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On Christianists and Christianism

August 12, 2011

Responding to criticisms from Alan Jacobs, Andrew Sullivan clarifies what he means by “Christianism” and answers whether he considers Martin Luther King, Jr. to have been a Christianist:

Christianism, in my definition, is the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals. And in that core sense, yes, King was a left-wing Christianist. He used the Bible to make his case, and fought to remove liberties from his fellow citizens in order to expand liberty for all in the name of God. I think it’s possible that Christianism can lead to good results. How can one appreciate a man like Wilberforce without it? But it can equally lead to bad results: slavery, Prohibition, the subjugation of women, the persecution of gays, etc. All these were buttressed and perpetuated by Christianist power-politics for centuries. The question is: does this fusion of politics and religion, overall, help or hurt our polity?

Beth Haile at Catholic Moral Theology asks if Sullivan would consider some official statements made by Catholic bishops as examples of Christianism.  She then surmises:

Maybe what Sullivan meant to say was that the social mission of the Church should trump political ideology, and there I think he would be right. When labels like “Republican” or “Democrat” or “conservative” or “liberal” are more important than the words of scripture or the tradition of the Church, we clearly have a problem. Maybe what Sullivan really has a problem with is not the fusion of religion and politics to advance the goals of politics, but rather the fusion of religion and politics to advance the narrow goals of a particular political party. If this is what Sullivan means by “Christianism,” he has identified a real problem indeed.

I don’t think that’s it.  The fusion of Christianism, if I understand the term correctly, is a fusion in which the only things fused together are politics and religion.  A fusion of politics, religion, and philosophy, in which the advancement of political goals had both religious and philosophical support, would not, strictly speaking, result in Christianism.  I’m a Christianist if my only basis for opposing torture and working to outlaw it is my Christianity.  However, if I also have a non-religious moral basis in support of my attempts to outlaw torture, then I am not acting as a Christianist.

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  1. Kurt permalink
    August 12, 2011 2:09 pm

    I find it to be an evolving term and the above discussion suggests some of the difficulties surrounding the use. Its coinage seems to follow the term “Islamist” which in turn was coined to distingush between the religion of Islam and a particular political movement.

    Christianist too, is a useful term when understood to be a political movement, not a faith community. The clearest examples would be some of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic politicans in Europe opposing the construction of mosques and a Muslim social presence deemed at odds with a nation’s “christian heritage” while these politicans themselves rarely darken a church door or heed the advice of their denominational leaders.

    Acting on political matters because one feels led there by one’s Christian faith does not make one a Christianist. Deeming our nation has a Christian heritage or character and that any challenge to that is an assult on our nation is Christianist.

    • August 12, 2011 3:29 pm

      Acting on political matters because one feels led there by one’s Christian faith does not make one a Christianist..

      It does if the Christian faith is all that leads. At least, that’s how I understand the term.

  2. August 12, 2011 2:24 pm

    What’s next? Christionats or Christionauts? This semantic mumbo jumbo seems awfully silly to me. Why not just say what we mean as best we can and let the description provide the details?


    • August 12, 2011 3:27 pm

      I don’t really see a problem with coining new terms per se. Sometimes it can be helpful. Sometimes it muddies the water.

      • August 12, 2011 3:45 pm

        Sure, sometimes new terms can help. And vice-versa. But the terms should follow from the demands of description-making, I think. These terms take for granted any descriptive task whatsoever.


  3. Mark Gordon permalink
    August 12, 2011 3:04 pm

    The word is clunky and not really helpful at all. It was coined or adopted by Sullivan in order to draw a moral equivalence between right wing Christians and jihadist Muslims. He’s used the term exclusively as a cudgel ever since. That may be satisfying to those of us who don’t see eye to eye with right wing Christians, but it really just amounts to name-calling, and Andrew’s tortured attempt at a definition proves that.

    • August 12, 2011 3:26 pm

      It’s not a term I use myself, as it brings to mind an unwanted association with murderers, but it has an intelligible definition and recognizable referent. I know what Sullivan means by it and who he’s talking about.

      Given that Sullivan concedes that MLK qualifies as a Christianist of sorts, I’m not sure he means the term to draw a moral equivalence with jihadists, though, admittedly, the one could get that impression.

      • Mark Gordon permalink
        August 17, 2011 1:19 pm

        In my humble opinion, any word that could be used to describe both Michelle Bachmann and, say, Jim Wallis has very limited utility and value.

      • August 17, 2011 1:28 pm

        Why? If they have something in common in their political approach, why not have a word to identify it?

  4. August 12, 2011 5:04 pm

    Part of the problem is that the word this neologism is modeled on, Islamism, has a well-defined referent: Islamists are people engaged in an active, and sometimes armed, political struggle for the restoration or furtherance of a united pan-Islamic civilization, usually based on the idea of the caliphate, or some modification of it. To have something genuinely analogous we’d need to have Christians going around politically agitating for the restoration of (some version of) the Holy Roman (or Byzantine) Empire as the means for uniting Christendom. No doubt you could find some, but I don’t think it’s going to be a broadly usable term. You could use it without the analogy, but then you have to strip it of the baggage that comes from the analogy, and the term either becomes equivalent to Christian theonomy (and thus otiose) or so vague that it could cover almost anyone (and thus useless).

    In any case, I, for one, am unwilling to give up so easily the word ‘Christianism’, which we need in order to translate Unamuno’s distinction between cristianismo and cristiandad, which makes immensely more sense, and is useful for far more important things than making a political point.

    • August 12, 2011 5:17 pm

      A fair criticism and one with which I’m in agreement. I get who Sullivan’s speaking of with term of Christianist, and I generally agree with his concerns about the “Christianist” approach to politics, but I’d like to see a different term used because of the baggage it brings.

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