Evangelicalism and the Semantics of Religion

If you grew up in an evangelical home, like I did, you likely grew up hearing that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. The idea was to draw a contrast between Christianity, and other religions—other religions require rituals and rules and religious hierarchy, but Christianity requires no more than having a relationship with Jesus. Or so the evangelical line went—and still goes.

The need of the hour is to distinguish and differentiate between “religion” and Christianity. Most people in the Western world have so long identified these terms and thought them to be synonymous and equivalent, that it takes a sharp can-opener of rational argument, or the sharper still “word of God” (Heb. 4:12), to reveal the contrasting dichotomy between Christianity and “religion.”

In reality, of course, evangelicalism had its own rituals—the production around praise choruses at evangelical megachurches, designed to create a specific atmosphere and elicit specific emotions, could itself be seen as a ritual—and its own religious hierarchy, its own rules and walls and barriers that were enforced. Evangelicalism was never just about an individual, personal relationship with Jesus.

But my primary goal, here, is not to deconstruct this idea abut to point to problems that can result from playing semantics with terms like religion.

In recent years it has become popular in evangelical circles to argue that Islam is not a religion—that it is instead a political ideology—and even, in some cases, that Islam should therefore not receive first amendment protection.

Last year, the editor of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s newspaper wrote this:

… Islam may be more of a geo-political movement than a religion. Reza F. Safa, once a devout and practicing Shi’ite Muslim and now a minister of the Gospel, has written, “Recognizing Islam as a system of religious belief is the gravest mistake that the Western governments have made in this era.”

Jody Hice, former Baptist pastor and U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 10th congressional district, stated in his book It’s Now Or Never: A Call To Reclaim America, “Although Islam has a religious component, it is much more than a simple religious ideology. It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”

Hice continued, “Most people think Islam is a religion; it’s not. It’s a totalitarian way of life with a religious component. But it is much larger. It’s a geo-political system that has governmental, financial, military, legal, and religious components. And it’s a totalitarian system that encompasses every aspect of life and it should not be protected [under U. S. law].”

As Mother Jones notes, this idea has traveled from the fringe to the White House:

Gorka’s evasive comments nodded to a fringe concept that’s been floating for more than a decade: the idea that Islam is not a legitimate religion, but a dangerous political ideology. This idea has gained new currency as Trump has elevated some of its adherents to the highest levels of his administration. At a conference last summer, Lt. General Michael Flynn, who would become Trump’s initial pick for national security adviser, told an audience, “I don’t see Islam as a religion. I see it as a political ideology that…will mask itself as a religion globally, and especially in the West, especially in the United States, because it can hide behind and protect itself by what we call freedom of religion.” …

Last July, Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart who is now the president’s chief strategist, told Mother Jones that Islam is “a political ideology.” …

This idea found a place within evangelicalism some time ago:

In 2007, Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have to recognize that Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination of the world. And it is meant to subjugate all people under Islamic law.” In 2010, former Lt. General Jerry Boykin, then the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, stated that Islam “should not be protected under the First Amendment, particularly given that those following the dictates of the Quran are under an obligation to destroy our Constitution and replace it with Sharia law.”

The argument here is that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion, and that it therefore does not qualify for first amendment protection. This leaves me with a question. If Christianity is a relationship, not a religion, does it qualify for first amendment protection? A facetious question I know, but one that points to the problem of playing semantics with the word religion.

When evangelicals and others argue that Islam is a political ideology and not a religion, they almost certainly have Christianity in the religion category in their minds. And yet, I suspect many of these same individuals would turn around and say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. It’s about what category is most convenient—they justify denying first amendment protection to Muslims by calling Islam a political ideology, not a religion, and they exempt Christianity from charges of legalism or dogmatism by calling it a relationship, not a religion.

Oxford defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” By this definition—which as far as I can see is how the term is widely used and understood—it’s crystal clear that both Islam and Christianity are religions. Perhaps rather than playing semantics, evangelicals would be better served by explaining, in commonly understood English, what they mean. Is Christianity different from other religions in certain ways? Is Islam different from other religions in certain ways? A substantive discussion on questions like these would be far more productive than any semantics game.

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