I love that Joel starts with the big questions: What is Christianity, anyway? And what is it supposed to be for? And is Joel weird? The answers, in order, are: Good question, wrong question, and yes, but only in that he’s not a cynical as some others of us, for which I am grateful. I’ll tackle them each briefly.
What is Christianity?
Writes religion scholar Sam. D. Gill on the effort to define religion: “Most religion scholars have grown weary of the effort… despite the widely accepted principle that a word that cannot be defined is a word of limited… value.” But defining religion isn’t merely an exhausting academic exercise: if we don’t know what religion is, how can we insure that it is protected by the First Amendment? Right now, for example, rightwing anti-immigrant forces are attempting to define Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology in order to strip Muslims of First Amendment rights.
But just because it’s important to know what religion is doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
The humanist tradition stresses religion’s distinction between the sacred—what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “things set apart and forbidden”—and the profane—the petty concerns of an individual’s everyday, ordinary life. In religion, says the theological Paul Tillich, we are “grasped by an ultimate concern.” Rudolph Otto said that, underlying all religion, was the numinous experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans—experiencing a Wholly Other that, despite its awesomeness, attracts us.
All very charming, but the result of defining religion this way is that much world religion got ignored or derided—and not just the religions of the people Europeans colonized and enslaved the world over but also the religion of European women and poor people. While much religion does, indeed, have to do with the sacred, much of it also has to do with our everyday lives. We might not agree that Soul Cycle is religion, but lots of us have religious experiences that are also mundane, something not possible in Durkheim’s set-up. We certainly have religion that isn’t about encountering God or being transformed. This notion likely offends evangelical Christians and faithful Catholics (who, after all, are supposed to be encountering the literal body and blood of Jesus at mass each week), but if we are looking for a useful definition of religion, we have to recognize that many religious people are not “spiritual” and that the supernatural is not all that (or even at all) important to them.
We might be better served by thinking of religion as a syndrome—a set of signs that often “run together” and characterize a condition. So we can say that religion often includes a concern for the sacred, a belief in the supernatural, a moral code, a set of prescribed behaviors insuring avoidance of the profane, beliefs, symbols, rituals, revelations, scriptures, and an erasure of the invention of all these things (a key point in the definition for anthropologist Clifford Geertz), but not all religions display all these characteristics.
As for defining Christianity, we can define Christianity by asking self-identified Christians what it is—that is, a descriptive rather than prescriptive definition. That’s a lot of people—about 2 billion, worldwide—with a lot of variation and considerable disagreement even on the basics and some answers that would make our Sunday school teachers sigh in frustration. This is a “lived religion” approach to the question, and I think it’s the one that is most useful.
Who is Christianity for?
Joel actually asked, What is Christianity supposed to be for? but that question is teleological, suggesting a purpose to Christianity that somehow informed its origins—an interesting historical question, but not one that addresses this rather terrible moment in American Christianity.
So I’ll ask instead: Who is American Christianity for today? If you’ll allow me to define Christianity as what Christians say it is, then we can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear: the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo. If you’re a Christian and that grosses you out—well, I think it should.
Above, Donald Trump speaks at the Values Voter Summit on September 9, 2016. The logos on the wall behind him belong to various religiously conservative political organizations. In his speech, he promised that he would, as president, insure that “our Christian heritage will be cherished like never before.” The our inserts him into the Christian family, while the Christian heritage appeals to both Christian and white nationalists. The will be hints at a legal mandate to recognize Christianity as important in US culture, and the like never before is an appeal to the politics of resentment felt by entitled white conservative Christians who have argued for decades that they have been denied their place of supremacy in American culture. The standing ovation that Trump received for this speech helps us see how American Christians define their faith: as something that deserves to be officially vaunted by the US government.
This is not new. From colonization to Indian removal and “pacification” to slavery and segregation up to today’s social Darwinist delight in the death of the poor, Christianity has insured that the weak stay weak and the strong stay strong. (Note that I don’t say Christianity has been used to do bad things. I’m saying that Christianity has done bad things. Because there is no pure, innocent, ideal Christianity apart from how people use it.) Some heroes have resisted this and risked their lives for a Christianity that lifts up the downtrodden, but they are the exception. What makes them—Bartolemé de la Casas, William Wilberforce, Corrie ten Boom, Oscar Romero—heroes is that they defied their own Christian traditions (sometimes after too long of a wait) in order to care for those more vulnerable.
I don’t have a lot of love for Russell Moore, who, along with other Southern Baptists, has spent decades now using fear of women and sexual minorities to drum up support for the Republican Party (and that’s beside the fact that, no, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, I do not forgive them for being on the wrong side of emancipation). But while I think that Moore should have taken this position far earlier, I appreciate his effort to remind his fellow Southern Baptists that a marriage of politics and religion is seldom good for religion. As the Baptist hero Roger Williams wrote:
When they [Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.
Moore is getting hammered by fellow Southern Baptists because he opposes the invocation of faith to support the general moral depravity of Donald Trump. But Moore has also long been associating with people who would only use religion to advance their own interests. He didn’t challenge their lazy, self-centered theology earlier because it didn’t upset his thinking about sexuality. The consequence of his anti-gay teaching has been that thousands of queer Baptists kids were spiritually, sexually, and physically abused; many are homeless because their parents refuse to allow the “sin” of gay sexuality in their homes. If the pro-Trump backlash is millstone that drowns him for the violence he’s done to the “least of these”… well, perhaps that is a risk he took.
But I share Joel’s concern for what he sees as “a wound to Southern Baptist integrity.” We are wounded because we expect religion—Christianity broadly and specifically Southern Baptists, who do, with their tradition of religious liberty, have a lot to offer—to do better. I think, in the long run, that’s actually a realistic expectation.