Sunday, October 21, 2007

"Deeply Christian"

I recently discovered the online debates between Jonah Goldberg and Peter Beinart hosted on NRO. In the course of a debate about Larry Craig, Peter made the obiter dictum that religious conservatives greeted Hilary Clinton's recent claim that she was "deeply Christian" with reactions ranging from skepticism and scorn. Peter's criticized this reaction as flowing from our belief that being a Christian ontologically entailed our particular political platform. Jonah countered that religion was largely creedal, and would therefore tend in that direction, although he was not specific.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the demonstrated character of the Clintons and their policy positions. I want to focus on the phrase, "deeply Christian."

Jonah is correct that Christianity is creedal: "If you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, and confess with your lips that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10) It is in these terms that Christians (or Protestants anyway) perceive themselves and others. But it goes further than that. By making a statement of faith, we are making a statement about something that forms the core of our identity, something that we are; it is only secondarily about something that we do.

This understanding drives the language that we use to talk about it. Ask us about our religion, and we will reply, "We are Christians," or "I am a Christian." Although we might describe behavior as Christian or un-Christian, I struggle to think of a context in which we would describe ourselves as "Christian" in an adjectival sense.

So the reason I am skeptical of Hilary's claim to be "deeply Christian" is that it rings false. (This is assuming that the quote is what it appears to be; I was unable to locate a source for the story or the context in which the quote was said to be made.) Hilary is lying out of ignorance (which I doubt) or she is choosing her words carefully to send an important cultural signal: she is avoiding making a declaration of her ontological identity or, more specifically, a statement of where her religious loyalties lie. And in that avoidance, she is communicating to her largely secular constituency that she is NOT one of the enemy.

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