Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Matthew has a good post here. Excerpts a letter to Andrew Sullivan that Sullivan posted on his site which criticizes his [Sullivan's] neologism: Christianist. Christianist is meant to parallel Islamist and sometimes Sullivan seems to use the Christianist term interchangably with fundamentalist, which as Matthew and the reader point, is a major mistake.

The original use of the term fundamentalist comes from a Protestant American academic context. Northern American cities by the way. When so-called liberal European historical critical methods of scholarship were introduced into American Protestant seminaries, certain scholars got together and published a list of "fundamentals" of the [Protestant] Christian faith.

These fundamentals, that the theologians argued must be believed for true faith/proper doctrine included things like Jesus' death as a literal atonment for the sins of the world; his actual birth from a woman who had never had sexual relations, etc. etc. That is a fundamentalist in its specific original context. Now no one is a pure fundamentalist in the sense that there is no Christian, however much they may argue to the contrary, who takes every word in the Bible literally.

It's impossible; there are two many contradictions. For example, there are two creation stories in the book of Genesis. If someone claims they take the Bible literally ask them about this oddity. I guarantee you'll find if you just press them non-literal readings. They will try to combine the stories, sometimes intelligently sometimes rather less so. Or they may say something wise like, "well the story is really more about God's love and fidelity and purpose in creating than actual details." That would be true, but not literal.

If the person is a creationist and believes that creation is only 6,000 years old--that number and that mindset is actual quite alien to the Biblical text itself. The father of the 6,000 year old hypothesis is St. Augustine, 4th century Church theologian. Again, not particularly literal.

So-called fundamentalist Christians don't follow Levitical prescriptions on kosher food, public stonings, and [usually] women having their heads veild and not speaking in public worship.

So a fundamentalist Christian really should only mean somebody who says that there are fundamentals and list what those are and why they have them. Or more broadly, every believer should be honest about which are their fundamentals (God is love for example) and which are not (homosexuality is always evil).

The application of fundamentalist to Islam and other religions more broadly adds all sorts of other layers that muddy the waters. Again remember that originally a fundamentalist did not ever claim that s/he took the whole Bible literally, as it has come to mean both those pro and con the idea, just that there were certain fundamentals they articulated they believed had to be adhered to. And those fundamentals did invovle physical-literal readings of what are otherwise legends, myths, hero stories.

In Islam, this is a different ball of wax altogether. Some have said that every Muslim is technically a "fundamentalist" in the sense that for orthodox Islam the Quran as dictated by God through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad is word for word God's speech.

Now that doesn't really line up to well with the assertion that there are certain fundamental propositions that one must adhere to for correct faith/doctrine as with Protestant fundamentalism. In Islam, there is not much by way of questions of correct faith. In Islam, the believer must confess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is God's Prophet. That God is greater "Allahu akbar" and that God is totally one (tawhid) and to place anything else before God is idolatry. And then practice the Five Pillars of the Faith: pilgrimage, charity to the poor, praying daily, fasting during Ramadan, and the confession of faith outlined above.

For Christianity the faith is in the Word of God made Flesh (Jesus Christ) who is depicted in the words, little w, of Scripture. It is a religion of faith in the Gospel message--the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Islam is a religion of faith in the Word of the Quran. Though one could argue that every Muslim is a fundamentalist--either in a good or bad way--traditional Islam has never said that the Quran itself automatically teaches us what it means for the believers alive today.

So even Islam realizes the word has to be interpreted.

The notion of Islamist is a political-moral-legal construct. It is a product of those who in the modern world have sought to [re]establish a political and social order based on the Quran, hadith, and sharia (Islamic law). Again the notion has many connotations and context determines. Is a particular Islamist one who advocates violence or not in installing this Islamic regime? Are they are Shia Islamist or Sunni? Do Islamists have seek women's empowerment as interpreted through Quranic exegesis and Islamic history or not? Do they believe in democracy or not?

Generally the word refers to the most negative of Islamists, which is a shame I think. It has skewed conversation and I think political policy (e.g. immediately cutting off all funding to Hamas) and not seeing how to separate "moderate" Islamists from radical extreme ones.

