A couple of days ago, at The American Scene, Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs took Andrew Sullivan to task on his recent remarks about “Christianists,” a term he often uses to describe the Christian right, but which, more generally applied, refers to people who fuse “politics and religion for the advancement of political goals.” In his original post, Sullivan dreams up a kind of libertarian Christianity in which Christians stop trying to control others’ lives and souls and focus on what they can do to affect social change. In the past, I’ve cheered Sullivan on as he took so-called Christianists to task, so I took pause when Jacobs, certainly a voice I’ve long listened to and respected, challenged Sullivan.
Jacobs’ response forces the reader to consider Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christianist by Sullivan’s definition if ever there was one. Jacobs points out that there was no separating religion and politics for King, that, for him, bringing about the kind of radical change that he was working for was tantamount to bringing about the the Biblical Israel.
Sullivan acknowledges that King was in fact a kind of left-wing Christianist, and concedes that it is possible that Christianism lead to some good results, but, he asks, “does this fusion of politics and religion, overall, help or hurt our polity?” He concludes that it hurts. King succeeded, Sullivan argues, because his Christianism was bolstered by being actual Christianity.
Ah, but who’s Christianity? This gets to a point I made elsewhere in regards to the Christianity of the Oslo terrorist. There isn’t just one Christianity, and trying to parse whose version is right is always treacherous. Sometimes it’s obvious; certainly a majority of Christians denounce the murder of children. But, at other times, like when trying to decide who’s Christianism will help our polity, it is a bit more difficult to do.
Most often, I agree with Sullivan on this. It’s no secret at I’m always eager to decry the actions of the Christian right. But I can’t go with Sullivan down the road of libertarian Christianity. If MLK was justified in his attempt to right social wrongs using his faith and convictions, so too should Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann be. I don’t agree with their version of Christianity, and I’ll do everything in my power to show a different side of our shared faith, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to act out their convictions.
Alan Jacobs concludes his critique by exposing what is really at the heart of Sullivan’s message. He notes that if you accept that Dr. King mixed religion and politics with great success, “then maybe your problem is not with anyone and everyone who brings Christian convictions into the public sphere, but rather with some particular convictions that some Christians emphasize.”
This is certainly true of me, but I don’t want to pretend that Christians can or should leave their beliefs at home. Sullivan’s concept of libertarian Christianity rests on outmoded, modernist assumptions that people should fragment themselves — that they should bring their reason to the public square, but leave their beliefs at home. But, the more distant the modern era becomes in or cultural rear view mirror, the more clearly we can see the dangers of this kind of fragmentation.
The solution is not to continue this pretense of separation, but to learn to do better integration, to understand what it means to be people with religious convictions in a pluralized society — to learn how to work together for a common good. Ultimately, we need to figure out how people of all religions, and of no religion, can all find a seat at the table. We won’t get there, however, by closeting our beliefs.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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