Imagine a libertarian Christianity, which urged individuals to give away as much of their property as possible to the poor, to forget about the sex lives of their neighbors and focus on their own, to pray more than politic and to forgive more than to judge. Imagine, in other words, Christianity, and remind yourself how alien Christianism is to it.

So asked Andrew Sullivan (who we here at are grateful to have as an occasional reader of this blog) last week on his blog The Daily Beast. Christianism, according to Sullivan, “is the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals.” His recommendation for a more privatized expression of the Christian faith has, I think rightly, received criticism. Alan Jacobs illustrates how Sullivan’s view of “Christianism,” if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead him also to denounce the actions of Martin Luther King. King, writes Jacobs rhetorically,

could have stayed in his prayer closet instead of politicking; he could have attended to his own failures as a Christian, which of course were many; he could have forgiven white Southerners instead of judging them. But no. He became an “outside agitator,” marching into ordinary American communities and telling them that their local laws, and indeed in some cases federal laws, were not to be obeyed — and why? Because they conflicted with the law of God! Notice the arrogance with which he associates his cause with God Himself. He even asserts that “human progress” only happens when “men [are] willing to be co-workers with God.” His whole vision for America is Christian and Biblical through and through: in his most famous speech he simply identifies the American situation with that of the Biblical Israel: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'” Talk about “the desire to control other people’s lives and souls”!

“Christianism” is pretty antithetical also to the Catholic social mission of the church, which has found its expression in the United States in a wide range of political and very public actions. Was it “Christianism” that led the World Synod of Catholic Bishops to write in Justice in the World

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (6).

Or was “Christianism” at work in Vatican II during the drafting of Gaudium et spes, which, in almost direct contradiction of Sullivan, states forcefully,

It is no less mistaken to think that we may immerse ourselves in earthly activities as if these latter were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfilment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations.

One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and their day-to-day conduct. As far back as the Old Testament the prophets vehemently denounced this scandal, and in the New Testament Christ himself even more forcibly threatened it with severe punishment.

Let there, then, be no such pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and religious life on the other. Christians who shirk their temporal duties shirk their duties towards his neighbor, neglect God himself, and endanger their eternal salvation (43).

Was it “Christianism” that motivated Archbishop Hunthausen, Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Dorothy Day, Cardinal Bernardin, and a whole host of other influential Catholics to fuse “politics and religion for the advancement of political goals”? I’d say it was not “Christianism” but real, authentic, post-Augustinian Christianity at work in all these cases. Christianity, especially in the way Catholics see it, is imminently public and political. It demands that Christians attend closely to the “signs of the times” and seek to change those laws, practices, and structures which violate the tenets of the faith, especially when it comes to affirming and protecting the dignity of all human beings, attending to the needs of the poor, affirming the family as the fundamental unit of society, and working for the protection of all of God’s creation.

For Catholics, the “live and let live” attitude that Sullivan endorses is simply not a viable option when there are clear affronts to human dignity and rights at work in the world. While Sullivan is clearly frustrated with the religious right’s efforts to ban gay marriage or make abortion illegal, these actions too are part of the Church making an effort to act out her social mission, just as much as it is the Church making an effort to act out her social mission that led Catholics to criticize the Iraq war, to advocate for the protection of the poor and elderly in budget cut debates, and to lobby for universal health care (a position Sullivan himself supports). The rubber hits the road when it comes to debating how best to prudentially achieve the goals of the Church’s social mission. But when well-meaning members of the Church disagree, on gay marriage, say, the solution is not to get rid of the social mission altogether and relegate Christianity to a private quest for personal holiness while the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket.

I think Sullivan knows all this. In response to Jacobs’ quote above, he writes that

King’s Christianism was crucially leavened by his manifest Christianity. I’d argue that it was his and his movement’s moral example of Christian non-violence that truly changed America’s heart and broke the politicized Christianist deadlock between the two camps. He didn’t just preach his faith as politics, but he practised it in a way very close to Christ’s, seeking punishment, enduring imprisonment, and risking death, to bear witness to a deep moral truth about the dignity of every person. This submission to violence, rather than its gun-totin’ celebration, is what distinguishes King’s Christianism from so much of today’s. It embraced its powerlessness, as a paradoxical way to change the world. And that, truly, is Christianity more than Christianism. It is an indirect approach to power.

Maybe what Sullivan meant to say was that the social mission of the Church should trump political ideology, and there I think he would be right. When labels like “Republican” or “Democrat” or “conservative” or “liberal” are more important than the words of scripture or the tradition of the Church, we clearly have a problem. Maybe what Sullivan really has a problem with is not the fusion of religion and politics to advance the goals of politics, but rather the fusion of religion and politics to advance the narrow goals of a particular political party. If this is what Sullivan means by “Christianism,” he has identified a real problem indeed. The solution, then, is not libertarian Christianity, which I would argue is actually a contradiction in terms, but rather, a more authentic and consistent Christianity at work in the public square.