American Christianity as Cultural Signifier

Elizabeth Stoker BruenigElizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote a very thought provoking article, Is Obama a Christian or Not? It’s Almost Impossible to Say. It is following off Scott Walker’s comment that he didn’t know if Obama was a Christian. Bruenig is a PhD student in religion at Brown University. I’ve quoted her before. She’s brilliant on issues of religion. And she is very insightful here. Basically, she says there is no way to know if anyone is a Christian unless you know them really well. But then she goes on to discuss just how poorly defined “Christian” is. Although I appreciate what’s she’s getting at, I think she is missing the point because she takes religion far more seriously than Americans in general.

If you ask them, you will see that roughly three-quarters of Americans consider themselves Christians. That’s too high a figure to mean anything. That’s “do you believe that motherhood is a good thing” range. If we drilled down into those numbers, we would find that almost to a person Christians disagree about what it is to be a fellow traveler. Ask one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and they will tell that pretty much none of those other so called Christians qualify. Most mainstream protestants don’t accept Mormonism as Christianity. When I look out on the great sea of American Christianity, I see nothing but indifference and heresy.

So the question is not, “What is it to be a Christian?” The question is, “What is it to be an American Christian?” Because Christianity in American public life has almost nothing to do with religion. “Christianity” is just what all right thinking Americans believe. There is increasing room for other faiths — especially other Abrahamic faiths. But there is really no room to speak of with regard to someone like me: a mystic atheist. If I wanted to go into politics, I simply couldn’t. What I am is, to be blunt, far too theological for the American electorate. They aren’t interested in a discussion of ontology and morality; they just want to hear the magic words, “I’m one of you.”

In this environment, what it means to be a Christian is that one claims to be a Christian. I am not a Christian because I don’t claim to be. You might have some problems with Graham Greene — an avowed atheist — who still called himself a Christian and continued to go through the rituals to his death. But Obama is not questionable at all. He claims to be a Christian. He has a history of going to church. He publicly talks about God in the same way that other American Christians do.

The conservatives can’t have it both ways. They claim that America is a Christian country even though most Christians never go to church and have the vaguest form of faith. (I once heard a “Christian” say he didn’t believe Jesus was the son of God!) But then they want to nullify any given Christian because she doesn’t worship in what the conservatives think is the right way. It’s nonsense. American Christianity is far more a cultural signifier than an actual religion. So looking for clues to prove that Obama isn’t a “real” Christian is just nonsense. And ultimately, it is part of the whole racist “birther” movement that wants to say that Obama is not a “real” American.

4 thoughts on “American Christianity as Cultural Signifier

  1. Blue Gal, aka Fran, from Crooks & Liars talked recently on her podcast about living in the South. At a certain point the overt racism became bad for business, tourism, conventions, and the like. The overt racism was channeled into religious bigotry. Fred Clark has written much about how the political alliance we call the Christian Right was born not in response to Roe, as they now tell themselves, but from the Bob Jones University case. Paul Weyrich tried for years to get them to adopt the Catholic teaching on abortion, but couldn’t make it stick until the Reagan years. And of course it’s a much better issue for them than racism. No matter what the conservative atrocity (torture), we are all just Satanic Baby Killers. And that’s that. Their religion is whatever conservative dogma serves the power elite, and any break with orthodoxy is siding with the Satanic Baby Killers. But it’s really about the old hatreds. White male supremacy.

    • Yeah, I wrote a couple of articles about that work — although it wasn’t in reference to Clark. This is the kind of stuff that I despair about regarding humanity’s long-term chances of survival. It isn’t just “those” people — or even primarily. I see it in myself. I’m constantly trying to appraise my own prejudices. Some of the things that pop into my head are so vile. But I always remember a story that Tim Wise tells about seeing that he was on a plane with two black pilots and freaking out for an instant. These kinds of tribal instincts are deep. And add the selective reporting of crime and you end up with a mess.

      But the most vile are those who knowingly push this kind stuff for political gain — people like Jerry Falwell.

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