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Andrew Sullivan has become known for his use of the term “Christianist” to describe those who, claiming Christianity as their warrant, propagate and promote a distinctly conservative, quasi-theocratic political program. Thus it generally refers to the religious right, and other such conservative Christian groups and movements that seek, under the banner of their faith, to obtain and wield social and political power.

The rationale for the term is pretty straightforward. Basically Sully doesn’t want people of this political orientation to be perceived as the true or only representatives of Christianity. Just as many Muslims protest certian theocratic and radical political agendas being identified with “Islam” so Sully protests the Religious Right’s political agenda being identified with “Christianity.” Thus, just as it has become common to speak of “Islamism” as a particular political ideology which does not exhaust or define Islam as such, the argument is we should learn to speak of “Christianism” in a similar way.

Not all Muslims are Islamists. Likewise not all Christians are Christianists. The former terms name theological and doctrinal allegiances, while the latter speak of specific political agendas that dishonestly present themselves as pure iterations of the religion they adhere to.

I get all this, and it makes sense to me. My question though is if this is really a good idea, terminologically speaking, and what its really supposed to do. On one level, sure, I’d love an easy way for the world to understand, simply through terminology that I have nothing politically in common with the ideology of the Christian Right. But, is the coining of the term “Christianist” really worth the trouble? And doesn’t it smack of a sort of self-righteous distanciation?

“Well, I am a Christian, but so-and-so is a Christianist.” Does not this language do little more than absolve us Christians of our responsibility for those who propagate these ideologies? Aren’t we just distancing ourselves from them precisely for the purpose of making sure everyone knows that our hands are clean? Who does this language really serve? It seems to me that it only serves us, satiating our desire for no one to think that “we” are in any way connected to “them.”

I’m not saying I’ve totally made up my mind. Maybe it will prove to be a useful term. But for the moment I find it hard to find anything really helpful about it unless I’m in a mood to feel innocent, at a safe distance from the actions taken by the Christian Right. At worst, one could argue that this language is an attempt to dodge some very real repentance that we may need to undergo. If we’re the Christians and they’re the Christianists, we don’t need to repent and seek to redress the wrongs being done, we can just be content to lob rhetorical volleys of well-crafted descriptors.

What do you think?


  1. Theophilus wrote:

    What bothers me about using the term “Christianist” is precisely that it serves to dissolve our bonds with Christians of a different (albeit mistaken) politic. At least this is how Sullivan seems to use the term. The danger I see here is that in our disassociation of ourselves and our faith with “those people,” we neglect the meaning of catholicity and the diversity that concept implies.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink
  2. CCW wrote:

    I hear Rowan Williams in your post (wild patience and all).

    Seriously, though, it does remind me of Barth’s comments in the Romerbrief that the politically conservative Christian (with which he had very little in common) can only stand because God is able to make him stand. He seemed to me to allow for down right contradiction within the household of faith which required that one not consign the other to outer darkness, with gnashing of teeth. It reminds one of his comment that he looked forward to discussing theological matters with Schleiermacher.

    In a similar vein, my friend Chris Boesel once told me that to his mind, hell is our self-chosen exclusion of others. That one might possibly describe the criterion for being consigned to hell as our refusal to sit at table fellowship with those whom we despise. His particular example was Jerry Fallwell.

    I think he was after what you are expressing in your doubts about the purpose of the phrase. On the one hand, who’s to say where the church begins and ends? Are we not with and for one another, even those with whom we disagree most pointedly? Can we label them in such a way as to finally, and definitively rule them out?

    Coming from a different angle, however, don’t we have to point out infidelity? Don’t we have to contend for the witness of the whole church? Don’t we have to call the thing what it actually is? Barth was also on this side as well with his struggle against the Deutsche Christen (not that Barth has to be our model in all things).

    I don’t know . . . I guess I’m with you, caught in the tension.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I understand the apparent parallel being made between Islamist and Christianist, but the Islamist and the Muslim are one and the same, ideologically. But this isn’t the issue you’re considering. I think the term Christianist is kind of stupid, for some of the concerns you’ve enumerated; but more just because it seems stupid to me. It presumes the ‘non-Christianist’ has been able to disentangle him or herself from the sinful structures of which we all partake and participate at one level or another. It assumes a Pharisaical, “not-Christian” attitude towards “those Christianists ‘over there’.” If there truly is a distinction then the true Christian should be reaching out to the Christianist and not lobbing sloganeering-bombs at their apparently confused “brethern.” So I guess maybe my issue with the terminology is similar to yours, Halden.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Jason H wrote:

