If an obsession is “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind”, I admit that there may be some truth to be found in applying that label to me, as a participant in the world as it currently is. It’s hard not to be preoccupied with things in our shared reality at the moment. We live in this world – albeit differently than has been the case in the past, since the ongoing pandemic has caused changes to the ways in which we interact with others and receive and process information – but I make every attempt to continue to engage with the world progressively and positively, contributing where and how I can in discussions and debates about subjects that affect all of us.
I also do my best to actively and respectively listen to others who are discussing such topics, and contribute, at times, my voice, based as it is in my academic and personal background, in an attempt to help make manifest the necessary outputs of these conversations. Identifying issues is the first step.
I have a limited social media presence. My platform is hardly wide-reaching but I value the connections I have made and the ideas that I have seen shared, whether or not I agree with those ideas all – or even some of – the time. Multiple perspectives lead to better conclusions.
That said, there are things about which I remain adamant. Contributions to vital conversations – even those that are described as ‘opinions’ – need to based in fact for them to be of value. Our increased reliance on opinion pieces – and the citation of those opinions as ‘truths’ – is largely the reason why we find ourselves in this quagmire of ‘truthiness’ – the term coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 that became a harbinger of our 2022 (media) reality. In discussing the meaning behind the word, he noted that “it used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty.”
Although I’m not longer in academia, I remain an academic – specifically a historian of religions, with my area of specialization being the history of Christianity. As a historian – and as a teacher of history – I have always emphasized two things above all else: context and definition of terms. Without those things, discourse is restricted to individual or group perceptions that obscure, rather than illuminate, known actualities.
A number of American scholars, Dr. Chrissy Stroop (@C_Stroop) among them, have been sounding alarm bells about the rise of Christian Nationalism in the US for a number of years. Dr. Stroop brings to the discussion her own academic background, as well as her lived experience as an ex-Evangelical. In well-written and -researched articles for journals such as Religion Dispatches (check out her most recent article https://religiondispatches.org/media-fail-to-acknowledge-that-2024-hopeful-ron-desantis-is-as-catholic-as-biden/), she highlights the continuing trend of dismissing authoritarian Christians as ‘fake Christians’ or ‘not Christian’.
I have, at times, added my voice to those dissenters who continue to dismiss these articles, providing counter-arguments to the claim that Christian Nationalists are not Christian. Since they are. Absolutely. Contextually and as the term is defined. I admit that the ability to do is limited in the form of a tweet – but I have, on many occasions pointed to scholarship in the history of Christianity that supports the claims of authoritarian Christians to use that descriptor. I’ve had extended conversations with people who wish to engage and discuss this in good faith, and I’ve done my best to ignore those who adamantly stick to their ahistorical and truthy assertions.
On this subject, relatively recently, Canada has entered the chat. We are seeing, lately, more (welcome) discussion about the existence of these authoritarian Christians in Canada and their influence on our political systems. They are not new players – but they are being provided with larger platforms alongside the rise of right-wing politicians and special-interest groups.
This week, an opinion column appeared in a Canadian newspaper discussing the rise of the right in Canada. I won’t cite the paper or the author, since he has asked that I keep my obsession out of his timeline, and I ask my followers to do the same. I have followed his posts for the past number of years – appreciating his voice and his perceptions, coming as they do from a specific context that is far different than my own. I responded to the article in a tweet that expressed this appreciation – and the highlighting of the severity of the movement as it continues to gain fuel and support in our era of truthiness – but asked, with courtesy, in my opinion, that he re-examine the assertion (that appears in the headline, as well as in the body of the piece) that Canadian Christian Nationalist are not Christian.
That ask led to a couple of exchanges, culminating in the suggestion that I am ‘obsessed’ and don’t discuss, rather that I ‘post constantly’ and then (apparently) induce my followers (who amount to a fraction of his own) to pile on with ‘abuse and insults.’ Fair enough. He is absolutely within his rights to decide what is permissible on his page. But the reaction struck an upsetting chord for me.
Here, in the Canadian context, was a direct illustration of the ascendancy of opinion over fact. Presenting the opinion that Christian Nationalists are not Christian AS fact is extremely problematic.
At is most basic, Christianity is defined as “a monotheistic Abrahamic religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.” To say that Christian Nationalists don’t have their interpretation of the person and teachings of Jesus as foundational in their (often varying) worldview/s is factually inaccurate.
Still, that these interpretations diverge – significantly, I’ll admit – from the interpretations of other Christians is factually accurate. But asserting that the latter’s interpretations are the only – let alone the “right” – interpretations of a religion that has seen myriad transformations and has multiple, culturally and ideologically diverse manifestations in its 2000-year history, is both remarkably arrogant and entirely unhelpful.
Christian Nationalism is a product of the context of American – and Canadian – historical and social environment. It being used as a tool to further particular ideologies that are in opposition to progressive ideas that source themselves in different interpretations of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not the first to do so – and won’t be the last.
