Christian: The Politics of a Word in America
by Matthew Bowman
Harvard University Press, 2018
History professor Matthew Bowman observes in his wise and absorbing new book Christian:The Politics of a Word in America that the term “Christian” in American history “always resists collapse into a single definition.” American Christians, he points out, ceaselessly use the word, but “it has no essential, normative meaning.”
Instead, in the last three hundred years it's been used in every conceivable partisan way, as invitation and bludgeon, as warning and password. In deeply-researched chapters ranging across the whole of American history but concentrating on the last 100 years, Bowman takes readers through an impressively wide-ranging examination of the many roles Christianity has played in society. The major phases of Catholic and Protestant interaction with local and national politics are described in lean, accessible prose (needless to say, a book on this subject could easily be four times the length of the 300 pages it gets here), and the narrative's tension always derives from the constant fluctuations of public reaction to the presence of organized religion on the national stage – particularly in the 21st century. “A month before voters chose between Obama and Romney, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life was reporting that the number of 'nones' in America, people who professed belonging to no specific religion, had grown to about one in five adults – an all-time high,” Bowman writes. “As the Pew Forum described these people, 'they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental, or insincere.'”
Hypocritical insincerity on the subject of religion has of course been at a sustained fever-pitch volume since the 2016 Presidential election, which placed a racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron in the Oval Office, a man who very, very obviously has no religious beliefs of any kind and whose personal history of mistresses, extramarital affairs, coerced abortions, and piles of hush-money should have made him a living, breathing antiChrist for even the most otiose big-tent religious blowhard. The exact opposite has happened, and the ensuing months have demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt at least one implication of Bowman's contention that the very word “Christian” has no essential meaning in American life.
The book necessarily grapples with the subject of Donald Trump in its final section, and here as everywhere else Bowman's insights are clear and well-put:
While to many of Trump's critics, the candidate's evident unfamiliarity with Christian ideas disqualified him from claiming the faith, for some white Christians, the way Trump spoke about the relationship between Christianity and the nation reflected a long tradition of identifying Christianity with the concept of “Western civilization,” which they associated with democratic government, individual liberty, and a white European heritage. Indeed, many white evangelicals believed that America was afflicted with a non-Christian elite whose lack of faith was degrading these values.
And if you happened to notice a certain word popping up over and over again in that excerpt, you wouldn't be mistaken. Christian also reads as a cutting commentary on race in America.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.