Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The 'Christianist' coinage

Andrew Sullivan is suggesting we try a new word:
So let me suggest that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist.

Perhaps we should point out that Tristero first coined the term three years ago:
In an analogy to Islamism, I would propose the term "Christianism" to describe a political ideology inspired by Christianity that advocates the replacement of a secular government with one that is profoundly informed by a self-styled "literal" interpretation of the Bible. By this definition, Rudolph is perhaps best described as a radical "Christianist," a man inspired by Christianity to effect social change through violence.

"Christianism" is without a doubt an ugly neologism. However, it is a mistake to describe as "Christian" people and groups like Robertson, Falwell, Christian Identity, and those who are even more radical in their mission to transform the US into an explicitly fundamentalist "christian" state. This confuses Christianity, a religious belief, with a purely secular agenda. Furtheremore, it is highly misleading to ignore the hijacking of Christianity and its symbols by the Rudolphs of the world simply by repressing any reference to their Christian inspirations and calling them "anti-abortion terrorists" or some similar name.

I'm not sure if I can claim co-coinage, but my recollection was that Tristero and I had discussed the terms we could use to describe the current political-religious phenomenon on the right, and this one seemed fairly obvious. I noted Tristero's post at the time as an important contribution to the discussion.

We also discussed it here a few months later, thanks to Kynn Bartlett's now-vanished post on "Christianism" that I discussed here:
Christianism is a theocratic form of Christianity which is anti-pluralistic, designed to impose conservative Christian beliefs on American society (and eventually the world) through the use of the political system (or sometimes outright force). Christianism is a domestic crusade designed to change the country from the inside into one in which (nominally) Christian beliefs are the guiding societal force.

This is the "culture wars" which we are engaged in. It is often presented as "secular vs. Christian," but that's patently false. The fundamentalists have managed to distort the public debate to the point that fundamentalist beliefs are identified in the media as "Christian" -- ignoring entirely the fact that there are large numbers of Christians who don't believe the same way as the conservatives.

I had some reservations about the term, particularly because it seemed ripe for mau-mauing from right-wing pundits -- say, Rush Limbaugh or Hugh Hewitt -- who would almost certainly twist it into an attack on "ordinary Christians." I didn't necessarily think it was an inaccurate coinage, but it was one that lent itself to misinterpretation in the wrong hands.

Tristero has continued to use it, as he did recently at Digby's place, and I think his analysis is largely correct. However, I think an anonymous commenter had it about right when he urged the use of "Dominionism" instead of "Theocracy" or "Christianism":
First of all Theocrat implies the rule by a leader who is also the head of the state religion. The Religious Right has learned that approach will not work after Pat Robertson's disastrous run for the GOP nomination in 1988. Besides the United State does not have a history of a state religion or a single dominate religious sect. A straight up Theocratic approach by the Religious Right would have hardline Catholics, Mormons, assorted Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostalists..... all at each other's throats.

Second, I have met Fundamentalists who believe their bible is the word of God who none the less absolutely believe in the separation of church and state. They would not have it any other way less they might someday be the persecuted ones. They reject and abhor a Judge Ray Moore's idolatry and politicizing of the the Ten Commandments.

Last, a word like Christianist preferred by the likes of the insufferable, mercurial and self-styled "conservative" Andrew Sullivan is just too cute and potentially confusing. It does not differentiate somebody who might sincerely wish to use the moral philosophy of Jesus Christ as a basis for a political or legal philosophy from a true Dominionist. One may be from the old school where calling somebody a good Christian could have been done to describe Mahatma Gandhi's quest for Indian independence or Saladin's refusal to slaughter the Crusaders in reprisal for their atrocities against Muslims after recapturing Jerusalem. Both are examples of historical men of different religions who yet were influenced by their knowledge of the new testament gospels and the teachings of Jesus.

No, I think using the words Dominionist/Dominionism are very important because they precisely describe the heretical legal and political philosophy of those who wish surreptitiously to rewrite the history of our country and the founding of its constitution along the lines of their own strict fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Dominionism is the very word it adherents use to describe their political goal to repudiate the the First Amendment's Establish Clause separating Church and State as a first step towards completely redefining 200 plus years of legal precedence in interpreting the US constitution. In that regard their goals are as Un-American as Communism, Nazism, Fascism.....

One last thing about the word Dominionist, besides its precision. While it has the problem of being a new word that the majority of the public is as yet unaware as to its meaning. I see that as an advantage because everytime somebody hears it they will ask what it means. And now it will be necessary to provide the public with its definition until it is commonplace in the political language. And guess what?? Everytime somebody outside of the koolaid drinking Dominionist orc army hears what it means they will react by saying, "But that is crazy, that is unconstitutional and Un-American". That being exactly the response we should be looking for.

Sure enough, like clockwork, Hugh Hewitt weighed in with a remarkably lightweight response to Sullivan:
Most pundits have rejected "Christianist" because it obviously tries to link Islamists and those evangelicals Mr. Sullivan loathes. He is attempting to dress up hate speech as simple precision, but given the vast spectrum of political opinions among believers on the center-right, "Christianist" is a howler.

