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Hullabaloo


Monday, November 27, 2006

 
Christianism

by tristero

Recently, the term "christianism" seems finally to have caught on to describe the political movement that exploits Christian symbols for secular gain. And with its acceptance has come the usual denials and attacks from the right.

Glenn Greenwald, for example, takes on Ann Althouse who claims to find the term offensive as well as Glenn Reynolds who calls it "a variety of bigotry." In an update, Glenn notes that Hugh Hewitt characterizes "christianism" as "hate speech."

I can't improve on Glenn's summary of the issue and his rebuttals but I would like to add this:

Now you know why I wrote "Voices of Light."

My respect, even admiration, for many religious traditions is deep and genuine. I find much that is beautiful and even true in these traditions. "Voices of Light" is, among many other things, an expression of that admiration. And it's not limited merely to Catholicism, the specific religion within which the events of "Voices of Light" take place. I've used texts from many different traditions in other works.

Naturally, when you take the time and effort to write a large piece of music, you have many reasons to do so. One reason that was very important to me was that I felt that I had something to contribute to the American discussion of religion and spirituality, namely that there is a huge difference between the desire to understand what is meant by God and political acts undertaken in the name of God. Failure to discern the two can be, and events have shown, is, very dangerous for American democracy.

However, I well knew that the public discourse on religion was overrun with hateful ideologues who would rather beat you to death with a Bible (metaphorically speaking) than practice the mercy of Christ (literally speaking). I wanted to make sure that before anyone presumed to speak up for what I stood for, I had made it crystal clear that my respect for religious tradition is deep and sincere. I think that even if you don't like "Voices of Light," it is hard to argue that the person who wrote it didn't take Joan seriously and with great respect, as well as respect the religious traditions she practiced.

Regarding my possible personal beliefs, or possible lack of same, I felt then, and still feel, they are irrelevant to a serious discussion of religion in a public space. What is important, the only thing that is important as far as I'm concerned, is that it is clear that I have no interest in undermining religious beliefs (or unbelief) but totally respect them and try to learn what I can of many different traditions. By the same token, I have zero interest in promoting any religious system (or lack of same).

I have a very different attitude towards the political exploitation of religious symbolism and belief. To be blunt, I find it immoral that anyone would dare to corrupt the religious impulse - which, for so many, is crucial to their understanding of their lives - for cheap, secular, partisan gain. I'm talking Pat Robertson here, Jerry Falwell,followers of Rousas Rushdoony, Joseph Morehead, Randall Terry and the whole sick crew of sleazy political operatives eagerly working to wreck the American system of government and establish a theocracy.

They deserve no respect, no quarter, whatsoever. It is very important to understand that whatever their personal beliefs - which are all but unknowable - they have made it clear through their public statements that they are dangerous political extremists who have celebrated the virtue of their intolerance on numerous occasions. Some have gone out of their way to excuse, advocate or even perpetrate murderous violence in the name of their utterly sick beliefs. They have generously funded elaborate efforts to undermine science with sophisticated marketing campaigns to teach cruddy lies to science students.

And they have blasphemously used the cross and other religious symbols as if they were trying to ward off vampires in a cheesy horror film. They degrade the cross, a symbol beloved and honored by millions who have nothing in common with these people. And they do so not to affirm their religious beliefs, whatever they may be, but in the most cynical fashion, merely to counter legitimate expressions of outrage at their hateful behavior or ideas.

For all these reasons, I think it is crucial that a distinction be made between the expression of religion and its political exploitation. Therefore, a few years ago, I proposed the term "christianism" to distinguish the political movement from Christianity. I urged others to adopt it. Other terms have been proposed such as Michelle Goldberg's "Christian Nationalism" but I like the parallels between "christianism" and "islamism."*

One word about the provenance of the term, which I would like to be clear about. I'll post the links tonight, when I have more time. When I wrote the 2003 post, I was completely unaware, because I have, with rare exceptions, never read him, that Andrew Sullivan had used the exact same term with a similar definition a few days before I did. The first I learned about the Sullivan post was when William Safire discussed the term "christianism" about a year or so ago in the New York Times Magazine. Actually, the word has been used for centuries, I believe.

While it is more than possible that I used the term in comments on other blogs long before I wrote that June, '03 post, I'll cheerfully concede precedent to Sullivan (and when Dave Neiwert credited me at one point, I wrote to tell him that Sullivan preceded me). What is far more important is that finally, finally, American public discourse on religion has begun to acknowledge the important difference between genuine religious expression and the dangerous political operatives that are operating with impunity behind the robes of priests. If I have had even a small role in helping people make that distinction, then I'll feel that all the dozens of blog posts I've written on the subject was well worth the effort.


*As my original post made clear, there are differences not only between Christianity and christianism but also christianism and radical christianism. And, of course, there are many kinds of christianisms, those that emphasize Catholic symbolism as well as those that focus on Protestant evangelical traditions.

PS Those of you familiar with Joan of Arc's story surely realize that religious faith and its relationship to politics are central to that story. I am quite aware that Joan's story poses very disturbing questions that often seem at odds with my personal values. It was partly because the story was so deep and ambiguous that I found it so irresistible a subject. Art, as I see it, is not supposed to tell you how to feel, but should provide an opportunity for you to examine and contemplate your feelings and those of others, including the artist. Art does much more, of course, but that is another subject for another time (grin).


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