Despite requesting that I cease carrying on the conversation about Christian self-identity (which I did), he continued the discussion and commented that “it is not a great idea to define a theology or an ideology by the slogans of its least sophisticated adherents.” While I understand the temptation of that stance (and certainly agree with the ‘least sophisticated’ part as it applies to some Christians under discussion), historically those ‘less sophisticated’ Christians have, indeed, created and amended the belief and praxis of the religion since its early centuries. Its multi-tentacled reach has evolved – and often devolved – depending on temporal, geographic and cultural context – and the reality is that Christianity is not one thing as its defined in one place in one time. Arguing otherwise denies the truth of its history.
The assertion that Christianity can be defined by only one interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus is both ahistorical and exclusionary – when it isn’t just nonsensical. Denying someone self-identification because their definition of the thing is not aligned with yours isn’t something that the ‘they’re not Christian’ commentators would do when speaking of the culturally-specific practices of different denominations, so it is incongruous to do so when discussing the assertions of those closer to home.
I take no issue at all with those who practice Christianity using their interpretation of the life and ministry and message of Jesus as being one of social progress, love and kindness. There is all kind of support – scriptural and otherwise – for that theology, and it provides an indisputably wonderful model to follow as a way of moving through the world. But that interpretation isn’t the only theology that dictates practices and attracts adherents across the world. Not historically, and not currently, either. The religion started with fights about different interpretations of the person and teachings of Jesus.
Many of my beloved Gnostics (of all their various stripes) self-identified as Christian – yet their theologies were deemed heretical and antithetical to the theologies of many of their contemporaries. Non-Christians of the time didn’t see what the big differences were, and generally dismissed such discussions as in-fighting among the adherents of the new movement – and, in this, they weren’t wrong. The early centuries of Christianity were the picture of diversification of theology and practice. It’s not possible to note even one example of absolute coherence in Christian theology in Antiquity. Since day one Christians have been working it out. Jewish Christian? Pauline Christian? Gnostic Christian? They were still trying to land on something they could agree on in Nicaea in 325. And again in 787. And again in… I realize that non-historians hate it when historians throw out dates, so I’ll let you go look for other instances of council gatherings with the goal of establishing the doctrines and practices of the Christianity/s of the time.
And it becomes even more convoluted as we move through time. Was the Eastern Church Christian, or was it the Roman? Followers of Luther? Knox? Henry’s Church of England? Mormons? Quakers? Christian Scientists? Pentecostals? Los Penitentes? Seventh Day Adventists?
The point is that there is no one group that holds the singular mantle of “Christian”, and excluding others from the designation based on limited elements – specific, non-universal interpretations of the life and teaching of Jesus – is nothing more than truthiness. As Dr. Stroop points out in her article “About those Trump Voters for God? Stop Calling them “Fake Christians”:
From an empirical, outside perspective–one informed by such fields as history, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, etc.–we must accept that there are a wide variety of Christian communities with competing theological claims. And since we have no universal grounds to appeal to on which to adjudicate these claims, we must accept these varied groups as Christian, as representing varieties of Christianity.
Dismissing Christian Nationalists (whether Canadian or American) as ‘not Christian’ or ‘fake Christians’ shuts down any possibility of rational dialogue since it is founded in perception rather than fact. This slippery slope is at the heart of the tension between truth and truthiness.
Denying that the call is coming from inside the house – as is the wont of many progressive Christian commentators – is little different than cries of ‘not all men’ when occurrences of abuse are exposed, and adds nothing to the provision of solutions that we need to stem the tide of this type of authoritarianism in our political and social systems. ‘Us versus them’ is always a precarious stance when working to affect positive change.
Am I obsessed? Perhaps. I am certainly preoccupied with concerns about what a Canada with Christian Nationalist political leadership will look like. We have exemplars in the US sending all the cautionary tales we could ask for our way. To ensure that we don’t end up in a similar situation we need to be speaking the same language – and permitting particular, specific, biased definitions of terms to be platformed as a matter of course detract from our ability to address such threats head-on. Many versions of Christianity that I have encountered are ones that live the interpretation that Jesus of Nazareth’s mission was one of inclusion. Excluding those who self-describe as brethren from the fold serves only increase division between those who identify Christian Nationalism as the real and present danger that it is.
Am I a militant and humourless atheist? Not last I looked. They certainly exist – I’ve written about them before. I do not promote division, hate or random insults directed at those who engage with sincerity and openness when presenting opinions – those who acknowledge that opinions are just that. I actually find a great deal of beauty in Christianity and its expressions of faith and practice. I love its texts – especially the non-canonical ones. My academic life would have been pretty miserable if I spent it looking at stuff I disdain. But if there are those who want to label and dismiss me based in a superficial examination of texts about cats and baseball and yes, Christian Nationalists being Christians, then so be it. I’d hope for a more responsible use of a far more wide-reaching public platform than I can claim, but what are you going to do? Truthiness gonna truthy.
I will continue to maintain that narrow definitions of Christianity – that exclude all those who don’t believe/interpret/practice exactly in the way that is “right” – according to some, not all, more mainstream Christians – puts an end to serious discussion before it can begin. Christian Nationalism exists – it IS Christian – and we absolutely can NOT let it get more of a hold of our Canadian political and social systems. The ever-growing examples of what can happen if it does play out daily to the south of us.