I thought this was going to be a particularly inspired and insightful post, but a few seconds of Google searches have once again convinced me that I haven’t hit on anything particularly new… however, I still think the thoughts are worth sharing.
I was reading Walter Capps’ insanely dull Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline yesterday, when I had a moment of inspiration. Why is it that “we”, in the Anglophone West, refer to ChristianITY as a religion, yet almost all other religious groupings are referred to as ISMs?
In a short brainstorming session I managed to come up with:
Seventh Day Adventism
With all these “isms”, what is it that is so unique about Christianity that makes both scholars and laypeople avoid referring to it as Christianism or Christism?
Well, the first obvious response to this, is that it isn’t unique. I also managed to think of a few major “religious” groupings which are not commonly referred to as “isms”:
Well… as for Islam, I have definitely heard the term “Islamism” used on more than one occasion in academic discourse… and I am fairly sure that I have heard reference made to Shintoism as well (the very fact that it has shown up in the spellchecker on this terrible Mac indicates that this may not be an erroneous recollection).
As for the others, well… it is fair to say that whether or not their adherents would claim that they are recent phenomena or not, the fact is that Scientology and Wicca have emerged comparatively recently, and that New Age (if it could even be called a distinct “religion” at all) has only really emerged in the past 50-100 years. The point here is that these groupings have emerged, in the Anglophone context, long after the classificatory enterprise was embarked upon and thus in an environment where people were intuitively aware of the implicit Christian bias in religious labels.
It is well known in Religious Studies circles that the term “Hinduism” emerged from the pejorative phrase “Indoo”, used by the British to describe the multifarious groups of people living in the Indus Valley. This term was then re-appropriated by those same people as a form of identity, whereas beforehand there was nothing in particular to link any of the the various religious beliefs and practices which occurred in that location. My point here is not to get into a debate on whether “Hinduism” is a religion or not, but to point out that the very label “Hinduism” was determined by English speakers… and most likely by English speaking Christians. I wish I had the time to reference this properly, and to make my point more clearly but my point is essentially this:
- The standard terminology applied to various “religions” in the English language privileges ”Christianity” simply because it was English-speaking Christians who devised the “ism” labels for “other” religions.
- In recent times, new religions have emerged which also do not have an “-ism” tagged on to the end of their name, but this is BECAUSE they have emerged in a more reflexive “politically-correct” time.
- As long as scholars persist in applying “-ism” labels to non-Christian religions, then referring to “Christianity” as “Christianism” is a more fair and balanced approach.
- The argument that “Christians refer to their religion as Christianity, therefore so should scholars” does not apply, because we do not apply this same standard to all other “religions”
It seems that I am not the first person to have thought of the label “Christianism”…
According to http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Christianism:
Finally, Brown published Communism and Christianism (Galion, Ohio, 1920), with its inscription to “Banish Gods from Skies and Capitalists from Earth William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop … by Bolton, S. Charles / Journal of Southern History
Christianism (or Christianist) is a pejorative term for the ideology of the Christian right, meant as a counterpoint to “Islamism”. Writing in 2005, the New York Times language columnist William Safire attributed the term (in its modern usage) to conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote on June 1, 2003: “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”