Call Yourself Evangelical, Isaiah 11, or Orville Redenbacher, But Don’t Organize Under it

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Adding some thoughts on Jonathan Merritt’s article on the “Evangelical Exodus”: it makes a nice illustration of something I’ve come to think of as the Whose Christianity? problem. Religious studies scholars and other hipsters know that speaking of Christianity as a monolith is seldom worthwhile. There are too many variations on the same faith, with too little overlap, to make sense of it as a single entity except in the broadest of terms. To generate any kind of meaningful insight you have to keep foregrounding the question: Whose Christianity are we talking about?

This makes intuitive sense in the postmodern world. Except for the harshest critics, most folks understand that the way my UCC denomination lives the Christian faith might not have much similarity to Orthodox churches, and neither of us are very much like Westboro Baptist. Sure, there are commonalities along with the differences, but now we’re already talking about Whose Christianity?

The corollary to this philosophical wrinkle is that it makes fighting over labels completely useless. I can tell you for a fact that somebody like James Dobson or Franklin Graham doesn’t consider me to be a Christian. Why? Because they’ve said so, repeatedly. I might not return the favor in equal measure, but at the very least, I think their Christianity is defective. Argue as long as you like, you’ll never get beyond that impasse.

Returning to Merritt’s article, it’s worthless to fight over whether someone is an evangelical, whether they should wear that label with pride, shame, humility, exasperation. From a conservative perspective, who cares if John Fea wants to be known as an evangelical, much less Shane Claiborne? The conservatives don’t consider them real evangelicals, and ignore their practice anyway.

Likewise, Jack Jenkins of ThinkProgress mentions on Twitter that religious progressives like to argue that they’re in fact more “orthodox” than conservative Christians. Which is true, they do! They even have a pretty strong case!

It’s also completely fucking worthless. Christian reactionaries care less about the progressive definition of “orthodox” than they do about whatever nasty shit they just scraped off their shoes.

There is simply no margin in imagining some grand social connection that would cause conservatives to be shamed into obeying a definition of Christianity they didn’t come up with for themselves. Progressives, either. The church invisible may be a theological reality, but as far as sociology’s concerned, it’s a pink unicorn. The practical reality is that we have multiple Christianities, none of which are very susceptible to the influence of others.

Liberals have known all of this for a long while, yet there’s still a tendency to pursue a religious left as an identity more than a coherent political position. I keep seeing pitches to resist the incoming administration by rallying behind some obscure scriptural label or another. “Show them what Isaiah 11 Christians can do!”

Huh?

Even setting aside the dubious idea that Christians can reel off scripture passages from memory (mostly an evangelical tic), it has to be said that activism premised on the notion that the categories of faith are widely shared in our society is bound to fail. If it’s not the exclusivity, it’s the incoherence. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and certainly people of no faith, have little reason to line up behind somebody else’s religious values, even assuming those values are communicated effectively with a quick tagline. And remember, fighting over labels is completely useless. It’s no better being a Matthew 5 Christian than an Isaiah 11.

What to do, then? Well, looking for Rawls’ “overlapping consensus” is a good start. There’s a decent argument to be made that who we are as political creatures is better expressed by the positions we agree to than the labels we carry.

In reaching that consensus, it might be helpful to think about how we deliberate. I once overheard a conversation on Reddit that went like this: someone asked philosophers if they actually used terms for logical fallacies in their discussions with one another. I imagine, the commenter said, that it’s just one That’s an ad hominem! or Post hoc ergo propter hoc! after another.

The answer was, of course, no. That would be a waste of time, because using a formal term only leads to arguing about that term’s definition and its applicability, rather than the substance of the matter being discussed. Instead, the professionals skip the label and point out the error itself: “You’re attacking me, rather than my position,” or “You seem to be confusing causation with correlation,” and so on. That keeps the focus where it should be, and so the philosophers say, allows for more productive discussion.

My point, at long last, being that we don’t have time to argue about whether somebody’s really a Christian, or an evangelical, or orthodox, or if you belong in the religious left if you’re Jewish, Muslim, secular. I don’t really give a shit what you think about the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount or letting justice roll down like waters. What I care about is that a vulgar-talking yam-fascist and his allied goons in Congress are about to savage the American state and the nation it’s supposed to serve. That’s wrong. Now, what are we going to do about it?