Christianity in theory and practice: update

Not surprisingly, my post on Christianity and politics attracted some vigorous commentary. Some of it, written by people who like the label “Christian” but don’t like Gospel ethics, merely denied that the texts say what they say. But much of it was quite serious.

I should have been more emphatic — though I don’t think I could have been clearer — that I was discussing “Christianity” as a set of ethical beliefs, not as a personal identity.

There are, of course, other perfectly good meanings of “Christian.” Someone could legitimately be called a Christian because he was baptized into a Christian church, or merely the child of Christian parents. (This might be thought of as “ethnic” Christianity; think of “Jewish” as a parallel case.) Someone could legitimately be called a Christian if she is an active member of a Christian church. (Call that the Christianity of belonging.) Finally, someone can be called a Christian if he accepts the Atonement and hopes to find salvation thereby. (The Christianity of faith.)

Admittedly, I was playing on the fact that many who are Christians in those three senses in the ethnic, belonging, and faith senses who aren’t Christians in the sense I was using: that is, who don’t accept as correct, or as binding on themselves, the intellectually puzzling and behaviorally challenging ethical doctrines attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.

Some readers thought I was referring to “ethnic” or “belonging” Christians in making the claim that “Christians” shouldn’t be taken seriously as political participants. That would clearly be absurd.

What seemed to cause the most anguish was the impression that, in criticizing Professor Bainbridge’s consistency I was challenging his sincerity, or even his claim to membership in the Kingdom of Heaven. One reader suggested rather huffily that the Professor’s status as a Christian was not for me (or even the good Professor) to decide. That’s surely right, if “Christian” means “someone saved.”

But if Christianity means a set of beliefs, then it’s perfectly possible for an outsider to say whether someone’s remarks indicate that he holds those beliefs. It should be no more offensive to say that “X is not a Christian” in that sense when he rejects the love of enemies than it is to say “X is not a Kantian” after X argues for a consequentialist ethic.

One reader seemed to think that I had made Professor Bainbridge out to be a hypocrite (a thought that seemed to please that reader). But that isn’t right. I did not detect, or claim to detect, any distance between Professor Bainbridge’s actions and his professed beliefs. What I thought I saw — and I still think so –is a disconnection between the label “Christian” and the beliefs he expressed: in particular, his rejection of the idea, as expressed by Cardinal Martino, that one should love one’s enemies.

I was somewhat reassured by a letter from a good friend who is also a minister in a Christian church, who makes what seems to me a useful distinction:

You don’t have to worry about that tiny minority of people who are actually trying to follow Jesus, not just worship him. If they are truly following him, they aren’t trying to take over secular governments in the first place.


Jesus is worshipped; he is not followed, and cannot be followed by people who have acquired coercive power.

[Note: If you are one of the correspondents whose thoughts are referred to above, and want to be identified by name, please let me know and I will happily comply. The default option is that emails are private.]

Second update here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “Christianity in theory and practice: update”

  1. Christian Politics

    It's hard to tell where to start with regard to Mark Kleinman's flawed analysis of christianity and politics. He goes wrong in the very first sentence in that christianity is not an ethnicity. There are many ethnicities that take pride…

  2. Christian Politics

    It’s hard to tell where to start with regard to Mark Kleinman’s flawed analysis of christianity and politics. He goes wrong in the very first sentence in that christianity is not an ethnicity. There are many ethnicities that take pride…

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