To most people, former President Barack Obama’s tweet about the brutal terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday read as standard post-presidential material: correct, sensible, and essentially anodyne.
But then some right-wingers noticed that other prominent figures on the left, including Hillary Clinton and Julián Castro, had used the phrase Easter worshippers too. Soon, a suspicion arose: “Easter worshippers” is a euphemism used by “people who don’t want to say ‘Christians.’ ” “We’re actually called Christians not ‘Easter worshippers’ wouldn’t hurt to maybe just say that,” a National Review writer tweeted. Obama and friends “could not bring themselves to identify the victims of the attacks as ‘Christians,’ ” Breitbart huffed, deeming the phrase a “Sympathy Snub.” An op-ed in the Washington Times called Obama and Clinton “anti-Christian.”
Some went further, interpreting the term Easter worshipper as a false claim that Christians worship the holiday of Easter. “We don’t worship Easter,” Laura Ingraham tweeted. “We worship Jesus Christ.” Others, including One America News Network host Jack Posobiec, claimed to have never heard the term Easter worshipper before Sunday.
Before Sunday, to be clear, the term Easter worshipper was considered straightforward enough that the AP used it in a headline about another recent church-based international tragedy: “Tourists, Easter Worshippers Lament Closure of Notre Dame.” Nevertheless, let me try to help: “Easter worshippers” describes Christians in church on Easter Sunday. The term is more descriptive than “Christians,” because it conveys the additional fact that the victims were actively celebrating Easter when they were killed. They are worshippers, and it is Easter. If it helps, try putting the emphasis on worshippers in the phrase: It’s Easter worshippers, not Easter-worshippers.
Here is how the construction works in similar contexts:
• BBC: “Finsbury Park Attack: Roses for Ramadan Worshipers”
• The Guardian: “Afghanistan Suicide Bomber Kills Eid Worshippers at Mosque, Police Say”
• The Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “Homeless Couple Attacks Synagogue Worshippers in Buenos Aires”
I would argue that it takes a true savant of exquisitely attuned grievance collection to read an individual reference to “Easter worshippers” as an attempt to avoid acknowledging Christianity. Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. “Easter” has no other meaning. As a celebration, it is far less secularly degraded than Christmas. Bunnies aside, it is basically inaccessible as a holiday to anyone uncomfortable with acknowledging the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If anything, “Easter worshippers” puts extra emphasis on the religious nature of the attack by pointing out that it happened on a day of special spiritual meaning to victims. It implies: Not only did you attack Christians, you did it today of all days.
There are arguments for preferring “Christians” to “Easter worshippers” in this context. Southern Baptist writer and professor Denny Burk argued that persecuted Christians may prefer the straightforward term Christians because it highlights the faith they are willing to die for. That would be a stronger argument if Obama and other Democrats had used a term like Sri Lankans, without any religious meaning. But again, they did not do that. They used a term that is inextricably associated with Christianity. (In other contexts, in fact, conservative Christians make the point that not all holiday churchgoers are “real” Christians. As early-20th-century evangelist Billy Sunday once put it: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”)
By my count, Beto O’Rourke is the only major 2020 presidential candidate who used the word Christian in his tweet lamenting the attacks. That includes Trump, who mentioned the “attack on churches and hotels” but did not as of yet name the religious group who might have been worshipping in those churches.
Of course, “Easter worshippers” was never the real problem. The meat of the outrage is not that Democrats are afraid of the word Christian or that “Easter worshippers” is somehow an inaccessibly confusing phrase. The real implication is that Democrats supposedly have an insufficient concern for Christians as a persecuted identity group. This is an old theme: Obama came under attack in 2015 for failing to mention the religion of victims of a terrorist attack in Kenya, for example. He was regularly criticized by the same cohort for failing to use the exact term Islamic terrorism. As Family Research Council president Tony Perkins put it at the time, “When it comes to persecuted Christians, not only do we not have action, we rarely get words.”
President Donald Trump has been more willing to offer “words.” He has spoken publicly about attacks on Christians in Nigeria, an ongoing issue that the American Christian media follows closely. The first draft of his 2017 “refugee ban” carved out exceptions for religious minorities from the Middle East, which he promoted on the Christian Broadcasting Network as a favor to Christians: “If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible. … And I thought it was very, very unfair,” he said. Trump’s policies have actually made it significantly harder for persecuted Christians to enter the United States. But at least he hasn’t used the term Easter worshippers.