There is an interesting back and forth going on between Ramesh Ponnuru and Andrew Sullivan. Both men define themselves as "Christians." Sullivan is a gay, cafeteria Catholic. Ponnuru is a doctrinaire Catholic. Sullivan takes on the theocrats/Christianists. Ponnuru falls into the Catholic theocon camp. I want to comment on one point of Ponnuru's criticism of Sullivan. Ramesh writes:
Note also that Sullivan has recently taken to asserting that these "Christianists" are not "real" Christians, or religious believers. (See, for example, here.) I have never said, and would never say, anything similar about Sullivan. I would say that he is a Christian who is seriously misguided about some things. I would also say that he is a voice for intolerance in our public life; and one who deludes himself that he is the opposite.
It seems that Sullivan is turning the rhetoric of Christianists against them, giving them a taste of their own medicine. Ponnuru, as an orthodox believer, is, I suppose, being conciliatory in not challenging Sullivan's status as a Christian. But many many orthodox believers/fundamentalists would absolutely challenge Sullivan's calling himself a "Christian," with a big, "no you aren't." They, the fundamentalist orthodox believers who think the Bible is the absolute word of God, are the real Christians and the others aren't. It's Truth in black and white. Perhaps Ponnuru is conciliatory because he is a Catholic in predominately Protestant nation and until recently and even today (see Bob Jones University) some Protestant Christianists refuse to recognize Catholics as "real Christians."
What most people don't realize is that Sullivan's rhetorical tactic exactly parallels John Adams's. Yes, a similar issue (who is a "real Christian"?) was debated during the Founding. No, homosexuality, abortion, etc., were not the subject of debate; rather other issues of orthodoxy were -- things like religious liberty, the divinity of Jesus, eternal damnation, miracles and prophesies in Scripture which seemed to contradict the laws of nature and science. Both Jefferson and Adams called themselves "Christians," but took personal theological positions which bucked the prevailing orthodoxy of the day. Both Jefferson and Adams were theological Unitarians, disbelieved in Eternal Damnation, disbelieved the inerrancy of Scripture, etc. In short, they believed things which would cause the Christianists of the day (the Trinitarian-orthodox Christians) to say: "You aren't real Christians; you are infidels." (Interestingly, Jefferson's and Adams's most vehement criticisms of orthodox Christianity were taken from their private correspondence. The Founding-era Christianists already started questioning Jefferson's orthodoxy and calling him an infidel for some of the things he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia which were far tamer than what we see in his letters. Adams's Federalist clergy supporters, in his election against Jefferson, would probably have flipped out had they known Adams's theological views were every bit as radical as Jefferson's.)
So how did Adams respond to the notion that he wasn't a "real Christian"? In a letter to Jefferson, discussing these very issues of orthodoxy, Adams wrote: "The Calvinist, the Athanasian divines ... will say I am no Christian. I say they are no Christians, and there the account is balanced."
Note, Calvinist Christians and Roman Catholics were probably the two groups of orthodox believers whom Jefferson and Adams most criticized. They were not "real Christians." Both of those religions also had terrible track records on religious liberty/persecution issues. And religious liberty was one of the most important concerns to Jefferson, Adams, and most of the other key Founders. A big effort was made by many during the Founding era to reconcile Christianity with religious liberty and toleration. Locke was revered because he did so; Calvin and the Roman Catholic Clerics were reviled because they did not.
So, right off the bat, if your understanding of Christianity didn't embrace religious liberty, you weren't a "real Christian," according to Jefferson and Adams. In today's day and age, basic issues of religious liberty are settled in the West (though not in Islam). Sullivan et al. are trying to use a similar rhetorical flourish on broader issues of tolerance: Real Christians are not intolerant firebrand fundamentalists, but rather kind-hearted tolerant folks who, in Sullivan's words, "have no problem living next to an atheist or a gay couple or a single mother or people whose views on the meaning of life are utterly alien to them--and respecting their neighbors' choices. That doesn't threaten their faith. Sometimes the contrast helps them understand their own faith better."
Many today use a similar rhetorical ploy on Islam. Islam, properly understood, is a religion of peace (or so they say). And Bin Laden et al. pervert what at its heart is a noble creed. We are projecting our desires onto Christianity and Islam, calling "real Christians" or "real Islam" that which we desire it to be (that which is most compatible with modern liberal cosmopolitan societies). A few months ago, writing in the New York times, Mark Lilla nailed it when he wrote that our Enlightenment imbibed Founders "made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational."
Yes, Jefferson and Adams desired that Christianity liberalize doctrinally, and become more sober and rational. The problem, though, is that some of our, and some of Jefferson's and Adams's, prescriptions for "doctrinal liberalization" strike at the heart of what some people consider their faith to be. Religious liberty is one thing for Christianity. Jefferson and Adams positively desired that Christianity would come to reject the notion that Jesus was God.
In today's world, the hard questions include, is Islam really compatible with the notion of religious liberty and a pluralistic society? I hope to God it is, but I'm not confident. Is traditional orthodox Christianity compatible with gay equality (social acceptance of and state recognition of gay relationships)? Again I hope to find some understanding where fundamentalists can accept gay equality, but parts of the Bible, and longstanding tradition in those circles clearly condemn homosexual relationships.
But, in any event, issues like "who is a real Christian?" and what kind of religion works best in liberal societies, are not new and have a special connection to our Founding.