//Those Poor, Persecuted Christians

Those Poor, Persecuted Christians

By Jaguar Bennett  | jaguarbennett@gmail.com

From the moment the Tower District community expressed opposition to his takeover of the Tower Theatre, Adventure Church Pastor Anthony Flores has claimed persecution. That his church is being persecuted by people who hate Christians. Flores says that the people who oppose him are “anti-God.” (Flores frequently seems confused about the distinction between himself and the Almighty.) Flores claims that city officials who have cited Adventure Church for zoning violations or expressed concern over maintaining the theater’s historic character are also part of the persecution he suffers.

Is any of this plausible? Could it be true that the city government and the residents of the Tower District, under the sway of Fresno’s immensely powerful atheist and gay lobbies, have joined forces to persecute a small, defenseless congregation – motivated purely by a ruthless hatred of Christianity?

To cut through the deception here, let’s be clear on who has the power in this situation because it isn’t Tower District residents or even the city government. Adventure Church has the money to buy one of Fresno’s most prominent buildings for $3.9 million. Adventure Church has the lawyers to threaten city officials with a lawsuit that has frightened them from enforcing zoning laws. Until quite recently, evangelical Christianity has been one of the most powerful political forces in America. More to the point, evangelical Christianity is still an overwhelmingly powerful force in local Fresno politics.

Fresno does not seem a likely place to find rabidly anti-Christian fanatics. On the contrary, this is one of the most religious cities in California. By one count, there are 374 churches in Fresno or one church for every 1,500 residents. Mayor Jerry Dyer, like so many Valley politicians, is ostentatious in his religiosity. The Fresno City Council went to a great deal of trouble to put the words “In God We Trust” on the council chamber walls.

The primary opposition to Adventure Church’s takeover of the Tower Theatre are residents of the Tower District. But they don’t have Adventure’s money or lawyers. Hundreds of Towerites have protested outside the Tower Theatre: Christians, members of other faiths and secular people; Black, Latino, Asian and white people; gay and straight; transgender and cisgender; and people throughout the political spectrum from left to right. If a group this diverse is united on this issue, the common factor isn’t hatred of Christianity; it’s disapproval of Adventure Church’s actions — which is not at all the same thing.

The “persecution” that Flores complains about is simply him not getting his way. No one opposed to the sale of the Tower Theatre is trying to take away anyone’s right to worship. We’re not trying to close down Adventure Church’s existing location. We wouldn’t try to stop Adventure Church from operating in any properly zoned building. Instead, Flores claims that the Tower District community is “persecuting” him because we dare voice our objections – when he breaks zoning laws, when he threatens the long-term viability of Tower businesses and property values, and when he tries to impose an anti-gay church in our queer-affirming neighborhood.

This is a very peculiar kind of persecution. The guy with all the power in the situation claims he’s being persecuted because people won’t just lie down and let him do whatever he wants.

Of course, everyone wants to pretend they’re the underdog these days. But, let’s be frank, playing the victim is often a highly effective way to get what you want in our society. A fair society should strive to protect the most vulnerable — but it becomes a problem when powerful people want to preserve their power by demanding the same protections as genuinely vulnerable people.

Billionaires claim they’re victimized by income taxes. White people claim they’re victimized by reverse racism. Gun owners claim they’re victimized by gun control laws that threaten their right to intimidate and kill others. During the COVID-19 crisis, people claimed they were victimized if they were not given free license to infect others with a deadly disease.

The Christian Right is particularly fond of claiming that they are persecuted by a rapidly secularizing society. Less than 20 years ago, the Christian Right was considered to have enough power to sway national elections. Today, the Christian Right claims that every advance in rights for LGBTQ+ people is discrimination against Christians.

When the Christian Right screams about persecution, what they’re really complaining about is a decline of relative power. So, by their logic, when conservative Christians cannot force others to comply — when they are obliged to consider the rights of citizens who belong to other religions, are nonreligious, or gay — it’s persecution.

Consequently, any act by elected officials to protect the rights of anyone other than Christians is also persecution by the logic of the Christian Right. Thus, in every legal or political contest in which conservative Christians want to prevail over anyone else, they must win; otherwise, it’s persecution. In the words of Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel, “There’s no such thing as separation of church and state. We should be instilling faith everywhere in society.”

So when a well-funded, well-lawyered, politically connected church screams “persecution,” understand it for what it is — a childish scream of frustration at not having power.