Who owns the word “Christian"? Matthew Bowman plunges readers headlong into the political tensions behind American Christianity in his new book, “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”
"CHRISTIAN: The Politics of a Word in America," by Matthew Bowman, Harvard University Press, 304 pages (nf)
On July 28, 2010, author Anne Rice left the Catholic church, saying, “Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. … My conscience will allow nothing else."
Who owns the word “Christian?" Who has the right to call themselves a Christian, while another is a cultist, a materialistic hedonist, or a “non-Christian who embraces Biblical values” (as Mike Huckabee once described Mitt Romney)? In America, our modern notion of Christianity comes via a battle of political underpinnings. For some, Christianity demands an emphasis on individual liberty, free market capitalism, and the traditions of Western Europe. For others, Christianity requires social justice, equality and a rejection of human institutions. Matthew Bowman plunges us headlong into the political tensions behind American Christianity in his new book, “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”
Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University, understands how political debates form and inform faith, a topic he has explored in his prior books “The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith” and “The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism.” Here, Bowman illustrates through a series of anecdotes that Christianity has had changeable and politically convenient definitions from the end of the Civil War through the present day.
For example, some Americans felt that Ulysses S. Grant represented true Christianity, a force for human equality through government intervention; at the same time, others defended Horace Greely for president as the “Christian candidate” who would free government from the “corrupt centralized power” of wealth, industrialization and autocratic government. Which supporters had the truly Christian candidate?
Key to the political use of the Christian label is the strategic deployment of its antithesis, the theme of “materialism,” an equally malleable term which connotes the corruption of Christian principles and the denial of its fundamental claims. As Bowman notes, materialism serves “to define the boundaries of the religious and the secular in American politics” — whatever is Christian is vital to the republic, whatever is materialism is a central threat. Unsurprisingly, Christians on both sides of political issues repeatedly refer to their opponents' views as materialism. Various trends and tools, such as the advent of psychology, become useful to box in their opponents as well as to set community boundaries.
Protestants at American universities at the end of World War I establish courses in “Western civilization,” strongly identifying their flavor of Christianity with a particular form of narrative of Western European history and social priorities. In time, this enables the religious conservatives to speak to the American “tradition” of Christian ethics as a lever towards their political goals. But the definitions remain elusive regardless; hence in the early 1950s some Marxists decried the greed and corruption of government as anti-Christian materialism, while most mainstream Americans considered Marxism's erasure of gender roles, self-determination and capitalism to be materialism. Bowman navigates these contradictions and oppositions with clarity and concision.
Bowman's book is not merely for those curious about American history. The definition of Christian is more pressing than ever, with mainstream evangelicals aligning with President Donald Trump, himself a notorious hedonist who some have improbably labeled a champion of Christianity — while at the same time denying the Christianity of the very publicly Christian former President Barack Obama. The fairly recent advent of religious conservatives has been accompanied by an intense narrowing of the Christian definition, associating American Christianity with Jerry Falwell and Robert Jeffress, while ignoring or denying the claims of others such as Jeremiah Wright or Dorothy Day.
Bowman does not take sides in this debate — his job is not to settle the matter of who really is Christian or not. Rather, his approach is to illustrate that there has always been intense public debate over the word. The result is a fascinating examination of the twists and turns in American Christianity, showing that the current state of political/religious alignment was not necessarily inevitable, nor even probable. The future of Christian ideas and language remains open and promising.