Clearly, Hewitt is twisting the term, predictably, to include all evangelicals. At his blog, he expounded a bit further:
There are zero evangelical Christians with any public profile who practice or endorse violence. There are also no major figures within American evangelical circles who endorse any sort of theocracy. Sullivan objects to the political positions of many evangelicals, but given the widespread support for these positions -- opposition to the judicial imposition of same sex marriage for example -- Sullivan refuses to engage their positions on a case by case basis, and instead invents a new description in an attempt to deligitimize them.

Hewitt should probably avail himself of a copy of Michelle Goldberg's new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which thoroughly documents how widespread this kind of theocratic belief system is, how it's especially spreading at the grassroots level, and how it does indeed feature some prominent religious and political leaders.

Instead of Dominionism, Goldberg instead describes "Christian nationalism," but likewise distinguishes it from garden-variety fundamentalism, and often uses it interchangably with Dominionism. See this Salon excerpt, which points out, among other things, its genuinely eand disturbingly extremist aspects:
Still, it's worth noting that thousands of Americans nationwide have flocked to rallies at which military men don uniforms and pledge to seize the reins of power in America on behalf of Christianity. In many places, local religious leaders and politicians lend their support to AVIDD's cause. And at least some of the people at these rallies speak with seething resentment about the tyranny of Jews over America's Christian majority.

"People who call themselves Jews represent maybe 2 or 3 percent of our people," Cabaniss told me after a January 2005 rally in Austin. "Christians represent a huge percent, and we don't believe that a small percentage should destroy the values of the larger percentage."

I asked Cabaniss, a thin, white-haired man who wore a suit with a red, white, and blue tie and a U.S. Army baseball cap, whether he was saying that American Jews have too much power. "It appears that way," he replied. "They're a driving force behind trying to take everything to do with Christianity out of our system. That's the part that makes us very upset."

Most of the Dominionist groundswell isn't taking place in a national limelight. It's growing up like kudzu around our feet instead. A generation of homeschooled kids are gearing up to take over within the next generation, and they have a decidedly militant view of their faith.

But Hewitt's prevarications notwithstanding, it's also taking place at a high level. Among the prominent Dominionists is an author whose works are celebrated on the Christian right:
Tim LaHaye, who is most famous for putting a Tom Clancy gloss on premillennialist theology in the Left Behind thrillers that he co-writes with Jerry Jenkins, was heavily influenced by Schaeffer, to whom he dedicated his book "The Battle for the Mind." That book married Schaeffer's theories to a conspiratorial view of history and politics, arguing, "Most people today do not realize what humanism really is and how it is destroying our culture, families, country -- and, one day, the entire world. Most of the evils in the world today can be traced to humanism, which has taken over our government, the UN, education, TV, and most of the other influential things of life.

"We must remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders," LaHaye wrote.

LaHaye, of course, also founded Council for National Policy, a Dominionist "umbrella group" whose membership list reads like a Who's Who of the American Religious Right.

And, as Goldberg describes, there's a real continuum between this faction and a whole host of mainstream figures, including the just-departed House Majority Leader:
Those who don't have a year to spare can attend one of more than a dozen Worldview Weekend conferences held every year in churches nationwide. Popular speakers include the revisionist Christian nationalist historian David Barton, David Limbaugh (Rush's born-again brother), and evangelical former sitcom star Kirk Cameron. In 2003, Tom DeLay was a featured speaker at a Worldview Weekend at Rick Scarborough's former church in Pearland, Texas. He told the crowd, "Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Christianity."

Another name that pops up here is David Barton, in no small part because the Bush campaign hired him as a consultant in the 2004 election. This is the same fellow who, back in the early 1990s, was pitching his "myth of church-state separation" tale to all kinds of extremists, including the racist Christian Identity sect.

I think Goldberg explained the larger problem well recently at Talk2Action:
Christian nationalists believe in a revisionist history, which holds that the founders were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic; separation of church and state, according to this history, is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives. One of the foremost Christian revisionist historians is David Barton, who , in addition to running an organization called Wallbuilders that disseminates Christian nationalist books, tracts and videos, is also the vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The goal of Christian nationalist politics is the restoration of the imagined Christian nation. As George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy's influential Coral Ridge Ministries, wrote in his book "The Changing of the Guard:"

"Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ -- to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.

But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.

It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.

It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.

It is dominion we are after.

World conquest. That's what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish.

... The iconography of Christian nationalism conflates the cross and the flag. As I write in "Kingdom Coming," it "claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way." At one rally at the statehouse in Austin, Texas, a banner pictured a fierce eagle perched upon a bloody cross. For a liberal, such imagery smacks of fascist agitprop. But plenty of deeply committed Christians also object to it as a form of blasphemy. It's important, I think, to separate their faith from the authoritarian impulses of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program, and there is nothing sacred about it.

I'm not sure how important our terminology is, though thinking about it can be useful. What matters most is recognizing it exists and contemplating how to confront it. Mendacious denials notwithstanding.

No comments: