Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:
"Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.
"I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We're made to feel as if we're idiots -- perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up."
Quite a vivid quote, that.
So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between "discrimination" or "hostility" and behavior that can truly be called "persecution"?
This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics -- think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters -- that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.
It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:
In suggesting that some people need to "grow up" before talking about the persecution of Christians in the UK or US, I had in mind those who offer what I think unduly sensationalised accounts of the situation -- and, to a lesser extent, those in the public eye who have to put up with a certain amount of routine attack. I realise in retrospect how offensive the words might sound to those who suffer bullying for their convictions or whose faith presents them with real and painful dilemmas in their professional lives. I want to make it clear that I'd regard urging such people to "grow up" as insulting and insensitive to a degree, and apologise for giving any impression to that effect.
Rowan Williams Magdalene College, Cambridge
I think it is particularly important that Williams mentioned disputes about employment and "bullying," which could refer to bitter public debates about free speech and freedom of religion.
Note, in particular, the exchanges between MZ and scholar Alan Jacobs, including:
@ayjay Meh. While you can and should think of those who have it worse, advocating for your community is not something to discourage
— Mollie Z. Hemingway (@MZHemingway) August 16, 2013
""When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,"..." http://t.co/60sQ7Gmf4E
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) August 16, 2013
This kind of thing happens on the religious and cultural left and the right. For example, are Russia's new laws against the open promotion of gay rights really, on a moral or journalistic grid, really as important as gays being hanged under Islamist regimes? One is certainly government hostility, while the other is persecution under any dictionary definition.
Does that matter? Well, that depends on which Olympics you are preparing to cover, the games in Russia or in Qatar.
Meanwhile, if a conservative Christian street evangelist is arrested in England for proclaiming that the Bible says homosexual activity is sin, is that arrest "discrimination," "government hostility" or "persecution"? I would vote, in that case, for official government hostility.
That arrest is not quite the same level of pain and bloodshed as police and soldiers standing by while mobs burn 50 churches. Just sayin'.
Still, this is a journalistic terminology debate worth having.