The Holy Land's bustling Christian tourism industry confirms evangelicals' fascination with the Middle East. But most of the evangelicals who spend their summer vacations on a "Footsteps of Our Lord Tour" or the "Lands of the Bible Cruise" are far more interested in walking where Jesus walked than in visiting the future site of the Antichrist's assembled armies in the Valley of Megiddo. Then what about Christian Zionism, evangelicals' infamous zeal for the ingathering of the Jews? It's true that evangelicals tend to be friends of Israel and believe that God has a special relationship with the Jews. But polls show that a plurality of evangelical leaders worldwide sympathizes equally with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And much of American evangelical support for Israel derives from nonsupernatural sources shared by many Americans: friendship for and strategic dependence on what was once (and may yet remain) the only democratic country in the Middle East, seasoned with a dash of well-deserved, post-Holocaust guilt.
Prophecy talk has been conspicuously absent from mainstream evangelical coverage of the Arab Spring. In its place we read scores of interviews with terrified Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants on the streets of Cairo and Damascus. Those heart-rending photos and news reports have played an enormous role in shaping evangelical opinions of Islam and U.S. foreign policy. Evangelicals' fixation on the mistreatment of their co-believers has a history as old as the Christian religion itself: Christianity began as the faith of a persecuted minority, of martyrs shredded by lions in the Colosseum.
But if these stories have a place in every Christian's heritage, American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream -- and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today -- many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are "being persecuted" at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It's little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured -- in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).
This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine -- though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. "Religious freedom" has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy -- whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world -- if the principle of "one voice, one vote" happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and "how liberals are waging war against Christians," they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.
But then, scholars of evangelicalism have long observed that cultivating a persecution complex -- even one that is mostly a self-perpetuating fiction -- is not a bad way to maintain authority and stoke followers' sense of divine purpose. The trouble is that this mindset may make evangelicals look less like their oppressed brethren and more like the very despots they hate.