Two weeks ago, an elderly abbot of a Russian Orthodox Monastery in the U.S. Pacific Northwest was punched in the head while pumping gas.
The assailant, unknown to him, reportedly zeroed in on the cross he was wearing and then said, “How’s Trump?”
“I don’t know,” replied the gentle but traditional monk, not known for being political.
Then came the debilitating sucker punch.
With political extremism on the rise in the U.S., and leftist-anarchist groups denouncing the First Amendment as a legacy of white supremacy, expect anti-religious violence to continue to be normalized as public discourse keeps dehumanizing traditional Christians.
Normalization of leftist violence is seen in how CBS touts online a TV show that, as TAC senior editor Rod Dreher notes, “affirms and justifies the violent physical assault of a living American who was peacefully stating his opinion… to promote its own programming by rallying potential viewers to the episode.”
Dreher also cites how Villanova University Professor Billie Murray’s work theorizes a political tolerance for violence on the Left by “’challenging the violence/nonviolence binary’ and arguing that we ‘should imagine activism as combative’—this, as a counterpoint to ‘traditional nonviolent activism.’”
Middlebury College recently cancelled a speech by former Polish Solidarity activist and philosopher Ryszard Legutko because they reportedly could not guarantee his safety. Ironically, Legutko studies how liberal democracies are becoming “soft totalitarian” regimes. He too, has espoused conservative Catholic views of marriage and sex. This in part has led, we can only guess, to the Facebook rants against him ahead of his planned appearance, and a statement by protesting students who called him a homophobe, misogynist, racist, sexist, “and practically everything an ideological sinner can be today,” according to Legutko’s own detailing of the events.
Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggested that Vice President Mike Pence should resign because his wife is teaching at a conservative Christian school that opposes secular sexual anthropology, and this puts him beyond the pale of acceptable social morals. In recent years, Christian restaurant chains, bakers, and high-tech executives have fallen prey to campaigns to chase them from the economy, a kind of professional execution in a capitalist society.
On a small scale, as a Russian Orthodox Christian like the aforementioned Abbot, I’ve experienced a kind of attempted social erasure in our small college town. For example, I was headed into a small restaurant when a progressive colleague inside called out that the establishment should be cleared because I was coming to “kill all gays and heretics.” That was a reference to my religious identity and not a reflection of my personal respect for LGBTQIA-identifying colleagues.
The larger social and professional ostracism that my family and I have experienced in a small university community was amplified by anti-Russian sentiments in the anti-Trump “resistance,” related to hatred of resurgent traditional Christianity in Russia. Ironically, this occurs in a region that once saw activity by the Ku Klux Klan, which targeted Orthodox Christians among other minorities.
Such dehumanization has deep roots. In the classical revolutionary philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, religion is an ideology by which “the ruling class has sought to maintain and legitimate the status quo and so sought to keep other classes in subjection to itself,” notes the intellectual historian James Thrower. But Leninism, he notes, made “the active struggle against religious ideology” crucial to “a successful struggle against political and economic oppression.”
Since World War II, “cultural Marxism” in the West sought to reverse-engineer Marxist revolution through cultural change, following the lead of the Italian theoretician Antonio Gramsci, who argued in his influential prison notebooks that “proletarian hegemony” needed to imitate religion by repeating cultural messages incessantly and establishing its own intellectual elite in influential institutions. This “war of position” to establish conditions for revolution is better known from post-1960s intellectuals as the “long march through the institutions,” analogous to Mao’s guerilla-style “long march.”
Such ideological efforts have spawned not only attempted social ostracism, but a culture ripe for anti-Christian violence by the mentally unhinged. At Umpquaa Community College in Oregon in 2015, 10 people were killed in a tragedy where the shooter reportedly asked people if they were Christian and shot them if they were.
Violent persecution of Christians in the U.S. in 2019 of course remains slight compared to the world at large, where surveys have found Christianity to be the most-targeted of world religions. The deadly 2019 Easter Sunday attack on churches in Sri Lanka is only the latest of such incidents, including beheadings in Libya, killings of Christians in Kenya, and in Nigeria, often at the hands of extremist Islamists. Under Soviet communism, millions of believers were killed, and Chinese communism still persecutes religious minorities including Christians.
Despite that hostile global environment, religion today is being downplayed in American diversity politics, setting it up to be replaced solely by race and sex concerns in which Christianity is labeled an oppressor. In the past, religion was upheld as a diversity factor if only to protect Jewish Americans from anti-Semitism and Muslims from Islamophobia. Never to protect Christians from slander or discrimination.
Much of this underlying animus relates to sexual identity politics that seek to remake family norms and fashion a new, non-traditional culture. Progressives say Christianity has caused suicides among LGBTQIA youths, without evidence or adequate controls for other social and emotional factors and cultural nuances. All such cases are tragic. Any persecution of people is un-Christian and abhorrent. But simplistically assigning blame to a particular belief system or culture merely reverses the hate.
This extends to wanting to erase people of faith for being “unscientific” obstacles to social progress. One faculty email debate on my home campus several years ago targeted Ben Carson, who in the pre-Trump era was invited to talk about his career as a renowned surgeon. Carson is a Seventh-Day Adventist believing in intelligent design, which provoked calls for disinviting or boycotting his visit.
But the history of communist persecution of traditional Christians offers inspiration for those facing a “soft totalitarianism,” in terms of how faith endured under the “hard” form. The book Everyday Saints by the Russian Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevnukov) describes how a Russian monastery fell into bad repute.
It was said that its monks were all idlers and drunkards. During the Civil War [in Russia] the Bolsheviks arrived in the town that was closest to the monastery. They gathered together its inhabitants in the market square, and then they dragged the monastery’s monks out in a convoy.
The commissar loudly yelled at the people as he pointed to those men in black:
“Citizens! Townsfolk! You know these drunkards, gluttons, and idlers better than I do! Now their power has come to an end. But so that you will understand more fully how these vagabonds have fooled the workers and peasants for centuries, we will throw their cross and their Scriptures into the dust before them. Now, before your very eyes, you will see how each of them will stamp upon these tools of deceit and enslavement of the people! And then we will let them go, and let the four winds scatter them!”
The crowd roared. And as the people cheered, up walked the monastery’s Abbot, a stout man with a meaty face and a nose all red from drinking. And he said as he turned to his fellow monks: “Well, my brothers, we have lived like pigs, but let us at least die like Christians!”
And not a single one of those monks budged. That very day all their heads were chopped off by the sabers of the Bolsheviks.
Alfred Kentigern Siewers is the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life for the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and an Associate Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty Member in Environmental Studies at Bucknell University.