Partisan Persecution Complex – Word&Way

The annual White House Easter Egg Roll yesterday (April 1) made some conservatives hopping mad this year. Headlines blared from Fox News that religious designs had been “banned” by the White House. This “news” quickly sparked attacks from shell-shocked politicians.

Speaker Mike Johnson claimed “the Biden White House” was “banning sacred truth and tradition” and thus had “betrayed the central tenet of Easter.” Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Auburn) called Democrats “a Satanic cult.” You know, for not being like the first disciples and painting crosses on cooked eggs left outside for kids by an oversized bunny.

The Trump campaign egged on the attacks, calling it “appalling and insulting” that Biden had prohibited religious designs. The statement also called the move proof of “the Biden Administration’s years-long assault on the Christian faith,” before ineggsplicably saying the White House should apologize to “Catholics and Christians.” Not a great strategy for outreach to Catholic voters by suggesting they don’t count as Christians!

It turns out the claims that Biden had “banned” religious designs weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The American Egg Board, which helps run the annual event, put out a statement to correct the record. When the eggsperts best known for creating the slogan “The Incredible, Edible Egg” fact-check you, you really know you’ve run afowl.

“The American Egg Board has been a supporter of the White House Easter Egg Roll for over 45 years and the guideline language referenced in recent news reports has consistently applied to the board since its founding, across administrations,” explained Emily Metz, the egghead who runs the board. “The Egg Board and other commodity boards are prohibited from discriminating in all programming and activities on the basis of religion, political beliefs, and all other stated categories.”

So the rules this year didn’t come from the Biden White House and are eggsactly the same rules as used for 45 years — including all four years of the Trump presidency!

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House on April 1, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

This isn’t a case of forgetfulness, because the Trump campaign doubled down even after being corrected. Nor is it merely a case of hypocrisy. It goes far beyond that. The Easter egg attack on Biden is yet another example of MAGA politicians and pundits trying to depict Biden as “anti-Christian” (and apparently also as an “anti-Catholic” Catholic).

Although said to be in the name of defending religion, such attacks actually exploit Christianity to make it merely a partisan bludgeon. Such rhetoric harms the Christian witness far more than leaving the risen Jesus off of a dyed egg. So this issue of A Public Witness looks at the false claims of Christian persecution leveled against Biden in the midst of an acrimonious campaign.

In case the eggs weren’t enough to throw at Biden, another controversy also erupted over the holy weekend as commentators and politicians complained about the president declaring Sunday “Transgender Visibility Day.” This annual observance started among activists in 2009, slowly growing over the years with recognition among more groups and governments across the globe.  Biden had issued proclamations marking the day every year of his presidency. And every year, the day has been on March 31.

With Transgender Visibility Day always on the same date and Easter moving around in March and April, a coincidence in timing lined them up this year (kind of like Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday being the same day this year). So Biden issued proclamations for each. Cue the outrage machine!

“Biden and the Democrats decided Easter — the Holy Day of our Savior’s Resurrection — as transgender day of visibility,” exclaimed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “There is no length Biden and the Democrats won’t go to to mock your faith, and to thumb his nose at God.”

U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is campaigning to be Trump’s running mate after failing to win the presidential nomination, sent a text message to his supporters saying Biden’s move “insulted Christians everywhere” — and Scott included a link for donations.

“This once again shows how little respect President Biden and his administration have for God,” declared Rev. Franklin Graham (R-evangelist). “Judgment is coming.”

And Rev. Jack Graham, a Trumpvangelical who served on the former president’s “evangelical advisory council,” even used his Easter Sunday sermon to attack “our failed and foolish president.” Graham then yelled at Biden — to applause — for supposedly choosing that day for the transgender proclamation, calling it “demonic” and “damnable.” He also attacked pastors who don’t also use their Easter sermon to attack Biden.

The idea that Biden replaced Easter with Transgender Visibility Day is patently false. Two things can happen on the same day. Otherwise, we need to say Trump replaced Easter in 2019 with “National Park Week,” and dishonored it in 2018 by instead making it the start of “Cancer Control Month,” “National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month,” and “Second Chance Month.” Even if one doesn’t want to recognize Transgender Visibility Day, Biden’s proclamation doesn’t mean he replaced Easter.

The attacks on Biden also assume that honoring transgender people is inherently insulting to Christians. But not all Christians demonize transgender people. So for such churches, there was no conflict in caring for transgender people and also celebrating the resurrection of Jesus’s transformed body.

For the record, Biden did also issue an Easter proclamation for Sunday to offer his “warmest wishes to Christians around the world celebrating Easter Sunday.”

“Easter reminds us of the power of hope and the promise of Christ’s Resurrection,” he added. “As we gather with loved ones, we remember Jesus’s sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, Trump spent Sunday morning making dozens of posts on Truth Social, including attacks on Biden (for both the egg designs and the transgender day), the daughter of a judge overseeing a Trump case, and comedian Jon Stewart. He also posted about his poll numbers, migrants, and a column declaring him to be “the chosen one.”

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Easter didn’t start the false claims that Biden and other Democrats are persecuting Christians. In February, the Family Research Council released a report claiming “hostility against churches is on the rise in the United States.” The FRC, a Republican activist group that claims in IRS filings that it’s a church, has been tracking media reports about incidents of vandalism or violence against churches since 2018. They found the number doubled in 2023 and is now eight times that in 2018.

