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(IRD International religious liberty advocate Faith McDonnell with Anglican Sudanese Bishop Andudu Adam Elnail, whose Nuba diocese has been decimated by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.)

By Mark Tooley (Follow on Twitter @markdtooley.)

Jonathan Merritt, in his latest Religion News Service column, correctly complains that many U.S. Christians too often decry their own “persecution” while ignoring more genuinely horrifying oppression of Christians overseas in the Middle East and numerous other hotspots. He’s absolutely right that even in our increasingly problematic culture, difficulties in the U.S. don’t compare to church burnings in Iraq, Pakistan, or northern Nigeria. Hundreds of millions of Christians globally live with the daily threat of persecution, mostly by Islamist regimes and movements or by communist governments. Their plight should motivate our unending prayers and advocacy, amid gratitude for our own relative safety in America.

With some notable exceptions, U.S. churches and Christians of today are mostly acquiescent to global persecution. This passivity contrasts with the 1990s, when a wide interfaith coalition that included evangelicals spotlighted overseas Christians targeted for their faith, especially during the genocide in southern Sudan. The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church was created, ultimately recruiting tens of thousands of churches. This movement helped fuel legislation making religious liberty a U.S. foreign policy interest, including a special ambassador for religious liberty. It also generated pressure for the ultimately U.S. orchestrated peace agreement under the Bush Administration creating a new sovereign South Sudan, freeing Christians there from torment by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.

There’s no equivalent mass movement today. Merritt faults conservative Christians whose “attentions have been focused elsewhere,” instead “protesting Target employees who wish them ‘Happy Holidays’ [while] others have been mobilizing to boycott JCPenney over selecting Ellen DeGeneres, an outspoken lesbian, to be their spokesperson.” He declares: “This is a true ‘war on religion,’ and it is one that too few American Christians seem willing to enlist in.”

Okay, some truth there, but there’s more, and it is not just conservatives to blame. For many evangelicals who once were active on global persecution, other issues became more pressing. The National Association of Evangelicals had been a strong leader on solidarity with persecuted Christians. Today it is mostly silent, in recent years preferring to focus on legalizing illegal immigrants, opposing U. S. nuclear weapons and enhanced interrogation of terrorists, defending the U.S. federal entitlement state, perhaps touting gun control, and embracing environmental causes. Other liberal evangelicals share this issue menu preference over attention to Christian persecution.

Many liberal leaning evangelicals seemingly decided that spotlighting persecuted Christians, which entails critique of Islamist and communist regimes, was a conservative cause. In fact, the 1990s coalition included some liberals, although most of the Religious Left, such as the National Council of Churches and Sojourners, was largely uninterested then as now. Today, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action remains one of the few liberal evangelical leaders who publicly and commendably sustains interest in global persecution of Christians. His magazine, PRISM, has generously published articles on persecution by my colleague Faith McDonnell, IRD’s religious liberty director.

Domestic religious liberty concerns such as the Obamacare mandate compelling religious groups to subsidize abortion pills, or the stigmatization of supporters of traditional marriage, amid rhetoric that privatizes “freedom of worship,” may not equal North Korea level torment. But they are very real, unprecedented attacks on traditional American legal and cultural protections for full religious liberty. Pastor Rick Warren has called religious liberty, including domestic threats, the civil rights cause of our era. This Summer he’s hosting a conference about this cause.

Our American liberties are the notable exception and not the rule in our fallen world. We should jealously guard them, knowing freedom is typically lost incrementally and not suddenly, while also keeping perspective on and solidarity with believers who suffer unimaginably around the world. It’s not an either/or issue but a seamless garment of expectation that all persons everywhere merit full religious liberty. As Americans, we have special providential duties to protect religious freedom here. And as Christians, we are supremely obliged to esteem and urge protection for the whole Body of Christ.