I have had a whole slew of fascinating conversations this week about the value and function of "Christian identity". These conversations were initially spurred on by the class I'm currently leading on Brian McLaren's newest book, "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multifaith World". McLaren spends most of his time describing HOW we can construct a "strong Christian identity" that does not require us to be hostile to the adherents of other religions. Our class, however, has gotten focused on the question of why Christian identity matters at all.
The fact that these conversations are taking place during an election season has complicated things a bit. This past Thursday, for example, Billy Graham ran a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal urging people to "vote for Biblical values" this coming election including "the sanctity of life" and "the biblical definition of marriage". I found this truly disappointing--I know that Billy Graham is against abortion and gay marriage, but in the past he has really made an effort to be an non-partisan figure, identifying primarily as a Christian evangelist and not as a partisan advocate. The ad confirmed my growing suspicion that politics really does lead the way in most of our belief systems and we find and support the parts of our religion which support our political beliefs.
But then my husband Dan reminded me of some of the research that has been done around beliefs about global warming. When people are asked on surveys whether or not they believe that changes in our climate are due to human activity, their answers align very closely with their political party identification. David Roberts put it this way in his excellent column for Grist:
Say the question is, “Do you believe that climate change is being caused by human activity?” and someone answers, “No, climate change is part of a natural cycle.” For the vast bulk of respondents, that shouldn’t be read as, “Here’s what I’ve concluded based on reasoning through the evidence.” Rather, it’s, “This is what people like me say.” Or perhaps, “The person I see myself as is the kind of person who would say this.” He is performing an act of self-reinforcement, which is essentially a social act, even if he’s alone in the room.
This helps to explain the Graham ad and other appeals like it. The question is not whether the ad expresses Christian beliefs or political beliefs--the ad appeals to people who identitfy, like Graham, as evangelical Christians, and that identity is BOTH religious and political. The ad is simply an assurance by a respected elder that "people like us" can in good conscience vote for a Morman. (Shortly before the ad was published, all references to Mormonism being a "cult" were removed from Billy Graham's website.)
These kinds of appeals are deeply offensive to many people I know who identity as a Christian but who don't share Graham's views on abortion or gay marriage. As a result, these folks (including a number of people in the class I'm leading) end up feeling wary of embracing a "strong Christian identity". The title "Christian" seems to carry with it too much political baggage.
"Hasn't the term "Christian" pretty much outlived its usefulness?" one person asked me this week. Perhaps she's right. I personally prefer as someone who is attempting to follow Jesus than as a "Christian". Other people at KC identify as "ecumenical" or "spiritual" or as a "person of faith". One man in our class called himself, "multi-dimensional".
But all these terms are descriptive--they aren't really identities. And as the research on climate change belief shows, identity is important. It's gives us a lens through which to interpret the tidal wave of information that each of us receives every day. I really don't evaluate every argument independently. I respond and react in large part based on what the groups with whom I identity do. And if my religious community doesn't give me a strong enough identity, there are plenty of others who will happy do the job.
As always, my thoughts are continuing to evolve. Keep those conversations coming. And please add your comments below!