Christianist Hatemongering?

Andrew Sullivan, quoted by Hugh Hewitt, explaining why he is peddling the term “Christianist” to refer to those generally termed “the Religious Right” or “Christian Conservatives”:

He says his goal is to “take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist.”

He explains further, “Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.”[emphases OTB’s]

This is followed by this analysis:

Most pundits have rejected “Christianist” because it obviously tries to link Islamists and those evangelicals Mr. Sullivan loathes. He is attempting to dress up hate speech as simple precision, but given the vast spectrum of political opinions among believers on the center-right, “Christianist” is a howler. Still, no one should be laughing when a once-respected newsweekly defines a huge portion of the American mainstream as the equivalent of the Islamists who attacked the country on 9/11. Be prepared as others pick up Time’s term.

Did Hewitt write the conclusion before writing the part where he quotes Sullivan and then forget to rewrite the conclusion? Otherwise, this makes no sense. Sullivan could not be clearer in saying that “only a tiny few” Islamists are terrorists and that he imputes no violent motives whatsoever to those he dubs “Christianists.”

Still, Sullivan’s coinage here is clumsy and bound to lead to such confusion. Borrowing a convention used to differentiate ordinary Muslims from radical ones is clever but problematic. (Someone once coined “Shiite Baptists” for conservative Christians, which at least has the virtue of being amusing.) The problem is that there is very little similarity between even non-jihadist Islamists and American religious conservatives this side of Tim McVeigh. As Sullivan himself notes, the former seek a fusion of state and mosque–a theocracy; the latter seek to influence the moral code of the nation through secular politics. This is roughly the difference between the moon and moon pie.

Leaving aside any relation between Islamism and Sullivan’s “Christianism,” however, his argument is still quite bizarre:

It is the belief that religion dictates politics . . .

Doesn’t it? I mean, if one holds certain moral values as a result of one’s religious beliefs (or, for that matter, for any other reason) does it not follow that this would dictate one’s voting behavior? After all, it’s not just Republican Christian Conservatives who do this but Liberation Theology Catholics and Reform Jews. That values, of whatever provenance, guide one’s voting behavior should be axiomatic.

. . . and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.

This is the essence of government. Should politics not dictate the laws for everyone?! Who should we exclude from the laws of society?

Sullivan presumably means something different: That “Christianists” believe their religiously-inspired values should be imposed on others through the political process. But, presumably, everyone who seeks to influence the political system believes something similar. Are, say, values learned at Oxford and Harvard fit for imposing on society through government? Which value systems are permissible motives for political organization and which are banned?

Sullivan, a self-professed Roman Catholic, wants gay men such as himself to be free to marry other men. Since marriage is an act of the state as well as a sacrament in his church, the only way that can come to fruition is if people like himself can impose their will on the polity, whether by legislation or lawsuit. Are such people “homoists”? [Update: Perhaps, “homosexualists”?]

Sullivan’s cause would be far better served by making the broader libertarian argument about the res publica rather than coming up with creative names for his opponents. There is certainly a case to be made for maximal freedom and limited government. Attempting to delegitimate a sizable plurality of Americans is considerably less effective.

Update: Sully tweaks his formulation here, although not in a way that addresses any of my concerns. His original piece, from which Hewitt quotes, is worth a look as well. Its long prologue reminds readers that Sullivan is not coming from the perspective of a non-believer but rather a devoted Christian who is troubled by faith being used as a political bludgeon.

Also, Randy Piper, a self-described “fundamentalist” Christian, has emailed Sullivan, Hewitt, myself and others with “An Immodest Proposal”:

Let’s have Heritage and/or Cato rise to the challenge and co-sponsor an event on “Religion & Politics: Of Christians & ChristianISTS” … and explore the “right” roles/relationships and limits of religion in government.


Let’s debate it intelligently, rationally, empiricially and faithfully. Let us put the Sullivan thesis to the analytical, historical and empirical test in a think-do tank sponsored event.

And…let’s give an invite to Sojourners Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (2005).

I’d certainly try to attend. Sully and Hewitt are professional debators and would be excellent panelists in such a discussion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. While there are certainly exceptions, the majority or “religious right” that I know bring religion into politics in two ways. 1) The quality of the candidates character. This is not that the candidate is perfect, but would you trust them when your back is turned. This is how Bush, who has some major “sin” in his background can be endorsed by the religious right. He also has some major repentance and acts of redemption.
    2) The morality of positions. Believe it or not, abortion is really seen as murder by a lot of people on the religious right. They see the question of choice as having no more validity as saying a woman should have the choice to kill a person who sexually harasses them. In both cases it may be her body, her choice as to what she does with them, but killing the defenseless unborn is seen as beyond the pale.