In the negative light, the term Christianist then can only properly be applied as a political term. Hence bringing fundamentalism in is a bad notion. Because plenty of people can (and do) believe that they are fundamentalists and take much that is mythos as rational description and believe that, for example, their physical bodies will actually be raptured up into heaven at some pre-determined point. But such a person who may feel the current age of our world is fallen does not necessarily seek to overthrow it or set up his/her own competing political reality. They may seek to overturn through democratic measures in a pluralistic society rules they feel violate their norms--e.g. abortion. Most of the American Christian fundamentalists fall into this category.

The term Christianist, as I see it, only properly addresses those of typically a more extreme bent who seek to establish what they conceive of as a Biblical/Christian political order. Theologically this is a stream known as "dominion" theology, sometimes called Reconstructionism.

Dominion theology sees the world as having fallen into the power of Satan as a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. God, this theology claims, needs agents to take control of key institutions in society--media, government, education--in order to help build up God's alternate kindgom in which Jesus will arrive prior to his establishment of his physical 1,000 year reign (millenium) on earth. Called pre-millenalism. Christ comes back pre (before) the (litearl) millenium. Got that?

Dominion theology is depicted in the new documentary Jesus Camp. For a variety of odd historical reasons, mainly the translation of the Scofield Bible Commentary (Scofield was a premillenial dispensationalist). It has made huge inroads in Pentecostalism and certain evangelical sects.

So these groups would I think qualify as "Christianist." Insofar as they seek to create a political theocratic structure, are set against a modern, pluralistic secular order such as the United States, with its freedoms of speech and diverse religious expression. Or no religion at all.

Again, they area minority, though the ideas have circulated in wider contexts--through LeHaye's Rapture novels, for example. The most important Dominionist is Pat Robertson. That's why he got into media and ran for president--because that is what his religious beliefs are. [Aside this form of theology is not accepted in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline Protestant churches.]

But when the term Christianist gets applied to Pro-Life evangelical Christians who say that the law is against God, then it loses any real meaning. I vote with my conscience, which is Christian--at least as I understand that and others like me--but I'm not advocating an overturning of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights for a theocracy.

Plus Christianist as related to Islamist does not capture, I think the deeper class political divisions. Extremist Islamists are against the modern political social order because it threatens their way of life and because it has oppressed their people. American Christianists often talk a nice game, but frankly live, thrive, and survive on the very "Beast" they seek to slaughter.

Again, to me what is more important than specific labels is getting to the theological/political nuts and bolts of what groups are promoting/believe in.

Matthew ended his post with this question:

It seems the kind of argument that we should really be having is this: If we aren't to take the Bible literally, how then is the Bible still relevant to our lives?

That is really the question. Next post, I'll give a response.


At 3:13 PM, Blogger Joe Perez said...

I'm not a fan of the term "Christianist" and don't use it for reasons that I won't go into here, but for the life of me I can't see why you and MD are going after Sullivan for this particular post at this particular time. I mean, Sullivan DOESN'T EVEN USE THE TERM CHRISTIANIST IN THE POST IN QUESTION!!! Nor does his reader whose email he is reprinting. The term is introduced to the discussion by MD and repeated by you when you say "Sullivan seems to use the Christianist term interchangably with fundamentalist, which as Matthew and the reader point, is a major mistake." This is wrong on the face; however, if you are talking about Sullivan's use of Christianist in general and simply picked a poor example of his writing with which to launch a discussion of a separate topic, I suppose we can move on. (Let's not dwell on the irony of you and MD attacking Sullivan as "sloppy," since Lord knows we can all err.)

Must of the rest of your post is great, and when you make arguments I find myself largely in agreement. Keep up the good stuff...

