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Identity politics: humanists and cultural Christians: in keeping with the policy of the Humanist to accommodate the diverse cultural, political, and philosophical viewpoints of its readers, this occasional feature allows for the expression of alternative or opposing views on issues of importance to Humanists.

WE ALL DESCRIBE ourselves in numerous ways--by ethnicity, gender, education, career, worldview, and countless other factors. Using a variety of modifiers, we define our identity to the outside world and, importantly, to ourselves.

For many of us, certain aspects of identity are simply taken for granted. For example, if asked for religious identification, almost 90 percent of people in the United States will identify themselves as some type of Christian, usually either Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or of a Protestant denomination.

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that some who identify themselves as Christian do so mainly out of tradition, without any strong belief in underlying Christian doctrine. Many of these "Christians" have serious doubts about such basic Christian notions as the validity of claimed prophecy, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus.

In fact, since only about half the U.S. population attends religious services on any regular basis, we can infer that many of those who don't attend services harbor a certain ambivalence to Christian doctrine. This demographic category can accurately be called "cultural Christian" characterizing those who maintain Christian identity and acknowledge Christianity's major cultural traditions (usually holidays), but who don't necessarily accept Christian beliefs and creeds.

If cultural Christians were deciding their religious identity in a vacuum, it seems doubtful that many would select the Christian identity. But since heritage weighs so heavily, most would rather maintain a superficial connection with the religion of their ancestors than venture into the intellectual wilderness to find an honest religious-philosophical identity. The strong psychological and social tendency to maintain the religious identity of one's family often results in an unwillingness to abandon Christian identity, even when belief in the underlying religious doctrine is weak or nonexistent.

This continued adherence to Christian identity isn't without ramifications. If nearly all Americans, from all parts of the political spectrum, attach themselves to Christianity as a key public identity, then public debates and public policy will inevitably give great weight to Christian rhetoric. If virtually all sides agree, as a foundational matter, that Christianity is a common, almost universal national view, then arguments will often be given a degree of legitimacy simply because they claim a Christian foundation.

This poses a particularly difficult problem for those cultural Christians who also define themselves as liberals or progressives. By utilizing the Christian identity (and rarely acknowledging that views outside the realm of traditional religion are acceptable), liberal cultural Christians ensure that religious conservatives will often be taken seriously when claiming moral righteousness. Moreover, these liberals, because they share the Christian identity with religious conservatives, are in a position where they must give conservative Christian arguments--on school prayer, intelligent design, and a host of other issues--more serious consideration than they would otherwise deserve.

Biblical interpretation becomes another sticking point for cultural Christians and religious conservatives coexisting under the same Christian umbrella. For example, in debate with the religious right, cultural Christians will point to the ethical teachings of the compassionate and tolerant Jesus as an alternative to the harsh rhetoric of the Old Testament, Paul of Tarsus, and the Book of Revelation. This situation--arguing over the modern application of ancient texts--is hardly one that is ripe for a rational discussion of public policy, and cultural Christians should realize the futility of engaging in such a debate.

The debate is futile not only because it gives legitimacy to the conservative Christian position, but also because the religious right has unfortunately succeeded in associating the term "Christian" with conservatism in the national psyche. Certainly, there are those who preach the social gospel, pointing out that Jesus preached compassion for the poor. Nevertheless, the average person psychologically associates Christianity (and Christian morality) with traditional, conservative religion and conservative politics.

In fact, there is some truth to the notion that devout or conservative Christians are the "real" Christians, given that cultural Christians are more likely to urge restraint in interpreting religious doctrine. They are much more likely, for example, to doubt that Jesus was divine, and that ancient men received divine revelation. Moreover, such theological issues may be less important to these more liberal Christians than carrying on the basic ethical message that they associate with Jesus--charity, compassion, and goodwill towards others.

But these cultural Christians overlook the implications of their personal and public religious identification. By continuing to use the "Christian" identity, they indirectly convey large quantities of credibility to the theocrats on the religious right who, after all, are merely another brand of Christian. A liberal cultural Christian can disagree with a conservative Christian who rants about birth control, abortion, intelligent design, or school prayer, but the liberal always risks losing the moral high ground to the conservative, who inevitably seems, in the mind of much of the public, to be the "real" Christian. Rarely can the cultural Christian just dismiss the conservative Christian by saying: "You think the world is six thousand-years old and that evolution is untrue, so I can't take your arguments seriously."

Hence, in many ways the Christian identity has become a great weight, keeping cultural Christians from fully engaging in the public discourse, and giving conservative Christians an undeserved level of legitimacy and credibility.

All of this leads us back to the topic of identity. If we concede that many of the 50 percent of Americans who don't attend regular religious services (and even some who do) fall into the category of "cultural Christian" (that is, more liberal individuals who maintain a Christian identity but don't truly believe most Christian doctrine), and if we also concede that devout religious conservatives derive huge benefits (in terms of legitimacy and authority) by sharing the Christian identity with 90 percent of the U.S. population, then consider the following question: What would happen if a trend developed among cultural Christians whereby many began dropping the "Christian" identity and replacing it with the "Humanist" identity?

In fact, if Humanism is ever going to become a significant movement in the United States, this is how it is likely to happen: millions of cultural Christians, having long ago realized that the basic tenets of Christianity are implausible, will become comfortable publicly stepping away from their Christian identity. The religious right, which has relied on the nation's overwhelming Christian identity as the basis for its legitimacy, would be confronted with significant social and political change.

If the notion of millions of cultural Christians shedding their Christian identity seems unlikely, consider what Ellen Goodman said in a tribute to Betty Friedan about sparking social movements: "The most powerful catalyst for change ... is when people learn what they already know." Surely, the typical cultural Christian already knows that the religion of his or her ancestors is grounded in an ancient, hopelessly outdated worldview. If a trend away from Christian identity developed among cultural Christians, the appeal of such an exodus could quickly become apparent to millions.

If this is even partially true, it would be difficult to argue that any priority should rank higher for activist Humanists than that of encouraging the public questioning of Christian identity and the open adoption of Humanist identity among cultural Christians. Surely this "identity politics," if successful, would result in religious conservatism losing much of its influence in shaping public policy.

David Niose is an attorney and treasurer of the American Humanist Association.
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Author:Niose, David A.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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