A quick aside about the research methods for the report: The FRC doesn’t actually prove that incidents of violence against church buildings are on the rise; they technically prove more incidents are reported on by media outlets. That might mean the violence is indeed on the rise, but it might also just mean journalists are shining more attention on such acts, which would actually show greater concern (not hostility) toward Christians from reporters.

But let’s assume the report does accurately capture a rise in attacks on church buildings. Many of the cases don’t prove anti-Christian hostility but instead just the vulnerability of buildings that are empty much of the week and may have valuables inside. Some incidents are theft without anti-religious motivation. Others are non-malicious damage from unhoused people looking for a place to hang out. And still others are cases involving people with mental illness who just happened to make a scene at a church. Such nuance in the report was often left out of the headlines about alleged anti-Christian hostility.

But the worst misuse of the report came from the FRC’s leader, who either didn’t read his organization’s own report or just doesn’t care about the commandment against bearing false witness.

“It’s all connected,” Tony Perkins posted on social media along with a chart showing the rise in incidents at church buildings. “The Left’s coordinated use of ‘Christian nationalism’ and the rise in hostility against houses of worship. It’s an intimidation game designed to silence Christians and suppress our votes. Don’t buy it.”

Let’s put aside his debunked claim that criticism of Christian Nationalism is just an attempt to “silence Christians” since Christians are literally among the leading voices speaking out against the dangerous ideology (and a couple of Christians even wrote a book on the topic coming out soon). Perkins added that he believes the increase in incidents at church buildings is Biden’s fault — though the FRC’s report does not make that assertion.

“The growing anti-faith rhetoric of the Left, led by the Biden administration’s own bigotry toward Christians, has made it open season on houses of worship,” Perkins wrote. “This is cultural terrorism, and it’s designed to silence us.”

There’s a big problem with Perkins’s claim: It’s debunked by his organization’s report. After all, many of the incidents are not examples of “anti-faith” actions by “the Left” but instead examples of apparent rightwing violence against liberal Christians.

Like a Presbyterian church in Maryland where someone defaced the church’s “Black Lives Matter” and Pride Month signs. Or another Presbyterian church in the Old Line State where someone damaged a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Or a United Methodist church in Michigan where someone shot an LED rainbow flag sign with a hunting arrow. Or a United Church of Christ congregation in Virginia where someone tore down a “Black Lives Matter” and rainbow banner. Or a UCC church in California where someone defaced a rainbow peace sign. Or a UCC church in Montana where someone replaced a rainbow flag with an American flag and a Bible verse to condemn homosexuality. Or a Lutheran church in Washington where someone vandalized the church’s Pride Month rainbow doors. Or a Metropolitan Community Church building in Illinois where someone painted over the rainbow colors on the church’s steps. Or an African Methodist Episcopal church in D.C. where someone painted swastikas on a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

Photo from Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, Maryland (one of the targeted churches in the FRC’s report) after an incident at their church as they really put the rainbow in the ark and dove story!

Other similar examples can be found in the FRC’s reports. To think any of those incidents were inspired by Biden or the Left defies logic. Yet, Perkins did not condemn such rightwing violence against churches.

To be clear, there are examples in the report of leftwing graffiti left at conservative churches. And all such violence — from the right or the left should be denounced. But Perkins deceptively tried to use the total number of incidents — that included rightwing violence, accidents by unhoused people or people with mental illness, and petty theft — to suggest that all of the incidents were inspired by Biden and other Democrats. Perkins’s use of the numbers from the report thus brings to mind that old line from Mark Twain: “There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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More examples could be given of Trump and other Republicans using false claims to depict Biden as anti-Christian. There are policy reasons that could lead one to vote against him. For some, Biden’s affirmation of transgender people — regardless of the day — will lead them to vote for someone else. But criticizing Biden for policy disagreements is different than making false claims of persecution to smear an observant Catholic who has attended church services more than any other president in the modern era (even passing Baptist Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter).

Lying about matters of faith while claiming to defend religion isn’t just ironic or hypocritical; it’s to do the very thing one is complaining about. Using Christianity for false partisan rhetoric is to attack Christianity. False claims of religious persecution steal attention from actual persecution in other nations. Such exploitation of the sacred should be called out, regardless of which politician employs the tactic.

Andrew Bates, a Biden spokesperson pushed back on the Easter attacks on the president, noting Biden isn’t anti-Christian but is a Christian. More to the point, the White House spoke against turning faith into a partisan weapon.

“As a Christian who celebrates Easter with family, President Biden stands for bringing people together and upholding the dignity and freedoms of every American,” Bates explained. “Sadly, it’s unsurprising politicians are seeking to divide and weaken our country with cruel, hateful, and dishonest rhetoric. President Biden will never abuse his faith for political purposes or for profit.”

So despite the efforts by Fox News, Donald Trump, and Jack Graham to make Easter about a presidential election, I hope you and your loved ones had a blessed day. I enjoyed hiding Easter eggs for my son after church. And although none of them had religious imagery on them, it was still wonderful.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

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