    I have been thinking the same thing lately and the catalyst was Sully’s deeming the Hutaree militia as Christianist. To distance ourselves from a group like that by essentially saying “They aren’t really Christian”, absolves us of the actions of the extremes. There is some responsibility we have to take and learn from. It’s an ugly mirror to face but we must face it nonetheless.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  5. I distinctly remember speaking to an atheist friend once who asked me why, if I disagree so much with some of my fellow Christians, I don’t just disown them and decidedly distance myself from them. I said I couldn’t do that because even though we’re not at the same place, we’re on the same journey. Distancing and, let’s be honest, degrading our fellow Christians by calling them Christianists does damage to the church. Maybe this is just as self-righteous as calling someone a Christianist, but I want “Christianists” to be better Christians. I want to do my part in achieving that and I want my other morally superior (there, I said it!) brothers and sisters to do their part. If we call people Christianists how will there ever be communion and change?
    Excuse my unrefined and insensitive comment. It’s late. But hopefully what I’m trying to say comes across, even though it was poorly stated.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  6. Brett M wrote:

    Aren’t we, after Yoder and Hauerwas, obliged to resist any term that attempts to separate Jesus and politics? The debate over the tone of condescension is valuable, but I think we share more than our baptism with the religious right. At some level, being a Christian is political – “Christianists” get this right, even though they get how to be political really wrong.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink
  7. Aric Clark wrote:

    I essentially agree, Halden, but so does everybody else here and that is boring.

    One useful aspect of the term is that it highlights the similarity politically speaking between what “Christianists” and “Islamists” want to accomplish. This is poignant since these two groups are often enemies. It points out the hypocrisy of a conservative christian getting angry that some states apply Sharia law, but then demanding prayer in schools, or creationism on school curriculum etc… Furthermore it forces us to pay closer attention to distinctions within Islam once we acknowledge that similar problems exist among christians and just as we don’t want to be closely identified with christians who act or think in that way, we shouldn’t be too quick to lump all muslims together.

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Andrew Smith wrote:

    If “Christianist” becomes popular in the vernacular, it’s only because “distinctly conservative, quasi-theocratic political Christian” is a bit of a mouthful for a soundbite, just the same way as “monetize” is more prevalent than “make money with”

    Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  9. Austin wrote:

    I agree with you. In fact, I’m of the mind to get rid of the word “Christian” as an identity marker all together. The reasoning here is that “Christian” is used as an a priori term to identify who one is based on intellectual assent to facts (that is then called “faith”), rather than an identifying term for those who live faithful lives according to the Christ-event. Thus, the term “Christian” should not be a badge that people wear. Rather – at most – it should be a term applied by those who notice the faithful life of those living “kingdom” lives; not a term that is used for self-proclamation/identification.

    And the term “Christian” itself provides a perfect platform for exclusion (much like “Christianists”). Perhaps this is where Hegel was right, in a critical sense at least. In the end, “Christianity” still fails to overcome all dualisms and oppositions…

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:

    I’m a christianist, vigilante, tea partyin’ pirate, and nobody kicks my ass.
    just try, mate.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  11. Dustin wrote:

    ahh man, I was going to write this at least a couple of months ago, but you have said it so well! I can’t roll with Sullivan if he means something other than the way we use Islamists to describe politicized Islam. But if he does, then I can understand, as long as it is made clear that, just like Islamism (according to Reza Aslan in No god but God), there is a way to use as political bludgeon the tenets of Christianity (or Islam, etc.) without actually having anything to do with Christianity, save for pandering to those who might be sincere.

    It is vastly frustrating to those who want to be politically responsible (in either direction), while realizing politics is still a subordinate game to the font of the Gospel in any political expressions. It makes me semi-regret the re-engaging that Jim Wallis has engendered among US Christians into politics proper (though at the same time much good has come from it, not in the least the dislodging of a lot of “evangelicals” from the Republican party). Perhaps the Church needs to (not simply) find ways to use politics as a tool to accomplish mercy, but always realize politicians and parties have final allegiances other than the Gospel, and should be kept at arms length.

    All that to say, thank you for beginning to work out what I have been too lazy (busy) to do myself.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  12. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    “The Islamist and the Muslim are one and the same, ideologically.” Wha?

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  13. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Tell me how their ideologoy is different. Not their actions, but ideas about the world. Tell me how a so called Islamist differs from Mohammed himself, and his “theopolitical” actions — and then ask “any” Muslim (except for maybe the hybrided/liberal ‘Westernized’ ones what they think of Mohammed as their example to be followed).

    Btw, you know it is encouraged by Islam to lie to infidels in order to accomplish Jihad, right? The West is so naive. I’m not saying there aren’t “good Muslim” people out there; I’m just saying that if a Muslim is going to be a “good” Muslim they will have no problem with the agenda and tactics of the so called Islamists. There is no such thing as a sacred/secular distinction in Islam, historically; it’s all sacred and they believe that we live in a theocracy “now.”

    P.S. Look up the “Sword verse” in the Qu’ran. Don’t buy the hype, Flyer.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  14. kim fabricius wrote:

    I’d call the buggers “Americhristians” (cf. Deutsche Christen). On the other hand …

    ‘The vision of Christ which thou dost see
    Is my vision’s greatest enemy.’

