In early March, the Associated Press reported a story on Trail Life USA, an outdoors club started for boys whose convictions about the moral status of homosexuality made it impossible for them to belong to the Boy Scouts of America, which now accepts gay members. The story said that the Trail Lifers were learning a new salute; a photo accompanying the piece depicted the boys with their right arms extended, as if they were Hitler Youth.
Indeed, that’s exactly how veteran religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman, now at Religion News Service, interpreted the gesture, and told her nearly 10,000 Twitter followers. The trouble was, the shocking image was deceptive. It did not show a salute, but rather captured a moment when the boys were lowering their arms while singing “Taps.” Under a barrage of criticism, Grossman apologized for her Nazi characterization. The AP removed the photo from its database, grudgingly conceding that transmitting an image as easily misinterpreted as that one was unwise.
Still, it’s worth thinking about why a worldwide news service would think such an obviously provocative image would be worth transmitting in a story about Christian children whose faith does not permit them to approve of homosexuality. And it is worth considering why one of the most prominent religion reporters in America would think nothing of likening these children to Hitler Youth. As Grossman explained in a self-justifying Tweet prior to her apology, the beliefs of these Evangelical Christian children are “ugly.”
Therefore, it’s plausible that their parents are teaching them to be little Nazis? This is, quite simply, deranged. But this is how traditional Christian moral teaching on homosexuality is rapidly becoming seen by the mainstream media, and by cultural opinion makers. It is no secret that the American media is far more secular and far more liberal on social issues than most Americans. And it is no surprise that the press coverage of the gay marriage controversy has been staggeringly slanted toward the pro-gay side (for example, a 2013 study by the non-partisan Pew Center found pro-gay marriage stories outnumbered stories about those opposed by a stunning five to one.
What is surprising – and deeply disturbing – is how the media’s coverage and rhetoric is increasingly depicting opposition to same-sex marriage as a manifestation of pure hatred. Anyone who has been on the front lines of this debate over the past decade is used to activists using shrill and demeaning rhetoric to demonize their opponents. Now that the pro-gay side is clearly going to win this struggle, their rhetoric against traditional Christians seems to be growing even more hostile.
Christians had better get used to it. We cannot expect basic fairness, decency, or civility from our opponents. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (a conservative Christian) recently put it, marriage traditionalists are now at the mercy of their opponents. Come what may, he wrote, “Nobody should call it persecution.”
I’m not so sure about that. Like their pro-gay opponents, traditional Christians are often all too quick to claim that mere disagreement or slight discomfort is the same as persecution. When there are Christians in this world suffering terror, jail, beatings, and even murder for their faith, it can be close to obscene for put-upon American Christians to claim moral kinship.
That said, it is no small thing for Christian businesspeople to consider whether or not to abandon their livelihoods rather than violate their consciences under state compulsion. Given how close to the financial margins most churches and ministries must operate, it is no small thing to face the very real prospect of having your religious institution’s federal tax-exempt status taken away.
And it is no small thing to have yourself and your children become social pariahs because of your religious faith. Ask Trail Life USA head John Stemberger, who told The Washington Post that the pseudo-Nazi photo has drawn hundreds of hateful e-mails, including two death threats he intends to report to the police[insert URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/03/04/ap-removes-misleading-trail-life-usa-photo-from-its-archives/]. In 2009, an anonymous person who objected to my Dallas Morning News columns opposing same-sex marriage began a campaign of explicitly anti-Christian harassment that culminated in the newspaper hiring off-duty Dallas police officers to give my home and family round-the-clock protection.
This is real. And I believe it’s going to get much worse for Christians on this front. How should we respond?
First, we must remember that Christ said this would happen, and he said we would be “blessed” for suffering for His sake (Matthew 5:10). Moreover, we are under divine command (Matthew 5:44) to love our enemies, and to pray for those that persecute us. These are hard sayings. But they are binding on the consciences of Christians.
How do we live them out? We can look to the past for inspiration from American Christians who faced persecution far worse than anything one could imagine happening today.
Not long ago, I found myself talking to an elderly black man not far from my Louisiana home. He was telling me stories about the old days, growing up in the segregated South. After hearing his memories ranging from Ku Klux Klan terrorism down to daily humiliations visited upon African-Americans by the white majority, I asked the old man how he and his family got through it.
“Daddy told us, ‘Don’t be the person they think you are,’” he said.
That is, the old man’s father said the white man expected them to behave like savages. Rise above it. Show them what you’re really made of.
That’s great advice for traditional Christians, both now and into our very uncertain future in this post-Christian nation.
Rod Dreher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org