American Christianism is a white — and often white-supremacist — identity movement, not a religious one.
When the Christian soldiers of the American right champion their sadistic agenda against the poor and vulnerable, left-leaning Christians, and even non-Christians and secularists who have a passing familiarity with the dominant religion of the West, are understandably confused. You don’t need a degree in religion to know that Jesus commanded his followers to care for others — the stranger, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned.
When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called Trumpcare “an act of mercy” (a phrase that has a specific meaning to Catholics), fellow Catholic Representative Joe Kennedy wondered whether he and Ryan were reading the same Bible. “The one I read calls on us to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, and to comfort the sick.…This is not an act of mercy. It is an act of malice.”
Donald Trump’s proposed budget, with its devastating cuts to programs for poor families, ignited similar reactions fromreligious leaders outside the hard political right. Rachel Held Evans tweeted, “There are few things the Bible is unambiguously clear about, but from Hebrew Scripture to Matt. 25, care for the poor & needy is one of them.” Defense of the rich at the expense of the poor sounds to believers and nonbelievers outside the GOP fold like hypocrisy from politicians who trumpet their religious virtues.
Hypocrisy is too generous a word. It posits a shared set of values and calls on politicians to repent and return to the Christian social justice mission that they must know, deep down in their souls, is what God demands of them. But the accusation of hypocrisy plays right into their hands. Once a person or party has staked out the high ground of orthodoxy, no one arguing from a less orthodox position can win.
They are literally holier than thou. That’s why they invent any scriptural justification they can. Erick Erickson’s argument that Jesus’ definition of “the least of these” includes only fellow Christians is the current favorite defensive weapon of the religious right against attacks from their progressive co-religionists. The American right enjoys this argument, because they will always win it as long as the public believes that the GOP is grounded in religious principles — that Republican politicians are, in some way that matters, Christians.
Defense of the rich at the expense of the poor sounds like hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is too generous a word.
That, as Evangelicals like to say, is between them and the Lord. The state of their souls is none of my business or yours. I don’t know if they’re Christians, and I don’t care. Neither should you.
But they are Christianists — and that is everybody’s business.
Andrew Sullivan first used the word “Christianist” in 2003 to describe Eric Rudolph, an anti-abortion and anti-gay American terrorist. He then expanded his definition in a 2006 article in TIME Magazine:
“Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. …It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.”
The neologism made enough of a splash for the late William Safire to note it in his “On Language” column, and the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg makes an admirable effort to use it as often as events require it, which, given the events of the past 15 years, has been often enough.
Sullivan based his coinage on “Islamism,” a term scholars have preferred to “Islamic fundamentalism” since the early 1990s to describe movements in the Muslim world whose leaders claim political power in the name of religion. Fox News hounded President Barack Obama for not denouncing “radical Islamic terrorism” by name, but he was correct. Terrorism is never Islamic (any more than Rudolph’s murderous bombing campaign was Christian), although Islamists have committed acts of terrorism in their attempts to achieve political goals. Perhaps President Obama (a Christian whom Christianists labelled an Islamist) now has enough free time to savor the irony of Christianists who purport to speak for all Christians excoriating him for refusing to say that Islamists represent all Muslims.
A practicing Catholic, Andrew Sullivan presumed that Christianists were Christians, their faith so powerful, it spilled over into a theocratic urge to enforce their traditions’ opposition to the Sexual Revolution on everyone. This interpretation explains their virulent opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, gender equality, and other issues on which several sects of orthodox Christianity have firm teachings — the same cultural phenomena on which Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority declared war in 1979.
But any pretense of a religious foundation for Christianism breaks down on many of the issues Christianists now consider their highest priority — cutting social services, blocking access to health care, lowering taxes, undermining public education, repealing restrictions on the ownership and use of firearms, endorsing harsh law enforcement methods and restrictions on the right to vote in communities of color, defending the Mexican border, and closing the door to refugees, to name a few.
While overwhelming majorities of African-Americans and Latinxs identify as Christian, American Christianism is a white — and often white-supremacist — identity movement, rather than a religious one. That so much of Trump, Ryan, and Mitch McConnell’s agenda contradicts Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger, do justice to the afflicted, care for the needy, and love one’s neighbor hints at how far American Christianism is from the religious principles with which Republicans delight in cudgeling secularists.
