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On Dan Savage and Martyrology

Last week, as you’ve no doubt heard, Dan Savage gave a speech to a national convention of high school journalists in which he criticized Christians’ use of the Bible to excuse mistreatment and discrimination aimed at gays. This spurred a walkout by a small group of Christian students who were in attendance, followed by a frenzy of accusations that he was “bullying” them. Here’s a transcript of Savage’s remarks.

I have to admit, when I first read this, it was hard for me to see why anyone was upset. Savage correctly pointed out that the Bible contains many immoral rules which are widely ignored by Christians today: rules that permit slavery, for example. He did use a mild profanity, “bullshit”, which I’m sure high schoolers hear worse than every day. His use of the term “pansy-assed” to describe the students who fled was less defensible, but he’s already apologized for that, and it wasn’t what prompted the walkout; they were already walking out when he said it. To his credit, he’s refused to retract the rest of his remarks. And why should he? They were indisputably true!

But what I overlooked was the vast persecution complex and almost parodic sense of victimhood possessed by Christian apologists, who in response to Savage’s speech have collectively lost their minds. They have such a palpable need to be the victims that, whenever anything happens that looks even slightly like persecution, they immediately whip themselves into a shrieking frenzy and exaggerate what they’ve suffered beyond all recognition.

For instance, the apologist Mark Shea made a beeline to the Nazi comparisons, because calling the Bible “bullshit” is exactly the same as sending Christian families to death camps. Another commenter, Ted Seeber (the Inquisition fan I discussed earlier this week), said that gay people want “the extinction of all who oppose them” and threw in some bonus panic over the concentration camps he assumes gays are building.

What this comes down to is that the self-appointed defenders of Christianity can’t tell the difference between criticism of their ideas and hateful attacks on individual believers. This is nothing new, but since anti-bullying campaigns are in vogue, they’ve wrapped themselves in that mantle, as demonstrated by Fox News in their usual manner. We saw this as well in the Christian responses to the Reason Rally, where Richard Dawkins’ call to mock and scorn irrational beliefs was immediately and universally interpreted by Christian apologists as a call to bully religious people.

So, for the professionally confused, let’s clarify some things: Bullying is a form of emotional abuse which takes the form of targeted coercion, harassment, intimidation, and violence against people who lack power to fight back. Savage had no special power over the people at his talk; they weren’t a captive audience. And his speech neither coerced Christians to do anything, nor harassed or intimidated them, nor called for any violence. It was, again, a criticism of bad ideas in the book they claim to believe in. When Christian teenagers are committing suicide in despair over being bullied by atheists and atheist school administrators are fighting efforts to do something about it, or when gay advocates are counseling parents to beat their children until they renounce Christianity, then these Christians will have a valid complaint, but obviously nothing like this has happened.

I think that this hysteria arises partly from cognitive dissonance. As I said, the religious right has a need to be the victims; their holy book predicts that they will be. But this clashes with the uncomfortable reality that Christians, far from being an oppressed minority, are instead a powerful and dominant majority, and are using their power to vigorously fight minorities who are seeking equal rights. Obviously, Christians don’t like thinking of themselves in the role of Rome. Their subconscious awareness of that fact creates cognitive dissonance, which they resolve by seizing on any perceived persecution, however flimsy, and frantically brandishing it. Crass political calculation doubtless plays a part as well; the religious right, stung by accusations that they encourage bullying of gay teenagers, thinks the best way to fight back is by claiming to be victims of exactly equal and opposite mistreatment.

There’s one more thing I want to say, which is that what most stands out about these Christians is – and there’s really no nice way to put this – their remarkably whiny and self-pitying response to criticism. Historical Christianity exalts its martyrs, to the point of lovingly cataloging their gruesome deaths and tortures, like this saint who’s often depicted holding her own eyes. The Bible instructs Christians to rejoice and consider themselves blessed when they’re persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). Does this sound even remotely like the behavior of these modern-day Christians, who aren’t experiencing anything nearly as bad?

Image: Genuine persecution, via

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