How to be a good Christian

In no easy steps

How to be a good Christian
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

My friend John Stoehr, as he so often does, put out a provocative column this past Friday. This particular one was on the hidden anti-Catholicism of Christian nationalism. You should go read it. While you're at it, sign up for John's Editorial Board newsletter. It's five doses a week of politics in plain English, and nearly always a bullseye. He even lets me write for him sometimes!

John's column reminded me of a trend I used to see a lot on social media. People would denounce right-wingers performing their faith as "not Christian," often citing Matthew 25 as a prooftext of authentic Christianity. I don't see this as much these days. I don't know what that tells you about the political scene: maybe people have moved on. Maybe they've simply given up.

"Real" Christians: the Judgening

Though I am guilty of the offense myself, I'm not in favor of playing the "real Christian" game. Performative reactionaries on Fox News are one thing. But many ordinary conservative Christians, the kind you're likely to meet in daily life, also go to churches where they collect for the food pantry, support homeless shelters, and visit people in prison. They're the kind of people who give out cups of cold water for the sake of Jesus' name, in short.

Denominational divisions, I have learned, are mostly kept alive by leaders, not people in the pews. I suspect the same is true for the political divides in Christianity.

Christians are as Christians do.

For another thing, Christians are as Christians do. And with roughly 2.4 billion Christians around the world, there are a lot of different ways to do Christianity. To boot, there's no central authority to decide who's real and who isn't.

And for a third thing, a lot of performative Christianity depends on controversy. Those talking heads on Fox with their smarmy declarations of Christians being oppressed by transgender woke Black Lives Matter mobs want you to be outraged. They can use that to get their people to circle the wagons against the left-wing menace. They can even raise some money off of it. Pat Robertson dined out on outrage bait for decades.

So it's for the best not to spend a lot of time trying to parse who's a real Christian and who isn't along ideological lines. There but for the grace of God lies madness.

Real Differences

At the same time, it's hard to avoid the feeling that there are real differences between the various forms of Christian faith. Not in the sense of alignment with a reliable authority, because of course, such a thing doesn't exist. It's more a matter of existential authenticity: some forms provide purpose and direction toward something significant and connective with the broader society. Some do not.

Let's put things another way. It's easy to think there's something wrong with a faith that's so vocal about what people do with their private parts. Add to that conservative Christians' seeming preoccupation with returning Donald Trump to office so he can create a White ethno-state.1 Looking in from the outside, it seems difficult to reconcile the professed faith with the one found in scripture. That's the liberal frame, anyway.

To make things that much more complex, conservative Christians don't believe liberals are authentic believers either. And there are more than a few sneering opponents of faith happy to declare both sides the same, and both sides wrong.

Must we throw our hands up and declare that it's all relative, lest we be judged?

Is it possible, then, to make a qualitative judgment about the state of faith? Or must we throw our hands up and declare that it's all relative, lest we be judged?

It's true that in many ways, the best we can do is to say "That's not Christianity as I understand it." (Kindly refrain from adding "you heretic" to the end of that statement.) That's especially the case on an interpersonal level. Nothing good ever came out of arguing religion with a pig-headed uncle or neighbor.

The Role of Imagination

But there is a way to make a discernment, if not a judgment, between religious paths. The critical difference is a matter of imagination, not politics. A more authentic faith — one that is truest to itself — is able to imagine the world differently in significant ways. By that, I mean that it has to be alert to the world, particularly at the overlooked margins. And then it makes new meaning from what it discerns. Often but not always that meaning is focused and guided by scripture and the experience of the faithful.

Crucially, this cannot be a simple baptism of our preexisting political commitments. An authentic faith has to be able to name the invisible ways we are all failed by the world as it is. It must also be able to challenge itself in response to those failures. A faith dedicated to maintaining the status quo is a dead faith. So is one dedicated to guaranteeing the current arrangements of power. It doesn't take long to work out which faith is which — but remember to take a good hard look at your own before judging another.


1I'll have some articles on this subject coming out soon. Stay tuned.