Any pretense of a religious foundation for Christianism breaks down on many of the issues Christianists now consider their highest priority.
Another clue to the chasm between Christianity and Christianism lies in polling data. On election day, 58% of non-Catholic Christians of any race voted for Donald J. Trump, but 81% of self-identified white, born-again/evangelical Christians did.
An even more curious phenomenon is revealed in the primary polling for candidate Trump. Among the 40% of GOP primary voters who call themselves Evangelical Christians, Donald Trump had the strongest support among people who do not attend church. At first blush, unchurched Evangelicals may seem a contradiction in terms, though we don’t blink at secular Jews or lapsed Catholics who still identify with the religion of their communities. “Evangelical” or “born-again” sounds like a personal commitment, rather than a family tradition, but as Jack Jenkins explains:
“…when it comes to understanding Trump’s popularity with the evangelical masses, the key lies in a simple reality: Lots of evangelicals — especially Trump supporters — simply aren’t that ‘religious.’”
Evangelical leaders complain of the Biblical illiteracy of American Christians, and around 40% of white Evangelical Protestants, the core demographic of the theocratically ambitious Republican Party, attend church only occasionally, or never. But they vote the straight “faith, family, and freedom” ticket of values voters. Molly Ball at The Atlantic observes,
“…when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.”
The voting patterns of the Evangelical base of the GOP tell you much more about their identity politics than their faith — that is, about their Christianism, not their Christianity.
This is why Trump’s track record on the Ten Commandments and nearly satirical approximations of religious language didn’t finish him off with Evangelicals, as his primary opponents and some of our Pundit Overlords thought it would. His clumsily counterfeited piety didn’t have to convince anyone that he had a personal relationship with God (there are convicted murderers who exhibit more of the Fruit of the Spirit than the 45th President) — only that he could perform the nationalist flavor of Christianism satisfactorily. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio thought Trump had shown he was a fraud, but his very unfamiliarity with theology, church culture, and Scripture proved he was one of the Evangelical-but-unchurched gang. He didn’t need to show off his Christianity. Just his Christianism.
The voting patterns of the Evangelical base of the GOP tell you much more about their identity politics than their faith.
Contemporary Islamism holds some of the same contradictions. While ISIS inflicts unspeakable suffering on innocent civilians, particularly women, in the name of restoring the caliphate and imposing what they consider the only pure form of Islam, many ISIS recruits know little to nothing about the religion they profess to fight for. An Associated Press report based on leaked ISIS documents found that 70% of the recruits ISIS tested for their knowledge of Islam scored in the lowest category. Two British recruits ordered Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before embarking to fight in Syria. “…The current generation of jihadists is more likely to be ‘Islamized radicals’ than ‘radical Islamists’… These are loners, misfits and socially maladjusted youths who are vulnerable to the puritanical promises of the Islamic State, and able to embrace its nihilistic agenda,” writes Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post.
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One need not be religious or spiritual to channel desultory violence into an extremist religious identity movement that gives lost people a sense of belonging and purpose. And while there is no Christianist version of ISIS, the cheers from Trump fans for his bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as their behavior at his rallies, point to a similar undercurrent of tribalist blood-lust.
Most American children are taught that it’s rude to criticize other people’s religion. Christianists are well aware of this cultural norm and use it as a shield. They have every reason to conflate Christianity with Christianism because we grant far greater cultural leeway to religious than to political doctrine.
Christianity Is Co-opting The Justice Movement
Is Christianity’s activism, solidarity, and short-term memory perpetuating injustices?
That’s why the Resistance needs the word “Christianist” in our activist vocabulary, and we need to use it often and loudly:
You’re persecuting us because we’re Christians!
No. Your Christianity is your business. But you’ve made your Christianism everyone’s problem.
You hate our ideas because they’re Christian!
No, we oppose your policies because they’re Christianist.
You’re a bigot who hates Christians!
It’s not bigotry to oppose Christianism, which is a political ideology, not a religion.
Refuse to accept their terms. Don’t allow vicious fanatics who want to punish the vulnerable hide Grover Norquist, the American Conservative Union, ALEC, Fox News, Steve Bannon, the NRA, and even Donald Trump behind the cross.
We can’t be too polite to call Christianists out by name.