The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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August 30th, 2010 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history

There has been some discussion of late about President Obama’s claim of being Christian. Besides the ones who obliviously presume that he must be Muslim, or parse out of unrelated texts the notion that a presumed birthright to Islam is obligatory, there are others who question whether his Christianity is ‘real’. However, many problems arise when attempting to define Christianity in order to determine whether people should be able to claim membership into this group.

Due to the freedoms we share as citizens of United States, it is exceedingly difficult for any of us to argue about someone’s identity as a Christian. There is no official state church to which all citizens must belong. There is no federally mandated arbiter of Christianity to determine orthodoxy, or who’s in and who’s out. Therefore, we must use other means to determine which faith is what.

We could look to history to determine the source of Christianity. The first rigorously historical reference to Christianity was as the state religion of under Constantine and his descendants. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox traditions both directly trace back to this Imperial state cult, and as such, retain full connections to Christianity.

“Orthodox” means “right thinking”, and it refers to the dogma and revelations of the Roman and/or Orthodox Churches. In our culture, we speak of the Eastern Rite as being “Eastern Orthodox” and the Western as “Roman Catholic”, as if they were distinct nations. But, through descent, both traditions have the same connection to the Christianity of the Roman Empire. Each continued in their own ways, after the fall of Empire, with their own replacements for Imperial authority.

is the opposite of orthodoxy. It is correct to say that heresy is any idea that runs counter to orthodoxy. However, the cleanest definition is that heresy is any idea not promoted by or permitted by Church authority. From a Catholic perspective, heresy is anything that goes against what the Catholic church hierarchy presents. The notion of heresy becomes more complicated outside of the bounds of Catholicism or Orthodoxy.

Protestantism grew out of a conflict over the role of Church authority in and daily life. Several denominations of Protestantism were created that differed in presentation and tone, but none of them looked to the Catholic church to provide authority, or continuation of authority. From this point alone, it can be said that Protestantism is distinct from Catholicism — and as such purely heretical and Not Christian. However, Protestants generally retained the mythology and rites of the Catholic church (that is, the orthodox materials of the Church), and used the word “Christian” to describe their faith. As various forms of Protestantism moved further away from the orthodox mythos and rituals of the Catholic church, all that really remained intact was the injunction to follow church authority.

Protestants will sometimes use the word “heresy” to describe some tradition or belief or even the official pronouncements of the Catholic church. While the point is made that Protestants disagree with Catholics, the word “heresy” is inappropriate due to the fact that it implicitly references Catholic church authority, specifically, over Protestantism. Protestants will always be on the wrong side of this arrangement. Perhaps because Protestants dominate the political landscape in America, this distinction is generally overlooked.

In the US, as mentioned above, there was no ‘state church’ established in the formation of the United States. However, the Spanish and English both had state churches — official, state funded arbiters of religion. Inasmuch as the United States originated as colonies of the Spanish and English crowns, we can say that the colonization of America was “Christian” — because Spain and England were “Christian States”. In New Spain, the Spanish Catholic church held the power to determine what was “Christian”. In the English colonies, it was the Anglican (or English) church that made this determination.

However, when the United States of America was formed, they did so deliberately without naming or declaring a national church — in fact, the establishment of one was expressly forbidden. Anyone could become the arbiter of their own faith — and many people did. During the 19th century, America was rocked by the formation of several new religions that claimed both novel beginnings and ancient roots. Because the US had no federal office that could approve or deny such claims, the only limitation was in these new faiths’ abilities to attract membership willing to pay for infrastructure. The most notable of these today are the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Christian Science, Church of Christ, and the 7th Day Adventists.

Generally, these new American “Christianities” are referred to as “Restorationists”, as they each claim to “restore” Christianity to some imagined prior state. Their only authority is that which their inventors had given themselves — most clearly reject any Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant authorities. These groups are called “Christian” because that is what they called themselves, but this does not imply a shared mythology, dogma, or ritual with any other Christian-faith organization. From a Catholic perspective, Restorationists are obviously heretical since they reject Catholic authority. From a Protestant perspective, the issue is muddied by Protestant rejection of Catholic authority, but there is strong disagreement within these camps regarding the legitimacy of the Restorationist groups.

After setting aside the notion of authority, the idea of what is “Christianity” becomes hopelessly vague and amorphous. Mythology, ritual, and dogma can differ so greatly between Catholic and Protestant denominations that there is very little material consistent between all of them. Adding Restorationists to this mix effectively eliminates whatever consistency might have been cobbled together. The value and validity of the Bible, for example, lies  over several scales of utility and accountability. The very nature of the person of Christ has been a point of debate ever since Constantine.

Thus there exists nothing in America, for Americans, which can be used to accurately and consistently determine whether the label “Christian” has been correctly applied to other Americans. So let’s step away from the question of which faith is “Christianity” and try to apply this in other ways. Let’s think about whether America is a “Christian Nation”.

If we were to say that “Christian States” are those that derived or descended from the post-Constantinian Roman Empire, then the United States is, without question, a “Christian State”. However, this doesn’t speak to the religious beliefs or activities of its people, but instead to the accidents of history, making the distinction meaningless. If we mean “Christian State” to imply an homogeneous theology, we can look to the outrageous diversity of faith traditions from the earliest colonists to the newest immigrants to show that this has never been the case.

Since the US government has continuously refused to endorse any religious tradition, from a political perspective it has never been correct to label the US a “Christian Nation”. It is a nation, and it has many Christian believers in it, but it can only be called a “Christian Nation” in the most ambiguous and general sense that also allows atheists and non-Christians to take part — again making the term meaningless.

Over the past dozen centuries, the word “Christian” has been used to describe a multitude of beliefs, and has been ascribed to many conflicting political actions. It has been stretched and amended and revised so many times that it has lost all of its descriptive meaning and now serves as a general placeholder to name groups of people. Depending on the context, it is completely interchangeable with phrases like “concerned citizen”, “nosy neighbor”, or “abusive spouse”.

In the final review, “Christian” is a self-defined attribute. It doesn’t make any sense for anyone to declare or decry anyone else’s identification as a Christian. If someone says they are, then they are. If they say they aren’t — even if they’ve been baptized and attend services regularly and participate in all the rituals — then they aren’t. This isn’t something that another person can add to or take away from anyone else. This is what “Freedom of Religion” ultimately means.

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