Public opinion and legal norms around religion and sexuality have shifted significantly in the past decade. Many believe traditional religious convictions will be increasingly pushed to the margins in the United States.
The October Evangelical Leaders Survey asked U.S. evangelical leaders about their experience with persecution and their projections for the future. While only 32 percent indicated that they have been persecuted for their Christian faith, 76 percent expect they will be persecuted in coming years.
“American evangelical leaders recognize changes in the cultural wind and anticipate a backlash against themselves and other followers of Christ,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “Yet there’s a notable absence of alarmism as well as a clarification that persecution in the West is not the same as persecution in other areas of the world.”
Along with the question, the survey included the definition of persecution from the English Oxford Living Dictionary: “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs; oppression.”
Of the minority that has experienced persecution, nearly all (92 percent) expect it will continue. The majority of those who have not experienced persecution (68 percent) expect they will in coming years.
Where evangelical leaders elaborated, most respondents indicated that they are thinking mainly of social, financial and political pressure, not physical violence.
John Hopler, director of Great Commission Churches, said, “I have never been physically harmed, but I have been personally ridiculed online due to the stands I have taken for Christ … But nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters overseas have experienced.”
Several leaders joined Hopler in expressing that the persecution they have faced — or may face in the future — is not on the same level as what believers in other countries already experience.
Don Sweeting, president of Colorado Christian University, said, “I’ve been threatened with lawsuits for having a church witness in our community, but I do not typically consider that ‘persecution.’ There is distinction between soft and hard persecution. I think soft persecution in the United States will increase.”
Those who did have more dramatic stories of persecution were overseas at the time, and even then they suffered less than the local believers.
Terri Traudt, a senior communications professional, advised, “I don’t think we as Christians should be so certain of future persecution that we start looking for it and therefore be complicit in creating it. Rather we should prayerfully and purposefully take measures to fend it off. This requires empathy, understanding, positive communications and actions that demonstrate Christian love and value in the world.”
Anderson continued, “Evangelicals should have confidence that regardless of what comes our way God is with us and will continue to carry out his loving purposes for the world.”
The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches.