Christianism isn’t exactly a household word, but it expresses an important and troubling aspect of U.S. religious and political life.
Let’s look at what it is and why it’s objectionable.
What is Christianism? The contemporary use of the word Christianism / Christianist seems to have started with Andrew Sullivan.
He coined those words in a June 2003 post in his political blog, “The Daily Dish,” which he maintained from 2000 to 2015.
Sullivan wrote, “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”
In a June 2005 blog posting, Sullivan wrote, “Christianism – politicized Christianity – argues for the imposition of one religion’s values over the entire society.”
Sullivan later expanded on his usage of the terms in a May 2006 Time magazine article titled “My Problem with Christianism.”
Mark Shea, another blogger, who like Sullivan is a Catholic, is more contentious in his description of the current meaning of the term(s).
He begins his October 2018 Patheos.com article called ”I Keep Getting Asked What I Mean by ‘Christianism’” with these sharp words:
“A Christianist is an adherent of a political [cult] centered on Donald Trump and informed by a magisterium of Fox, right-wing talk radio and right-wing social media, which uses Christian imagery and jargon in the service of a diabolical antichrist gospel of racism, war, torture apologetics, gun fanaticism, misogyny, mammon worship, cruelty to the least of these and hatred of both science and orthodox Christian belief.”
Politicized Christianity, however, is certainly nothing new. In fact, it can be traced all the way back to Constantine in the fourth century CE.
When Christianity was co-opted by the Roman Empire, Christendom was established – and it flourished for 15 centuries until weakened by the historical process of secularization.
In his 2019 book, “Postcards from Babylon,” Brian Zahnd writes negatively about Christendom. “Tying the gospel to the interests of empire had a deeply compromising effect upon the gospel, as seen in the sordid history of the church being mixed up with imperial conquest, colonialism and military adventurism around the world.”
Contemporary Christianism is manifested differently but is similar in many ways to the ethos of Christendom that goes all the way back to Constantine – and to what we Anabaptists sometimes refer to as the “fall” of the Church.
The move toward “Christian nationalism” is one of the main ways Christianism has been apparent in recent years, although many seem to be unaware of that movement.
Last year, the Baptist Joint Committee (BJC), an organization I have supported for decades, started a campaign called Christians Against Christian Nationalism (CACN). This campaign is clearly in opposition to Christianism, even though they don’t use that word.
To learn more about BJC and CACN, see this important October 2019 article by Frederick Clarkson – or you can read directly about CACN and even sign the statement opposing Christian nationalism, as I did last year, by clicking here.
Even though much more needs to be said, I close with more from Zahnd, who wrote “in the American experiment the United States deliberately broke with Christendom practice of claiming to be a Christian nation with a state church. It was America that pioneered the experiment of secular governance.”
And then he asserted, “America is not a Christian nation; it never was and never can be. The only institution that even has the possibility of being Christian is the church. When we confuse the nation with the church, it may not do any particular damage to the nation, but it will do irreparable harm to the church.”
Yes, Christianism is highly objectionable, for, indeed, it does “irreparable harm” to the work and witness of the faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.