January 17, 2007
Christians and Christianists
Many Christians have problems with people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and resent their mixing up church and state, the spiritual and the secular. For example, in remarks on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the August 22, 2005 broadcast of his TV show 700 Club, Robertson essentially called on the US government to murder Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, although he used the word "assassination" and the euphemism "take him out" instead of the more blunt but accurate word murder.
ROBERTSON: There was a popular coup that overthrew him [Chavez]. And what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about 48 hours that coup was broken; Chavez was back in power, but we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger and the United ... This is in our sphere of influence, so we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced. And without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with. (my emphasis)
Basically, when Robertson says that "we" should kill Chavez, he is asking the US government to do it.
Many, if not most, Christians in the US were repulsed by Robertson's comments and some were quick to say that he was not a Christian because of the actions he was advocating. But if we cannot pin the label "Christian" on him, what exactly is he? The label 'radical cleric' was tried for a while but did not catch on.
Way back in 2003, the blogger Tristero came up with a good name, suggesting that the term Christianist be used to describe people like Robertson and Falwell and Dobson.
Christianist and Christianism are best understood as being in parallel with Islamist and Islamism. We have all become familiar with the term Islamist which has to be distinguished from the label Muslim. The latter represents anyone who is an adherent of the religion of Islam. Islamism is a political movement inspired by the religion Islam and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Islam the basis for the organizing of civil society. In this terminology, the Taliban are Islamists but most Muslims are not. As Tristero emphasizes, Islamists are not necessarily violent although some high profile Islamists like Osama bin Laden are.
So thus Christianism is a political movement inspired by the religion Christianity and which seeks to make principles based on its interpretation of Christianity the basis for the organizing of civil society, and Christianists are those who pursue such a policy.
The advantage of this kind of labeling is that is avoids having to make judgments about who is a true believer and who is not. Whether one has the right to adopt the label of Christian may be viewed by some as a moral issue, depending on whether one is living according to the principles of Christianity, which was why some people said that Robertson cannot be a Christian when he calls for the murder of foreign heads of state.
But applying Tristero's system of labels removes this judgmental question. While there may be disagreements about whether Robertson is a "true" Christian or not depending on your tastes, he is definitely a Christianist since he clearly wants to run this country according his version of Christianity. Similarly while Muslims may debate whether Osama bin Laden is a "true" Muslim or not, it is pretty clear that he is an Islamist.
This seemed to me to be such a useful terminology that I was surprised that when Andrew Sullivan used it casually in this sense last November, it provoked angry charges in the blog world (from Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse and Hugh Hewitt) that it was insulting to Christians and even "hate speech" (although Sullivan himself is a practicing Catholic). Even more oddly, as Glenn Greenwald points out, these charges of bigotry against Sullivan came from the very people who routinely use the term 'Islamist.' Greenwald reminds us that:
Tristero made the same basic distinctions made by Sullivan, which Althouse, Reynolds and Hewitt are incapable of understanding (or unwilling to understand, though I think it's the former) -- namely, that Christians (like Muslims) can be divided into three groups: (1) those who believe in the religion ("Christians/Muslims"); (2) those who seek to have their religious beliefs dictate politics and law ("Christianists/Islamists"); and (3) those who are willing to use violence to enforce compliance with their religious beliefs ("Christian fascists/Islamofascists" - or "Christian terrorist"/"Muslim terrorist").
This sounds like reasonable and neutral and useful language to me. And it looks like these labels are going mainstream. So we might soon see analogous words popping up for Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and people of other religions who similarly believe that their versions of their own religious beliefs should determine public policy for everyone, and thus control the nature of civic life.
POST SCRIPT: The Mac cult
It has been alleged that Mac users are like a cult, slavishly loyal to the brand and unthinkingly hostile to alternatives. I too use Mac computers and like them a lot. I cannot see myself ever switching to another operating system. But I do not quite see myself as a Mac cult member, mainly because I am not an avid adopter of new technology. I do not have an iPod or even a cell phone and only started using a (very basic) PDA because my work requires it.
So I was bemused at all the fuss about the announcement last week about Apple's new iPhone which combines the features of a cell phone, iPod, and web browser. I saw the news items and kind of shrugged it off. But then I went to the Apple website and saw the presentation by Steve Jobs about the new device and understood the reasons for the hype. There is no doubt that Apple does three things very well. Its devices are undoubtedly pleasing to the eye, they are easy and intuitive to use, and they have very imaginative marketing. The iPhone really is a very cleverly designed device.
After watching Jobs talk about the iPhone and showing what it can do, even I thought it would be nice to have one. Of course, there is not a chance that I will spring $500 or so for it, because basically I do not want or need a cell phone or an iPod. But the fact that even someone like me was so drawn to the device says something about the power of Apple to make something that people feel they must have.
See Jobs' introduction of the iPhone at MacWorld and judge for yourself. It is quite a show.