But then at the end you return to Sullivan with your conclusion that Christianist should only be used to describe dominion theology, and that Sullivan needs to tighten up his ship in how he uses the term fundamentalist. I get that you want precise language and feel strongly that sticking to the historical roots of the term is very important. However, when it comes to language in an evolving culture, I'm less of a prescriptivist than you, apparently, as I am comfortable with allowing for a variety of "legitimate" uses of various terminology in specific contexts for specific purposes that have nothing to do with giving bias theological ideas and marginalizing other uses. (The spiritual writer Thomas Moore has a beautiful definition of fundamentalism as an attitude toward life that is poignant and useful, but has absolutely no link to a specific sectarian impulse in American Protestantism. He spells out exactly what he means by the term and uses it consistently with his own definition. I think it's great writing. Shall we tsk-tsk everyone who uses a term in a creative way?)

Chris: "The term Christianist, as I see it, only properly addresses those of typically a more extreme bent who seek to establish what they conceive of as a Biblical/Christian political order." Sounds like you're in agreement with Sullivan. See: "Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism." @ "the complete conflation of Christian faith and secular politics of the hard right." @ "the cooptation of a faith by a political machine" "use the term "Christianist" to describe the Republican operatives fusing their ideology with the Gospels. Whatever else it is, their ideology is not synonymous with Christianity."

It sounds to me as if you agree with Sullivan. In your conclusion: "Again, to me what is more important than specific labels is getting to the theological/political nuts and bolts of what groups are promoting/believe in." Yeah, if you're a scholar of religion and are communicating to a like-situated audience. Sullivan's audience IS DIFFERENT, and his style and mode of communicating on a blog are different. "Christianist" suits his purposes and rhetorical agenda. If he gets sloppy in the usage, call him on it (and next time I recommend using an example where he actually uses the term "Christianist.") I respect Sullivan's use of Christianist and don't fault him for not going into a sort of a journalism that wallows in the "nuts and bolts" of theological discourse when that would only get his important points swallowed up in burdensome details. He can save that sort of thing for his longer essays and books, if it's relevant.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger CJ Smith said...


Thanks for the post.

For me, the main difference is that the majority of people Sullivan (and you?) seems to me to be calling Christianist are just very conservative American types who are trying to change certain laws in the country to accord with what they see as Christian values.

And I've even heard people talk the talk of how there shouldn't be separation of church and state, but most of the hulabaloo around these people, to me, is overblown.

But there are a small minority of radically oriented, true believer Christianists who seek to overthrow the US government (from within and without) and install a theocracy.

I think using the term outside that context really plays into the fear element strong right-wing element wants to maintain.

Whereas an Islamist, by defintion, seeks to esbalish a different political social order, from in most cases an authoritarian secular regime (Syria) or authoritarian so-called Islamic regime (Saudis).

I said there were moderate and hardline elements within Islamism. And the same holds true vis a vis Christianism. Except, as I said, that the issue of installing a different order versus modifying a pre-existing order to me is vast difference.

On which side of colonial history do such groups stand?

Oh, and yeah, I was not referring to the specific Sullivan post linked, just his work in general. Which truth be told I don't read that much or grabs me too much. I think he's just beating the same dead horses over and over again.

But then again, as you say, he is writing for a much wider audience.

peace bro.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Joe Perez said...


You write: "there are a small minority of radically oriented, true believer Christianists who seek to overthrow the US government (from within and without) and install a theocracy.
I think using the term outside that context really plays into the fear element strong right-wing element wants to maintain..."

Last sentence, don't you mean those opposing the Christianists, not the right-wing? Otherwise it doesn't make sense to me...

But generally, yeah, I don't use Christianist for reasons not far from what you say are your own. It doesn't suit my writing style or objectives. Unlike you, however, I see no problem with Sullivan using the term (if he wants to talk about a few fringe theocrat radicals in the US, then he can speak of "extreme Christianist.") The issue you raise with the contrast between Islam and Christian extremists seems like it can be handled entirely by using "extreme" or some such as a modifier to "religion-ist" (I see no point in tsk-tsking writers for using the Christianist or Islamist terms.) The emotional tenor of the term is important to the mainstream, political blogging style he has pioneered. He wants to stir up fear among the left and mainstream and the political (but not religious) right; he wants to stir up anger on the religious right. If readers don't like it, they can go elsewhere (and they do).

all the best,



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