    [William Blake]

    “… How far are our visions exclusive? How wide is our vision? How big is our God? If Christ can only save me and those who think as I do, God help us all!….

    “This may all be very routine stuff – pleas for understanding, openness, praying together as a way of bearing conflicts – but I shall not apologise for it. The wounds caused by hasty and dismissive words about other people’s theologies or spiritualities are too deep to be ignored by any of us, and the obvious has to be said from time to time. Yes, we have all shed at least a little blood or sweat over our beliefs; yes, our integrity is at issue; and yes, truth matters and doctrinal indifferentism is abhorrent. So these pains won’t go away, and the hurts may be deep when our creed is assaulted or – worse – just dismissed; nor can we get around it just be adopting the other person’s point of view. Too much of ourselves is involved for that. But theology must bring us penitence and to contemplation, just as it must arise out of trust – trust in the abiding objectivity of the one in whom we have believed, trust that (in Augustine’s words) ‘our home will not fall down just because we are away’. ‘That vision of Christ which thou dost see …’: but the Christ we both see is the one who instructs us to love our enemies, to love even what may seem a pale shadow of his face in other people’s minds. Because compared with the light of his glory all our thoughts are shadows. He is the truth we shall never own; we can only hope to be owned by him.”

    Rowan Williams, “Different Christs?”, in Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), pp.105ff.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  15. Doug Harink wrote:

    Ah yes, a perfect example of what I was complaining about in response to the previous post. RW bakes everyone a nice apple pie, tells everyone to be nice to their mother, and invites everyone to a friendly game of Old Maid. Yes, yes, yes….ZZZZZZZ….

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  16. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yes, Doug, after I hit the key, I went over and saw your comment on “On Not kicking out Jesus”, and I smiled: “Doug will be over here remarking ‘QED’ before you can say ‘Laodicea’!”

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  17. Doug Harink wrote:

    Well, Kim, if you showed up in Portland this summer, you too could get in on the “ribs ‘n’ beer” sacrament of reconciliation. Maybe we could invite Rowan Williams.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  18. kim fabricius wrote:

    Waffles for breakfast?!

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  19. JD wrote:

    The term always irritates me for a very petty reason: In other languages, like French and Spanish, the equivalent form is totally non-pejorative. Christianisme, Cristianismo: that’s just how they say it.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Portland is a magical place where any culinary and/or zymurgical dream is possible.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  21. Andrew wrote:

    I’d like to think I had a hand in adding that word to your lexicon. No? Well, being delusional has worked out for me thus far.

    I’d also like to put a new moniker in the running for these folks: thundercunts.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  22. kim fabricius wrote:

    Er, the Welsh Waffle …

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  23. John wrote:

    Yes, Has anyone ever notice that apart from Christian-ITY all the other world religions whether large or small are all called ISMS–as in Buddhism and Hinduism.

    Christian-ity should rightly be called Christ-ISM too, because it is a set of entirely man-made ideas which have always been used to justify a power and control seeking ideology, which seeks to take over and control the entire world.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  24. WenatcheeTheHatchet wrote:

    But does Portland have the same resources as Seattle for anime fans? A classical guitar shop (recently back in business after being waylaid by an arsonist)?

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  25. joel mason wrote:

    I do think the term christianist is a good one. Of course it can be used as a self-righteous statement; but the point of it, i think, is to have a linguistic term which acknowledges that there is such a thing as a heretic. Today it could be me, tomorrow it could be you. I think the term is especially useful in conversations where you are trying to distinguish positions, as Halden has acknowledged. The emergent movement would be in more danger of what Halden is talking about then language trying to actually express what is good jesus following and what isn’t. So may the word catch fire, or, if it doesn’t, we’ll just figure out another way to express how people of the same self-description can believe and practice actually different “things” from you, me, they, he, she, whoever. “christianists” at least has the poetic value of irony.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink
  26. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Perhaps “So-and-so and I are both Christians, but so-and-so is a Christianist.” That might be more of what Sully is getting at.

    Friday, April 16, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  27. I think the terms are horrific. We already have stupid terms that cover these concepts, e.g. various word salads involving fundamentalist, fascist, Islamofascist, evangelical, conservative evangelical, literalist, and so on. No reason to get stupider here.

    Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  28. Chris Donato wrote:

    I always thought “reconstructionist” did the trick pretty well, either for Muslims or Christians. They share fundamental presuppositions.

    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  29. Chris Donato wrote:

    An example of an Islamic Reconstructionist: Iran’s version of Pat Robertson.

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  30. I think our ministry of reconciliation isn’t to alienate us from them, or them from us. I’m frankly sick of the “us” and “them” terms. It is “we.” We are Christians. We are one.

    I don’t really have a problem with the term Christianism in itself when used in the political sphere, only when it used to distance oneself from the Other as if the Christianist isn’t really one of me.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

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