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Smith’s Dictionary: Christianist

September 27, 2010

Anyone who reads the Daily Dish knows that “Christianists” are an Andrew Sullivan staple of villainy. Yet inquiring minds need to know: who or what, exactly, is a Christianist? In one sense, Sullivan is quite obviously referring to Christians who mix religion with politics: Sarah Palin, James Dobson, and Christine O’Donnell — to name a few prominent examples.

At the same time, it’s clear that Sullivan doesn’t have in mind all politically active Christians. Just today, Sullivan heaped praise on comedian Stephen Colbert for breaking character to draw attention to the powerlessness and suffering of migrant farmer workers:

[Colbert’s] is an inspiring piece of Catholic testimony, informed by the words of Jesus and what Christianity – not Christianism – should stand for. Above all else, caritas.

Colbert’s remarks most certainly were an inspiring piece of Catholic testimony. Yet, if religion and politics don’t mix, it would we seem out of place to characterize Colbert as a “Catholic witness,” as Sullivan does in the post. I therefore conclude that Sullivan has in mind politically-engaged Christians whose views he finds offensive. (The aim of all politics is to shift power relations, so it would be superficial to define Christianists as Christians who seek power. Such a definition also fails the Colbert test: for religious conviction — “whatever you have done for the least of my brothers…” — is precisely what Colbert says motivates his testimony on behalf of, and desire to empower, migrant farm workers.)

Megan McCardle’s characterization of Sullivan’s definition of the term seems accurate: “Christianist n. Someone who selectively ignores different parts of Christian scripture than I do.” This one’s going in Smith’s Dictionary!

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. imnotme permalink
    September 27, 2010 3:02 pm

    Christianist: Someone that uses Christianity to market to superstitious and homophobic people for personal gain…?

    I like Megan’s better, but mine is how it looks from MN’s 3rd and 6th congressional District, and Tom Emmer has jumped on board too launching political ads that say 0 about policy but reassure tax payers that he believes in marriage between a man and woman only.

    • imnotme permalink
      September 27, 2010 3:04 pm

      Not to mention that in order to run against Bachmann, Tarryl Clark’s website mentions her church-going three times on the front page and has a frustrating lack of relevant information.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    September 27, 2010 6:26 pm

    I think the phenomenon is much more widespread than the 3rd and 6th congressional district. Wouldn’t your definition apply to most Republican politicians since the Reagan administration?

    Christianist, in Sullivan’s sense of the word, seems to denote more of the Christine O’Donnell, Tea Partier type who really believes in “traditional” marriage and barring gays from openly serving in the military. Along these lines, Bachmann is the Christianist and Tarryl Clark the standard political hack. (I’m disappointed to learn that Clark, a Democrat, is using these tactics — though I suppose it makes sense for a district that elected Bachmann.)

    I do obviously concur with McCardle that “Christianist” serves more as a rhetorical device than as a meaningful analytical category.

    • imnotme permalink
      September 27, 2010 10:43 pm

      Too true. I am guilty of jumping into your conversation with only my narrowly focused combat in mind. I see you’re going for a more overarching dialog here; to that end I am much less knowledgeable.

      However, I suppose that in the more general (or less, depending) scope, I find that Christianist, in Sullivan’s sense, is an unnecessary or extraneous label for a demographic that exists with or without it, and would be difficult to quantify given rural, southern cultures ability to spontaneously defy being put into a box of any kind. I say this because values like traditional marriage are values of rural, southern people for the most part, and those in suburbs of major metropolises (north, east, south or west) are the remnants of their more emotionally and philosophically sophisticated fore-bearers.

      Or maybe I just like old men from Missouri who don’t pronounce whole words.

      • imnotme permalink
        September 27, 2010 10:50 pm

        Oh, the missing sentiment there is that people I have met personally from states like Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina tend to have a relaxed attitude towards social issues while still hoping in conservative politicians (live and let live as it were). The extreme cases of intolerance publicized in the media are tragic, but they happen in all circles, according to my own observation.

  3. pauldo permalink
    September 27, 2010 6:28 pm

    This is so not hard:

    Colbert’s religion informs his political positions, as is the case with most Christians.

    Christianists want politics (the state)to enforce their beliefs on others.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    September 27, 2010 9:19 pm

    pauldo, your distinction seems nominal. If religion “informs” Colbert’s support for granting temporary legal status to migrant workers, isn’t that the same thing as Colbert wanting to “enforce” his beliefs on Americans who oppose illegal immigration? Or suppose Colbert came out in favor of letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire, citing the influence of Catholic social teaching. Wouldn’t that amount to the desire to enforce religious teachings on investment bankers and hedge fund managers?

    We like to think that religion “informs” political positions when we approve of those positions; when we disapprove of those positions, we say that it “enforces” beliefs on others. The logically consistent advocate of erecting a wall of separation between church and state, however, would need to condemn Colbert every bit as much as Palin or O’Donnell.

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