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.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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  • http://adamgonnerman.com Adam Gonnerman

    I know it sounds simplistic, and maybe it is, but I just try to be the kind of Christian I want to see in the world.

    • David

      Adam. It is not at all simplistic but common sense that you want to be the kind of Christian you want to see in the world.

      I am a secular Humanist and I too want to be the kind of atheist I want to see in the world; and as long as we practice our philosophies with both compassion and humility we will have much in common.

      • TheoMatt

        where’d you get your morality from

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  • Le Sullivan

    the real crisis of Christianity is DAMMIT SARAH PALIN WE KNOW TRIG AIN’T YOUR REAL DAUGHTER YOU NEOFASCIST BITCH

  • Le Sullivan

    son, daugter, whatevs yo.

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  • Kathy

    “This is Christianity’s real crisis – not that it is an actor on the political stage, but that it is only playing one part.”

    Perhaps we ought to take a hard look at exactly what part some of the most vocal forms of self-professed “Christianity” are playing on the current U.S. political stage.

    Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” is going to turn out actually to have been on the side of the angels.
    There are some things Jesus clearly despised – greed, hypocrisy, Pharisaical judgments and the binding of heavy burdens on other people, passing by on the other side, and, according to James, inviting the rich and powerful to come up to the front pew while pushing the poor to the back. I’ve been in churches that put the Lord’s name on their signs and billboards but never once in a year’s worth of sermons did I hear even a whisper of a prophetic voice calling out the things that Jesus called out.

  • http://www.johnwhawthorne.com John Hawthorne

    Jonathan: Good thoughts. I became annoyed with the media shorthand (Christian means right-leaning-conservative Christian) during the runup to the Iowa primary. NPR did an interview with “evangelical voters” who then spoke of red-meat social issues with no reference to theological content at all. When politics is separated from a clear ecclesiology, the church becomes just another special interest to be appeased.

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