Christianism redux

In Andrew's measured reply to my recent post he sticks to his guns, in one sense — he still thinks the term "Christianism" useful — but in another sense concedes some of my key points: that there can be Left and Right, good and bad, versions of a Christianity that seeks to intervene in the political arena. But if that's true that Andrew needs to use more adjectives when discussing these issues.

I think he could escape some of the problems I'm noting if he changes his definition of Christianism. He writes, "Christianism, in my definition, is the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals." This is problematic in several senses, first of all in its failure to acknowledge that such a fusion is also concerned to further religious goals. But the chief distinction Andrew needs to make involves how this advancement is sought. As our own Noah Millman put it in an email to me yesterday — I'm paraphrasing and adding some content of my own, so Noah may want to correct me or dissent from me later — there's a big difference between a Christianity that seeks to bear prophetic witness in the political sphere and a Christianity that seeks to rule. For me — and for me specifically as a Christian — what's most disturbing about conservative (or "conservative") Christian politics over the past thirty years is its frank eagerness for worldly power, its cheerful indifference to the spiritual dangers of that power, its ignorance of the long sad history of Constantinianism and Erastianism.

Indeed, I think this is precisely what Andrew is getting at when he writes of King, "He didn't just preach his faith as politics, but he practised it in a way very close to Christ's, seeking punishment, enduring imprisonment, and risking death, to bear witness to a deep moral truth about the dignity of every person. This submission to violence, rather than its gun-totin' celebration, is what distinguishes King's Christianism from so much of today's." I would just encourage him to add this "desire to rule" to his actual definition of Christianism. If he does that, then he gets out of the problems created by his willingness to define King as "a left-wing Christianist." If the desire to rule is intrinsic to Christianism, then King isn't a Christianist at all. He wanted to see justice flow down like waters, but he wasn't interested in being the Man in Charge.

So I think it's clear even from Andrew's response that he was wrong to say that what we need is "a more private, less political Christianity"; what we need, rather, is a Christianity that's political in a humble and non-coercive way, and that separates itself quite clearly from nationalism. If Andrew wants to criticize a heedlessly confident, power-hungry, jingoistic group of Christian politicians and their followers, I'm ready to hear and often (usually) to join in — heck, I've done it on this site. But please don't call it Christianism. That needlessly sullies the name of Christ. Give it a better name. How about American Constantinianism? Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, I agree, but sometimes euphony must be sacrificed to accuracy.