I’ve been reading through John Fea’s great book Was America Founded As A Christian Nation? It’s a much needed, more nuanced look at Christianity in U.S. history. Definitely recommended.
I’m not even sure if most people would pick up on this, or even care, but my main critique is that Fea takes the approach of equating Christianity with Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. So, if someone’s “beliefs” or “practices” don’t line up with a certain set of beliefs or practices that have been considered “the norm,” then that person is not considered truly Christian. This is, of course, a much broader understanding of Christianity than what comes from certain evangelical types. But, I don’t think it goes far enough.
Defining something like Christianity is very difficult. This is one of the great revelations in the book. When people use the phrase “Christian nation,” what exactly do they mean? Historically, it’s very clear that all kinds of different individuals and groups have used that phrase in very different, even contradictory, ways. In our day, it seems to be used mostly by people who think that we should be a specifically orthodox Protestant, or even evangelical Christian nation.
Each of us has a certain understanding of what Christianity is, based on our own (limited) experiences. I think it’s very difficult, though, to not project that understanding upon everyone else, and then seek to draw clear lines between who “qualifies” and who doesn’t. I have a really hard time putting Pat Robertson and, say, Shane Claiborne in any of the same categories. I think this is why a lot of people reject Christianity, because of the guilt by association that it requires. We all have similar distinctions. But, my question is exactly where can we get an objective list of those qualifications? Ironically, if we claim to be a Christian, whatever list we have created, or inherited, includes us. This is why I’m attracted to people like Kierkegaard or Bono who refuse(d) to self-identify as Christian.
I can already hear an objection, similar to the one made by “traditional marriage only” advocates: the word Christian means something specific. Just like the word chair doesn’t mean cat. Maybe that works for objects in the world, but it doesn’t work for such a complicated term as Christian. I think there might be a range of beliefs, practices, etc. that are closer to what the word Christian is “getting at” than others. I just don’t think the precise boundaries to that range exist.
An extreme example might help: can the slaveholder who beats and rapes his slaves be considered Christian? I used to think this was pretty clear: no. But, I’m not so sure any longer. If Christianity, in its broadest sense, is primarily a sociological category, that many people are simply born into, then a lot more people could be considered Christian than most of us might want to be. This is why someone like Richard Dawkins can claim to be a cultural Christian. And, why many atheists are not simply atheistic about some vague deity; they are atheistic regarding a very specific Christian deity that they have rejected based on their own experiences.
Maybe there is a certain trajectory, centered on our current understanding of who Jesus the Christ was, that might help us to distinguish between certain actions that can be considered Christian or not. But, the reality is, most of the people who claim Christianity as their own don’t resemble Jesus at all. This, to me, would be more helpful than a list of “beliefs” that make someone a Christian or not. But, neither approach seems to do justice to the actual historical diversity of the term.
This has become a huge problem in our day when certain groups of people say that Obama and Romney aren’t Christians, while Obama and Romney themselves claim to be. At this point, this seems to be the most clear use of the word Christian: an individual defining him or herself in that way. Maybe we don’t want progressive liberal Christians or Mormons to be included in our clearly defined group, but to say that they aren’t Christian, to me, seems like an historical error. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a perfect example of this; according to Fea’s use of the term Christian, King would not qualify. I would even guess that the majority of people claiming to be Christians today would not qualify.
I also don’t think you can get a better definition of Christian from the Bible itself. There are lots of words used of people who self-identify with the Hebrew God, or with Jesus the Christ, but the primary one in the Bible is not ”Christian.” One of the things that has more recently been re-enchanting me toward Christianity is its diversity.
This was much longer than I thought it would be. I guess my point is that I think Fea has written a very helpful, much needed book. And, his approach toward history inspires me to love history even more. I just wish he would have applied those same methods to the words Christian and Christianity. I’m not prepared to make such a clear distinction, between those who adhere to the “right” Christian beliefs and practices, and those who don’t.
If Christianity is in the least associated with Jesus the Christ, it would seem his approach would be, in principle, to include rather than to exclude.