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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.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to We Are All Christianists

  1. The solution to “Christianism,” as Sullivan defines it, is not “to learn to do better integration” because integration is precisely the problem. Heed the wisdom of two-kingdoms proponent Darryl Hart, who reminds us “when Christians enter the public square and start using theology for political purposes, Christian doctrine always, always, always suffers. It happened with the Social Gospel. It happened with Martin Luther King, Jr. It happened with Reinhold Niebuhr. And it’s happening with Rick Perry.” Click here to read his post on the Sullivan-Jacobs exchange:

    • Thanks for the comment, Christopher. Do you see any difference between “using theology for political purposes” and having one’s politics be influenced by their beliefs. I’m calling for the latter, and I think there is a difference.

      Do you object to people allowing their politics to be informed by their beliefs and convictions? If so, what would the opposite look like?

      Needless to say, I think Hart’s argument is an attack at a strawman.

      • Jonathan: I see a theoretical “difference between ‘using theology for political purposes’ and having one’s politics be influenced by their beliefs,” but there’s often no functional difference. Your closing paragraph sounds like utopian claptrap. In the end, “better integration” will only look like politics that conform to your progressive Christianity rather than traditional Christianity. How, I wonder, can a pluralistic society “work together for a common good” when there’s (a) disagreement about what qualifies as the common good and (b) even disbelief in the very notion of the common good. Inviting everyone to the table won’t do a damn bit of good. Imagine Jim Wallis and Jim Dobson at Obama’s table: cacophony. Most troubling, you’ve set up a false dichotomy between Christianism (fusing politics & faith) and quietism (“closeting our beliefs”). Enter the Reformation doctrine of two-kingdoms, whereby Christians can draw on natural law and reason in politics, which belongs to the common kingdom, rather than invoke faith, which belongs to the redemptive kingdom. Under this model, faith may inform a Christian’s politics but it won’t be used for rhetorical leverage.

        • Kathy says:

          “Blessed are the meek”, “Blessed are the merciful”, “Don’t call attention to yourself by praying in public”, the sacrificial giving of the widow – isn’t “progressive Christianity” the same as “traditional Christianity”? And what claims the name of traditional Christianity in today’s world just the latest iteration of the Pharisees’ “success gospel”?

  2. Kathy says:

    Isn’t Jacobs being somewhat disingenuous in pretending not to understand the difference between religious belief that informs political belief and action; and religious belief that expects and demands preferential treatment from the government for itself and discrimination against other religions?

    It’s not just a matter of which positions are brought “into the public sphere”. Instead, there are very clear, deep, identifiable philosophical differences between “Christianists” in the extreme political right wing who are completely comfortable with things like Christian-only prayers at government-sponsored events, public money for Christian schools, and political preservation of our “Christian heritage”; and, on the other hand, Christians whose faith inspires them to work for legislation that protects God’s creation, the poor, the unborn, and the least and the lost among us.

    Demanding preferential government treatment for specifically Christian religious beliefs is radically different from working for laws that will benefit people without regard to their religious beliefs.

    I think the term “Christianist” is a useful coinage to describe a belief set that allies itself with the rich and the powerful, and is then used by the rich and powerful to achieve their own goals.

  3. […] would seem to blend with Andrew Sullivan’s rhetoric about “Christianists” that I addressed here last week. Sullivan suggests that Christians should express their faith in a more “libertarian” […]

  4. Dan Allison says:

    The Enlightenment notion that religious belief must be privatized and banned from the “public square” is of course nothing but a thin charade designed to squelch dissenting opinion. One person is allowed to bring their deepest convictions about ethics and behavior into the marketplace, but another person is forbidden to do so? That being said, Christians of all stripes need a re-education regarding our own faith. Augustine clearly distinguished between the City of Man and the City of God, while Christ Himself noted that His Kingdom “is not of this world.”

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