    I recently watched a liberal do a double take on this issue. The usual crowd was at lunch and the liberal rhetorically assigned the religious right person (RRP) with supporting school prayer (something the liberal opposed). The RRP surprised him with saying he didn’t support school prayer. And his reasoning was entirely consistent. First, prayer life education was the duty of the family first and the church second. Government shouldn’t be in that business. Second, government is a pretty inefficient mechanism. He didn’t trust the government to get it right. Third, the government shouldn’t be in the business of instilling faith. Religious faith is just that … a matter of faith. It isn’t something that is proved by reason. So the school is the wrong place to inject it.

    The liberal was amazed and could only really get behind the third argument. He made a separation of church and state pass at the first argument, but that misses the RRP’s point. He had to acknowledge that government isn’t always the best solution, but remember this is the guy who claimed that national health care wouldn’t be taking the market out of health care as the decisions would be made by the elected officials. The third was closer to his separation of church and state argument.

    When those who don’t interact much with the religious right try to suck up to them or condemn them, it is usual a source of humor for me.

  2. Alan says:

    Sullivan allowed himself to be corrected:

    “I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that the content of religious faith can be defined so precisely that it must also have a precise political agenda.”

    “What’s problematic is the specificity and absolute certainty with which Christianists interpret God’s will on…. These are very difficult questions, and serious, moral people can disagree on them. No one in these areas, it seems to me, can claim a monopoly of divine wisdom – let alone the kind of zealous certainty that demands that such nuances be rigorously enforced by the civil law.”


  3. McGehee says:

    YAJ is right. What those who promote paranoia about the “religious right” want people to understand by the term, is people who believe without question what is said by people like Jerry falwell and Pat Robertson.

    I’m sure there are such people. That they are sufficiently numerous to define a powerful voting bloc, however, is sheer fantasy.

  4. Roger says:

    On this comment, “Should politics not dictate the laws for everyone?!” Ummm, not in this country. Technically, the Constitution should. The need to use the term “technically” in this context is unfortunate, but of necessity given the current disregard for any meaningful role for the Constitution as long as the present admin is in power.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Well, no, politics dictates laws. The Constitution merely acts as a constraint on how politics are carried out.

    I don’t disagree that the question, “Is this law Constitutional?” no longer seems to be a chief concern of policymakers. That didn’t start with the Bush administration. It’s been in full force since FDR and, arguably, since the earliest days of the Republic.

    Once the courts abrogated the power to decide what is and is not Constitutional, the other branches felt relieved of the burden. Now, “Constitutional” is whatever the courts let you get away with.

  6. floyd says:

    james; great article. i would not assume sullivan’s motives to be even remotely pure.

  7. Roger says:

    I’ll split the difference with you, James. Politics plays a role, yes, but it’s supposed to end where the Constitution begins. We seem to be in agreement that it no longer does

  8. James Joyner says:


    The problem is that we long ago decided that the Constitution means whatever 5/9 of the Supreme Court thinks it means at any moment in time. That renders it into a shifting political document rather than the sacred basis of our system.

    Vis-a-vis the religious issue, though, I’d argue that, if anything, we have moved to a much more secularist interpretation than anything the Framers envisioned. Starting in the early 1960s, when the Supremes decided to incorporate the Establishment Clause to the several states via the 14th Amendment, we have been moving decidedly opposite the direction Sullivan claims were are headed.

  9. Mr Joyner seems to be perpetuating an urban legend here:

    The problem is that there is very little similarity between even non-jihadist Islamists and American religious conservatives this side of Tim McVeigh.

    Some try to use McVeigh as an example of a “Christian extremist” but the charge appears to be bogus.

    The evidence does not suggest McVeigh’s politics were at all motivated by any religious views, or that he was even particularly religious.

  10. Roger says:

    The more immediate problem, James, is that we’ve decided the Bush can do whatever he wants no matter what anyone says. The Supreme’s role in interpreting the Constitution was decided while the Founding Fathers still roamed the land. It is legitimate.

    The fiction that the system changed in the 1960s, on the other hand, is repub propaganda to support their own efforts to destroy individual freedoms by imposing increasing restrictions on those freedom through judicial rulings. Supreme rulings recognizing the Constitution’s requirement to protect individual freedoms clearly follow the intent of the Constitution created by the Founders.

  11. Jon Hendry says:

    “Since marriage is an act of the state as well as a sacrament in his church, the only way that can come to fruition is if people like himself can impose their will on the polity, whether by legislation or lawsuit.”

    “The polity” would be entirely unimposed on. Some would be significantly more free than they are currently. The rest would be utterly unaffected, apart from those who occasionally feel the same variety of indignation and loathing experienced by those who believe interracial marriage is wrong.