The idea that somehow Christians are a persecuted minority in this land has become a popular theme of the religious right in recent years. I suspect it reflects the paranoia of a declining value system.

Roman Catholic bishops began it when they suggested that opposition to their attitudes on birth control or abortion was nothing but an expression of anti-Catholic prejudice, and was therefore also anti-American. Evangelicals picked up that argument when some of their missionaries were killed, captured, or expelled from countries where their tactics were neither welcomed nor appreciated.

It took a devious turn when religious groups, including both Roman Catholics and Protestants, used a version of this argument to seek exemption from having to abide by civil rights legislation condemning discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Because it is the stated position of those groups that homosexuality is an aberration if not a sin, any attempt to force Christian institutions working in the public arenas of education or social service to violate their own beliefs by being forced to hire homosexual people was referred to as an act of religious persecution. Their opposition was so intense that, for the most part, churches were exempted from those laws.

Now we have President George W. Bush defending his proposal to allow federal money to fund his "faith-based" community social-service activities, suggesting that anyone who opposes this initiative would be discriminating against people and groups because of their strongly held religious convictions. This opposition, he implied, was not only unthinkable, but it was also the result of anti-religious bigotry. Only those who don't believe in God, he suggested, would stoop to that.

Meanwhile, when Bush nominated John Ashcroft for U.S. attorney general, suggestions that he was being discriminated against because of his religious beliefs became a way of defending him. The whispers of "prejudice against Christians" were answered by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and even Vice President Richard Cheney--who responded with a kind of "tsch, tsch, I certainly hope that that is not true." The only reason one might oppose Ashcroft, they suggested, is that he is a devout Christian. "Certainly, I hope we have not come to that," said Cheney, echoing the clearly staged campaign and looking terribly concerned, even as he willingly dignified that suggestion with his pious expression of fear.

It is a clever argument. It certainly appeals to one of the Republican Party's major bases of support. It makes opposition to Ashcroft or to faith-based federally funded projects appear to be the result of an anti-religious bias in this country. But this argument strikes me as nothing but an updated version of the battle cry used so successfully in the conservative parts of this nation in previous decades, where many things were justified under the rubric of "saving America from godless communism." McCarthyism was the ultimate expression of this sentiment.

This tactic is nothing but a crass attempt to use religion to serve a conservative agenda. It seeks to develop an issue that conservatives believe will work for them in 2001. It is a cruel political hoax designed to neutralize the opposition to this administration's agenda by labeling it as biased against religion. It is designed to keep "the religious vote" happy by playing to the persecution complex that seems omnipresent today in religious circles.

I am a Christian, one who has served 45 years as an ordained priest and elected bishop. I have no desire to say that any person may not practice his or her faith as he or she wishes in this free land. But I will not stand idly by while others take my Christ and seek to impose their narrow understanding of what Christ means on this pluralistic society.

This nation surely has it own history of very real religious persecution. The Jews were our first victims. They were forced to live in "Jewish" neighborhoods and excluded from much of the social life of their communities. Later, when Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Southern Europe began to enter what had heretofore been a bastion of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, they, too, met discrimination.

America's public schools at that time were essentially Protestant parochial schools. So Roman Catholics decided they must set up their own parochial school system to counter the erosion of their children's faith. As a result, later court decisions against Bible reading and prayer in public schools seemed like betrayal to various conservative Protestant groups. This discrimination also meant that a Roman Catholic candidate for the presidency was not successful until 1960, and no person of Jewish faith was on a national ticket before last year.

That mentality of discrimination has now been challenged not so much by a rival religious viewpoint as by the intellectual revolution and the increase in secular thinking. It has produced an anti-intellectualism in religious circles, and polarized the place of religion in public life. Traditionally, no presidential candidate ran on an overtly religious platform until the latter years of this century.

But during the last half of the 20th century, many factors contributed to a new and violent upheaval in our national life: the outlawing of segregation in 1954 disrupted life in the South, the most overtly Protestant and evangelical section of the country; the migration to northern urban centers of principally African American workers as the farms of the South were mechanized after World War II; the subsequent riots in those inner cities, when prejudice and lack of opportunities overwhelmed a population that could neither be absorbed nor properly serviced; the onset of the Vietnam War, setting generations against each other and challenging patriotism to its core.