"Christianism": A Defense


Some readers have objected to my attempt to coin a new word to describe those who would deploy the teachings of Jesus as a political ideology as "Christianists." They don't like the analogy to Islamists, and think it imputes to politicized Christians an endorsement of terror or violence. The latter is not in any way my intent. In the war on terror, many have distinguished between Muslims and Islamists. The distinction made is between those who sincerely hold to an ancient faith, and those who are deploying that faith as a political weapon, who see no distinction between state and mosque, and who aggressively foist their religious doctrines onto civil law. And this is a critical distinction. It helps us to criticize regimes like the Taliban or Iran's, while not tarring all Muslims with that label.

That is my intent with the term "Christianist" and "Christianism." The truth is: I do not recognize my own Christianity or the Christianity of millions in the blasphemous words of Tom DeLay or Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. These individuals are political figures, using faith as a weapon to advance a political agenda that aims at policing people's moral lives, removing people's civil rights, and marginalizing minorities. Today, in the NYT, Garry Wills brilliantly defends Christianity and Jesus from such blasphemy and hubris. In this, I think many evangelicals and even fundamentalists quietly but overwhelmingly concur. The distinction between religion and politics was long understood among American evangelicals; and it is central to Jesus' message. It took hubristic liberalism to galvanize American evangelicals into a politicized response; but subsequently the movement of right-wing Christianism has achieved a momentum all its own. It has even spawned a Catholic off-shoot: the theocons who also want to deploy faith for political gain and an assault on liberty. Wills is right that a left-wing Christianism would be no better. Democrats should do all they can to resist that temptation.

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So: no apologies from me. People who believe in the Gospels of Jesus Christ are Christians. People who use the Gospels of Jesus Christ for political gain, and for a political program of right or left, are Christianists. And Christianism, like many "isms", is an ideology that will corrupt faith and poison politics. It has already done both, under the auspices of this president and his acolytes. It is long past time that real Christians took their faith back from these political charlatans. One first step is to deny them the name that they have so artfully coopted. It starts with language. It always does.