What “Christian” means to the Christianists

When Katherine Harris said that electing people who weren’t “Christian” would lead to “legislating sin,” she wasn’t attacking Jews; she was attacking mainstream Protestants and liberal Catholics.

Poor Katherine Harris! She has about the worst case of foot-in-mouth disease ever seen. Some of her verbal miscues are gaffes only in the Michael Kinsley sense of the term: inadvertent statements of the truth. But others are genuine failures of communication.

Her latest comment about the importance of electing “Christians” to public office has annoyed Jews. Well, we should be annoyed, but not because she meant to attack Jews. I’m pretty sure that she really meant was that among the people the rest of us call “Christians,” only the born-agains should be elected.

The people the rest of us call “born-agains” or “fundamentalists” or “the religious right” don’t usually refer to themselves in those terms. Sometimes they call themselves “evangelicals,” but more usually they call themselves simply “Christians.” That’s not to say that they don’t sharply distinguish themselves from mainstream Protestantism; it means that they consider themselves the only true Christians.

There’s a switch here; in Fundie-speak, “Christian” used to mean Protestant; Catholicism was regarded as an essentially pagan phenomenon. It still is, among some of the faithful, but the dominant right wing of the evangelical ministry has now made a tacit political alliance with the religious hard-liners and political conservatives who now dominate the American Catholic hierarchy.

Of course, there are lots of people who regard themselves as born-again Christians, as evengelicals, or as fundamentalists (those being three overlapping but distinct categories) who aren’t silly bigots. But Harris was appealing to the politicized version of evangelical Protestantism, well represented by the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Church, which is now sometimes called “Christianism.”

So Harris wasn’t saying that electing Jews would lead to “legislating sin;” she was saying that electing baptized people who don’t believe that the world was created in seven days will lead to “legislating sin.” Episcopalians, take heed!

FootnoteThe fundamentalist attempt to appropriate the term “Christian” has been highly successful in some domains. If you go looking in the “Christian music” section of a music store or its on-line equivalent, don’t expect to find Gregorian chant or the Bach cantatas. As someone whose favorite composers are Hildegard von Bingen and William Byrd, I have to report with regret that “Christian” music sucks dead dogs. Musically, it’s country-pop plus saccharine. Poetically, Cranmer doesn’t have thing to worry about.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

16 thoughts on “What “Christian” means to the Christianists”

  1. Relevant to this post was Harris' reference to "average citizens who are not Christians". Since the average American is some type of Protestant, statistically speaking, she's obviously using the new definition of the term "Christian."

  2. Having lived near ground zero of the religious right for over a decade, I've become quite attuned to the use of Christian as a code word for fundamentalists. It is not an inclusive reference to a big tent of JC based religions, but rather an indentifier of association with an evangelical or fundamentalist group.
    There is no ambiguity whatever in what KH said. She was talking to the "base".

  3. If the President can refer to Islamofascists, then can other people use the term Christofascists? There is certainly more background for the latter term (viz., Franco, Mussolini).

  4. Well, Hildegard, Johann Sebastian and the Gregorians already classify in the so-called "classical" section of Borders.
    The Christofascists are welcome to keep their over-produced dreck elsewhere. Contemporary 'Christian' music sucks because it is over-produced and market-driven. Mark's characterization as country-pop sweetened with saccharine is right on the target.
    BTW, if you like Hildegard you might want to give Arvo Part a try.

  5. It's actually a tricky situation for me as an Episcopalian in the south:
    What's the answer to the question "Are you Christian?"

  6. Appropos of Hildegard, I spent one summer of my youth tramping around Europe with Andrea von Ramm. HvB incarnate.

  7. This has been going on for years. Whenever I see someone using 'Christian' this way, I correct them…and they always get huffy about it.

  8. Ted:
    You might want to try: "That's not for me to say." Should get an interesting response.

  9. …excellent suggestion, CJ. Longer version of the same good idea: "If you can't tell from my behavior, it must be because we don't interact very much, so it obviously doesn't matter to you. If you can, why would it matter what I say?"

  10. The Christian vs. Catholic argument always brings to mind some dialogue from one of James Ellroy's novels. It goes something like this:
    Dudley Smith to subordinate: "So lad, are you Roman Catholic?"
    Subordinate: "No sir, I'm Lutheran."
    Smith: "Ah, God's second team."

  11. The authoritarians, secular or otherwise, aren't good at music, or art, or comedy. Except for the iron fist, there's no there there.

  12. Mark,
    Having spent much time in Xtian recording studios, I can only agree with both your theses. The music is so watered down as to not freak out the 70 somethings raised on Pat Boone, but has just enough drumbeat to appeal to the "kids".
    On a related note, the sort-of metal band "King's X", who had written some vaguely spiritual sound lyrics starting in the early '90s, was embraced by the Xtian kids, and their CDs sold in many Xtian bookstores. That is, until the lead singer came out of the closet, and said they had never intended to be considered Xtian.
    Boy, did their CDs disappear quickly.

  13. September 1 seems to be taking over your comments section. I have found that most born again Christians become born again so that they can go out and sin all they want and then be forgiven by God. Then, they start over again sinning and then being forgiven. It must be nice.

  14. Hello there,I think this inquiry gets at the heart of our present situation in the Church."Christian" is and should be a radical stance contrary to the secular culture, and particularly the common spirit of this age,which has been the incredible cemetery of Christianity in the West.Christianist is the refining of that spirit.It appropriates the things of God for transfer by secular ideologies and developments,including financial "systems" and country states.It is, in an expression,idolatrous.Thank you.

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