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07 September 2015


There are Christians, and there are Christianists. Yep, there’s a difference.

CHRISTIANIST /'krɪs.tʃən.ɪst/ adj. Follows a socially approved, outward form of Christianity.
[Christianism /'krɪs.tʃən.ɪz.əm/ n.]

In Stephen Colbert’s first episode of his old show The Colbert Report (no, you don’t need to have watched it; no, if you wanna start, you’re too late), he defined “truthiness.” It’s a concept he intended to emphasize a lot on that particular show. Doesn’t matter what it means. ’Cause I wanna introduce you to this word, Christianism, a word I’m gonna use an awful lot on TXAB.

There are Christians who try to follow Christ Jesus. Don’t always succeed, but we try, which is the important thing. Then there are people who simply slap a Christian label on whatever it is they’re currently doing. Might think it’s legitimately Christian. More likely, never thought about it at all. Every other Christian they know does it. And if everybody’s doing it, must be Christian, right?

Y’know how there are two words, Muslim and Islamist? One means a person who actually practices Islam, and the other a person who uses Muslim trappings to promote their social or political ideas? Same deal. Christian denotes legitimate Christ-followers. Christianist those with other goals.

The header image is taken from Mormon artist Jon McNaughton’s painting “One Nation Under God.” It shows us one really common example of Christianism in the United States: Civic idolatry, where we confuse our nation and its ideals with God’s kingdom. Much as we’d like to imagine the United States is like the kingdom, it’s not, y’know. Jesus is gonna overthrow it, same as every other nation, when he returns. A lot of Americans have never even considered this idea. We’re a Christian nation, they insist. He’d never. But he totally will.

If you’re a civic idolater, you’re gonna be hugely offended that I used this image, or call it Christianist. Cease-and-desist order forthcoming.

But imagine McNaughton was from another country, like Mexico. Imagine he painted something with all Mexico’s founding leaders in the painting. reverently calling the nation to turn to Jesus, with Jesus holding up Mexico’s constitution, and separating the sheep from the goats by how good they were as Mexican citizens. Wouldn’t it bug you just a little? How about if NcNaughton were Saudi?

Civic idolaters take it for granted those other countries aren’t God’s chosen people in the same way Americans are. Jesus’ll definitely overthrow those countries when he returns. But not ours. Never America.

I can’t take credit for inventing the term Christianist. Years ago I read a Time Magazine article by Andrew Sullivan, where he noted the difference between certain right-wing Christians and the actual teachings of Jesus. I’m not gonna denounce the Christian Right like Sullivan did; I have plenty of criticisms for both them and the Christian Left. But Sullivan is entirely right to say there’s a difference between a true follower of Jesus, and someone who adopts a religious veneer in order to push their political views.

So let me suggest that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. Sullivan, 5/7/06

Reporters, pagans, and nontheists don’t really make a distinction between Christians and Christianists. We who do know the difference, need to make it clear. So I do.

Christianist teaching.

Truly Christian people and things, truly conform to Christ. Fr’instance any Christian teaching would be what Christ Jesus taught, like “Love your enemies” Mt 5.44 —one of his least-popular teachings, one we Christians admittedly grit our teeth and try to do. And fail. And grit our teeth and try again. And again. Oh, and get a good mouthguard.

In comparison a Christianist grits nothing. They’ll say Jesus has no problem whatsoever with bumping off enemies. Forgiveness? F--- that: These people are guilty of crimes against society and God. God is a just God, we’re a righteous people, and vengeance justice demands we do away with them. How do they reconcile this ungracious attitude with “Love your enemies”? Simple: “Love” can mean “want the best for them,” and they really do want what’s best for them. Namely an attack drone they’ll never see coming.

Tell Christianists they’re not being Christian, and it’ll offend them. “Stop trying to conform Jesus to your politics,” they’ll object—which is precisely what they’ve done.

But like most people with knee-jerk opinions, they’re blind to the irony. They haven’t a clue this is what they’re doing. They feel they do understand Jesus. Way better than hippies, moralists, do-gooders, or hate-mongers. But once again, they’re going along with the popular culture—whether it’s left-wing or right-wing, progressive or conservative. Whatever all their friends say and do, that, they figure, is Christianity. Anybody on the outside: We don’t know about you.

We Christians love to think of ourselves as countercultural. Popular culture goes one way, but we figure we buck its trend and follow Jesus. Thing is, very few of us are truly bucking the trend. We’ve simply found another trend. We’re following the Christianist crowd, and have assumed Jesus is leading it. Or at least he’s somewhere in it. There’s a fun little bible story where Jesus’s parents assumed this very thing, and as a result found themselves miles away from Jesus, and had to spend the next several days frantically looking for him. Lk 2.41-50 Funny how nobody nowadays sees history repeating itself.

Christianists don’t know Jesus’s view. When they crack a bible open, it’s to read the same stories over and over, and rarely venture outside them. When they spout bible interpretations, it’s heavily out of context, bent to suit their needs and wants and culture. But they figure they’re totally right—’cause they’re surrounded by fellow Christianists who all say the very same thing, providing them with a handy echo chamber. Everybody thinks like this—everybody they know, anyway. Jesus must believe likewise, right? ’Cause we’re all following Jesus together, right?

Er, no.

Actual frauds, and sheep gone astray.

Thus far I’ve been talking about Christianists who are honestly mistaken. I give most people the benefit of the doubt. I assume they’re in the don’t-know-any-better group. Some of ’em are open to correction. Some of ’em are thicker than concrete. But they’re earnest, y’see. They think they know better.

