By Niose, David A.
The Humanist , Vol. 66, No. 6
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. …