A reader objects to my distinction between Christian and Christianist

A reader objects to my distinction between Christian and Christianist May 29, 2018

He writes:

I am a long time reader and follower of your blog.  You’re book, By What Authority, had a large part in my return to the Catholic Church.  Thank you for that.  Your consistent stand that we should follow all Catholic teaching has often challenged me and bright me back into alignment with our wonderful Church.

Thanks be to God for your openness to the teaching of the Church!  You encourage me greatly!

One thing that has been troubling me recently it’s your usage of the term Christianist.  Having a term to identify those who hold to the Republican agenda (or whatever other agenda you’d choose) and are Christian is useful and appropriate.  However, I believe that the choice of Christianist is lacking.  Christianist has the specific connotation (at least for me), that they are Christian in name only; not true Christians.  But that is not the case for them. They are Christian, by virtue of their baptism, in spite of their incorrect beliefs and attitudes.  As much as I’d like them to hold correct and fully informed beliefs, they are Christians, just like all of us fallen, but baptised folk.  They are a part of our tribe, regardless of their political affiliations.

Thank you for your thoughtful critique.  We actually agree in large measure.  So, for example, I quite agree that people do not cease to be Christian because of their sins.  This idea is, in fact, a Protestant one and one I came to reject when I entered the Church.  The notion that so and so is not a “real Christian” is a mainstay of Evangelical, not Catholic, thought and leads to a ton of mischief whether the practitioner is an Evangelical or a Reactionary Catholic (who also love donning paper mitres and kicking people out of the Church).  I discussed that problem some years back and do not unsay a word of what I said then.

It is the bishop’s job to excommunicate, not mine.  Any person whom the Church welcomes to communion, I will not try to bar.  God did not die and make me Pope.  I think C.S. Lewis is simply right when he has Uncle Screwtape tell Wormwood:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do — if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner — then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug,” commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

At this point, the question naturally arises, “But, but!  All that stuff you have said about Christianism!  What can you possibly mean but that these people are not Real Christians and should be thrown out of the Church?”

Answer: More C.S. Lewis!  He writes in Mere Christianity:

Far deeper objections may be felt—and have been expressed— against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?” or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to “the disciples,” to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were “far closer to the spirit of Christ” than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

Note that last line because it is everything. Evangelicals (and not a few Catholics who have imbibed Evangelical thinking) automatically assume that if you criticize them you are saying what they themselves mean when they criticize a fellow Christian: that they are “not Real Christians”. This is the standard dodge Evangelicals use to deal with the embarrassment of Christians who behave scandalously. A friend once took a class on the Holocaust from a local rabbi here in Seattle and he read from a vicious medieval diatribe called “On the Jews and Their Lies”. It is not a happy document. When the rabbi asked the class what they made of it, the Evangelicals instantly declared that whoever wrote it was “not a Real Christian”.

It was written by Martin Luther. “Are you telling me Luther was not a ‘Real Christian’?” he asked. They squirmed uncomfortably. A “once saved, always saved” theology demands that Christians who sin gravely have to be explained away as “not Real Christians” because there is no room for saying that Christians can be real, baptized, believing Christians who are also, at times, Bad Christians.

Which brings us back to the problem of Christianists and Christianism. I don’t think Christianists are Not Real Christians[TM]. I think that, insofar as they hold to Christianist ideology–a theopolitical cultus devoted to the defense of every lie and evil act of the Party of Trump–they are bad Christians. Indeed, in some cases I think they are Christians who are sinning gravely. I think that, combined with their intense animus to the teaching of Pope Francis and the Magisterium, the grotesque excuses for Nazis and white supremacists, and their frequent, scandalous contempt for the Faith and worship of money, pleasure and power, they constitute the gravest challenge to the witness of the Church in our time.  I believe that God’s Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of them.  I believe  they are in danger of their souls and that I am obliged, according to Ezekiel 33, to say so lest their blood be on my head.

When I say “in danger” and not “damned” it is because, of course, I cannot know their interior state. But I can say that it is grave matter to, for instance, delectate over the sadistic and cruel deportation of perfectly innocent people.  I can say with confidence that it is evil, sadistic, and a grave sin to rip toddlers away from their parents at the border and to savor the cruelty of that as Christianists do. I can say with confidence that the soul of Christ hates mockery of the disabled–and lying Christianist excuses for it. I can say with confidence that lies in defense of a self-confessed sex predator are evil, that defenses of misogyny are evil, that defenses of mockery of POWs and Gold Star families are evil. I can say that praising Nazis marching under the banner of the swastika as “very fine people” is a stench in the nostrils of God and a scandal to the Gentiles.  I can say that it ranges from imprudent to stupid to wicked to make war on virtually every aspect of the Church’s social teaching as Christianism characteristically does. I can say that using the unborn as human shields to justify that war with arguments like “I don’t care about torturing prisoners to death. The real torture is abortion” nauseates God.

All this and much more is done constantly by Christianists: that is say, by people who live out (to the degree they do this) what Jesus warns of when he says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?”

Jesus commands, not suggests, that we are to beware of false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing. He commands, not suggests, that we are test the fruit of those who purport to bring the gospel. The term that I think usefully describes this vile false gospel in this hour is “Christianism”. I believe it to be diabolical. And I believe it is crucial for disciples of Jesus to distinguish sharply between this false gospel and the teaching of the Church. Our witness to the world is at stake and we must state clearly that this bizarre, sadistic, cruel, and power-hungry parody of the gospel is not what Jesus commands or wills.

Does this mean I am without sin?  Of course not.  And when I sin I need people to tell me to repent.  But I am not thereby obliged shut up.  I am obliged, rather, to speak lest the witness of the Church and the good of souls be endangered.   And I am obliged to hope for, not write off, those who have embraced Christianism since, “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”

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