reading on dc Talk’s Jesus Freak and on the Columbine shooting in 1999.
I think for many of us who can remember it, the Columbine shooting was a formative event, though it has since been overshadowed by countless other school shootings in the last 20 years. I have little personal memory of the shooting, only vague recollections. I was only 10 so I must have been protected from the brunt of it.
What I remember most, as an evangelical tween at the time, is the story of Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, the two young Christian teenagers who were killed in the shooting. Cassie Bernall was the girl who said yes when one of the shooters asked her if she believed in God (even though it later turned out that story was not true and it was another student who’d confessed their faith before being shot — though they survived the shooting). Both of their parents wrote books about their stories and their faith.
Martyrs were all the rage in Christian youth culture in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember poring over a book on martyrs that dc Talk put together along with Voices of the Martyrs. I remember learning about martyrs in school and church and youth group. My youth groups never went so far as actually scaring us with a pretend massacre, as other evangelical teens in the 1990s and 2000s recall, but I remember talking about it as a youth group and knowing I needed to be prepared.
We romanticized martyrdom and dreamed of the days we might be persecuted. I’m not the only evangelical teen who remembers it that way. In reading Dave Cullen’s 2009 book Columbine and reminiscing about the impact of dc Talk’s Jesus Freak, I recalled a good 2019 Vox article by Alissa Wilkinson I’d read on this very topic.
It seems a little silly now. At the time, I lived in a small town in Iowa and was not in any danger of persecution. Moreover, white Christians enjoy an extraordinarily privileged place in the United States, in all sorts of big and small ways. We get most of our major holidays off from work, while others work through their religion’s holy days. All of our nation’s presidents have been Christian — at least nominally. We make up the majority of the US population. Our beliefs are deferred to in so many ways, and saying someone is a Christian still seems to function as shorthand for saying someone is a good person.
Even despite this reality, those narratives of martyrdom and persecution I learned as a tween and teenager were so powerful and still are. As Wilkinson notes in her article for Vox, white evangelicals in America have fetishized persecution. Research by the Public Religion Research Institute in the last few years backs up her claims. As I was writing this post, sociologist Samuel Perry tweeted about the tendency of white evangelicals to see themselves as the most likely to experience discrimination. Evangelicals consider themselves the most persecuted religious group in the country, and they seem to evoke persecution at every turn — such as when they’re asked to abide by public health directives during a deadly pandemic.
This persecution complex feeds into white evangelicalism’s blind spot toward many of the larger problems facing American society — the discrimination faced by Black Americans, immigrants, and other minority groups. With the recent anniversary of 9/11, we can also recall the rampant Islamophobia in this country. Yet white evangelicals still feel the need to center themselves in these stories — to the detriment of us all.