When Sarah Palin said that water-boarding was how we baptized terrorist, it was a turning point for my understanding of faith and the role it plays in our culture. I don’t know if I was more offended because of my hatred of torture (or ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’) or my love of baptism and what it represents as a central expression of the faith. Baptism is how we who believe demonstrate that we accept the death-to-self and enter into the life-of-Christ.

I had been asking this question ever since Rumsfeld/Cheney put Bible verses on the covers of their Iraq war briefings to President Bush. That is how I learned about things like ‘master signifiers’, which are symbols such as ‘Christianity’ that have become detached from the meaning that they were originally anchored to. They are un-tethered from the history that originally gave them meaning.

Christianism is disconnected from the faith and tradition that gave it birth. When you see or hear something under the banner of ‘Christian’ that does not seem to reflect the example of Jesus or the teaching of Christ … you may have wandered into the wilderness of Christianism. It uses all the same words that you know … but in foreign and contradictory ways.

Christianism is several degrees removed from the teaching and example of Jesus. It begins in the formation/formalizing of those things (one degree) – then it takes on an authoritarian/hierarchical structure (two degrees) – then, and this is the big one, it is married to power (government/military) so now we are three degrees from the origin. This new orientation becomes solidified/codified as a thing that has its own identity: “Christian” becomes a category by which you can know who is in and who is out – the saved and the lost (fourth degree). This is where bad things done by ‘good people’ can be justified as being beneficial to ‘the cause’ or ‘our side’.

The final stage is when ‘Christian’ is an identity that helps to distinguish us (in-group) from others, NOT depending on ones obedience to the central tenants, following the teachings of the founders, or even knowledge of the distinctions that signify identity to the group. At this point the signifier ‘Christian’ is no longer anchored to anything that it was originally grounded in and no longer connected to the very thing that gave it life and health. ‘Christian’ becomes a floating signifier and is un-tethered from its proverbial mooring (fifth degree).

 We are watching a ‘historical drift’. This is how Sarah Palin can say that water-boarding is how we baptize terrorist. This one statement has it all! We are the in-group. We do this to people with unilateral/coercive power. It is then connected to sacred/holy acts. And finally, we assume that we are doing God’s work when we do things that are opposite/counter to the example of what we say is the incarnation/revelation of our very God.

When something is this far (5 degrees) away from its original intent, folks can start to ask, “how is this connected to that?” The generous/gracious response is ‘loosely’. The concerned response is ‘they are not connected’. The critical response is ‘it is counter to the origin’.

When you add an ‘ism’ to anything it is in danger of becoming a Frankenstein creature that takes on a monstrous life of its own. Examples of this in the U.S. context involve:

  • Democrat-ism: When it is no longer about the democracy but has become about beating the ‘other side’.
  • Republican-ism: When it is no longer about the republic but had been reduced to gun ownership and ‘states rights’.
  • Methodism: When members of Methodist churches can no longer tell you what the ‘methods’ are.
  • Evangelicalism: When those who identify as such cannot tell you what the evangelion is or cannot articulate the ‘good news’ of Jesus’ message.
  • Pentecostalism: When the gift of tongues is no longer about proclamation to those who speak in foreign languages but is about an ‘unknown’ prayer language that edifies the speaker.

These have all become master signifiers that identify an in/out boundary but which no longer re-present the original meaning they once stood for. Our world is full of markers/groups/identities/labels that are so far from what they originally meant that they are not longer tied (tethered) to the thing that used to anchor them.

My concern is that ‘Christian’ no longer signifies one who follows Christ and has instead become an ‘ism’ that designates an us/them distinction that has nothing to do with the teachings or model of Jesus. I get why people are being inventive and using ‘Christ-follower’ or attempting to follow ‘the way of Jesus’. Cynics will mock all they want, but if these innovative monikers are an attempt to protest or defy the ‘ism’ of the dominant expression … I say we ask more questions instead of making snarky and dismissive comments.

They might be onto something.


 Interesting uses of Christianism started appearing between 2003-2005