Then there’s the other group: The people who actually know what Jesus teaches, but went out of their way to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate his words till they mean what they want. They figure their views are more important than Jesus’s. These would be legitimately deceptive people. Liars. Antichrists. Leading the crowd astray for their own gain.

Other than the devil, certain cult leaders, certain politicians, false prophets, and their flunkies, there aren’t many in this category. But they do exist. They’re a much smaller group. They’re not wandering sheep; they’re wolves. Jesus described ’em like yea:

John 10.7-10 KWL
7B “Amen amen! I promise you I’m the sheep-gate.
8 Everybody who climbs in over me is a thief and predator—
but the flock won’t listen to them.
9 I’m the gate. When anyone enters through me, they’ll be saved.
They’ll enter, they’ll exit, they’ll find pasture.
10 The thief doesn’t enter other than to steal, murder, and destroy.
I came so they can have life—and have more than they ever expected.”

The flock, Jesus’s real followers, recognize these Christianists as con artists, and won’t follow. But everyone else—Christianists themselves—don’t know any different. They’ll easily fall for their false teachings. And off they go together.

We can debate (and we have) about whether wayward Christianists are real Christians, or whether they ever were. I’d like to think a lot of ’em are Christian; just wrong in some areas. Sometimes a lot of areas.

’Cause I grew up among Christianists. In high school I attended a politically conservative church who regularly mixed up our party’s teachings with Jesus’s. Didn’t know any better. All the Christians we knew were good conservatives. And if they weren’t conservative, we’d doubt their salvation.

Round election time we’d get “voter guides,” produced by party members, which included a little checklist to show whether each candidate was “Christian” enough. What they thought of abortion, or capital punishment, or drugs, or taxes, or government expansion. One of the checkboxes, fr’instance, told us whether the candidates were for or against gun control.

Now, what’s Jesus’s position on gun control? Well, there were no guns back then, but we know what Jesus said about other arms, namely mákhairai/“machetes,” long work knives which the KJV renders “swords.” There’s pro:

Luke 22.36-38 KWL
36 He told them, “But now you who have a coin purse: Pick it, and your wallet, up.
You who don’t: Sell your robe. Buy a machete.
37 For I tell you this scripture must be fulfilled by me: ‘He was figured among the lawless.’ Is 53.12
It’s about me; it has a purpose.”
38 They said, “Master look: Two machetes here.”
He told them, “That’ll do.”

And there’s con.

Matthew 26.51-52 KWL
51 Look, one of Jesus’s followers stretched out his hand, drew his machete,
struck the head priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.
52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your machete back where it goes:
Everybody who takes up arms will be destroyed by them.”

We can debate the interpretation of these passages, and most of the interpretation will pretty much fall in line with our already-existing politics. If you like guns, sell your robe and buy one. If you don’t, it’s all “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

I myself would argue there’s not enough in either passage to come up with Jesus’s gun policy. He has no position. It’s wholly a partisan issue. I think both sides make reasonable arguments. Even so, conservatives assume Jesus is against gun control; progressives assume he’s for it; both pick the sides they’d already choose without any input from Jesus. And both commit the Christianist sin of claiming it was all his idea.

Tell ’em they’re wrong, and they’ll object. But their main objection isn’t just politics. It’s something much deeper in human nature: We humans don’t wanna be wrong. We don’t want to think of ourselves that way. Nor be publicly corrected for wrongdoing. Wrongness is bad. And we’re not bad people—we’re good Christians. All our fellow Christians say so, and believe the very same things we do. We can’t all be wrong.

But we are. And aren’t gonna grow in Christ till we realize it.

It’s a pretty tough nut to crack. Darn near impossible. But never impossible for the Holy Spirit, which is why we needn’t give up hope. If these Christianists really do care about Jesus—and a lot of ’em honestly do—the Spirit will get through to them, convict them, correct them, and they’ll follow him away from their errors.

Leaving behind only the hypocrites, who will resist the Spirit to their dying breath. Or to ours; they’d much rather we fight to the death for their false beliefs.

Christianist behavior.

As I said, using the term isn’t gonna win us fans. Christianists believe they’re not Christianist; they really do follow Jesus. They feel we’re accusing them of hypocrisy. We aren’t really. (Well, I’m not.) They’re just wrong. Anybody can be wrong. I’m wrong a lot of the time. To err is human.

But some of ’em really aren’t Christian either. They think they are. They were raised to believe so. They’re not, though. Ask ’em to point to their faith, and they’ll point to a sinner’s prayer they said decades ago, which was the last time they can recall God intervening in their lives… if even that happened. They have no current testimony. No interactive relationship with God beyond that prayer. They might quote their churches’ faith statements, or point out how law-abiding they are. They won’t point to fruit of the Spirit; they don’t have any. They might point to stuff they’re trying to pass off as fruit of the Spirit, and maybe some Christian-like good works. Maybe acts of supernatural power. Then again, maybe they’ve faked those.

Contrast this with what Jesus and his apostles taught: You’ll know his ministers by their fruits. Mt 7.15-20 If we love him we’ll do as he commanded. Jn 14.15 Still, being “good people,” or having our theological ducks in a row, are works. We’re only saved by God’s grace. Ep 2.5 And his sort of grace needs to be paid forward in forgiveness and kindness—not hogged for ourselves and our own, and only applied to our situations.

We gotta eliminate our own Christianist tendencies too… once we discover them. Hey, we’re not immune. Whatever crowd we’re in, likewise teaches some things which won’t jibe with Jesus. We gotta find those things and be rid of them. Study what Jesus actually teaches. Follow him, not the crowd.

(And be gracious with the Christianists, okay? Some of ’em mean well.)