Christianity is in crisis.
Andrew Sullivan seems to think so, and though I side more with Sessions in his response to Sullivan – that is, the answer to a perceived crisis-bound Christianity is not to imagine a completely depoliticized, internal, and individual faith – I’m more concerned with how Sullivan misses just what kind of crisis we’re in the midst of.
As a review, in Sullivan’s telling of it, the use of Christianity by politicians, the injection of political power into a naturally apolitical faith, has led to a crisis in which true Christianity has been supplanted by this new political mutant. The response, then, is to internalize faith or, as he further illuminates in his brief response to Sessions, we need an “interior faith but also a practice of Christianity in the social/civil sphere: helping the poor, tending to the sick, visiting prisoners, abandoning materialist motives.”
There are obvious holes here, and next to no one thinks that Jesus’ message is completely apolitical; though it is so radically counter to human instincts and urges that it can often feel that way.
But I think Sessions covered all of that. Sullivan misses the mark not only on his prescription for the crisis, but on his diagnosis of the crisis itself. It is not that Christianity has been politicized, but that a certain politicization of Christianity is quickly coming to stand for all Christianity. In light of this, Timothy Noah elucidated a better understanding of the crisis of Christianity last month in his column at The New Republic.
Responding to a description of the new film “October Baby” as “Christian” on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” he writes, “What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say ‘Christian’ is ‘Christian right’ or ‘Christian conservatives,’ terms that adherents don’t like because they think they’re pejorative.”
It’s not just NPR or Fox or Sony that use the word Christian to describe a certain kind of Christian (a minority of Christianity, as Noah points out), increasingly I hear it from everyone I talk to, even Christians themselves. Some people don’t want to be Christians because of other Christians. Others talk generally about the Christians who protest abortion clinics. Or the Christians who cling to their guns. Or the Christians who oppose birth control, same sex marriage, and Harry Potter.
Sure, they are all Christians, but so are the Christians who fight injustice here and abroad, the Christians who feed the homeless, the Christians who make it a point to announce to any seekers that “Everybody’s Welcome.” These kind of Christians are underrepresented in the media because they’re not as loud as their counterparts, their protests and works are not as sensational, they’re less concerned that you know they’re Christians.
I’m not mad about that; it kind of seems like the proper order of things. Jesus, after all, on several occasions took steps to minimize the amount of fame he attracted. The problem is, while quieter and perhaps more moderate and liberal Christians continue to gather in congregations around the country, our louder more visible brothers and sisters are coming to occupy the word Christian.
When I first learned that the churches I grew up in were being lumped in with a variety of other churches under the banner of evangelicalism, when I realized that the only thing those churches shared was a rightward political lean, I ran from the label evangelical. I know there’s a historical evangelicalism that was hijacked by the media, but I didn’t think it worth fighting for, so I bailed. But I’m not sure how to bail from the label Christian if that becomes necessary.
Sure, every young Christian who is disillusioned by manifestations of her faith by those she doesn’t agree with imagines abandoning the label; we all have friends on Facebook who respond with “Christ follower” to the question of religion. But we can’t really shake the label and, though I was willing to give ground to the label evangelical, I don’t think we should have to lose Christian identity to a certain kind of Christian.
This is Christianity’s real crisis – not that it is an actor on the political stage, but that it is only playing one part.
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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