How many kinds of Christians are there? Here’s a partial list: Amish, Assembly of God, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Science, Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews for Jesus, Lutheran, Methodist, Moonie, Mormon, Pentecostal, Quaker, Seventh-day Adventist. Most are breakaways from other denominations; most also consider some of the others to be cults; and most, themselves, were originally considered cults until they increased sufficiently in numbers.
Asked who could complete the above list, I would answer, “Lord knows,” which is another way of saying “I don’t know.” Were I a believer, I might think this task to be even too complicated for the Lord to figure out
As president of the Secular Coalition for America, I’ve worked with non-believers who identify as agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, infidels, humanists, rationalists, and secularists. But here’s a difference between Christians and secularists: Christians have the same unifying word, but fight over theology; secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. (At least our secular wars are only verbal.)
Many classify Christians by category, rather than denomination. Here are my four:
Conservative Christians: Those who place belief above behavior, and think of this life as preparation for an afterlife.
Liberal Christians: Those who place behavior above belief, and interpret scripture in such a way that obliges them to advocate for social justice.
Cultural Christians: Those who want to maintain their Christian heritage even though they may not hold any Christian beliefs.
Political Christians: Those who think that an unwritten requirement for public office is to profess deeply held Christian beliefs.
In 2005 at the Oxford Union, Oxford University, I debated whether American religion undermines American values. I argued that it did, and our side won. Richard Lowry, editor of National Review, took the opposite side. In trying to show how tolerant and diverse Christianity was in America, Lowry mentioned that a committed Christian like Howard Dean left one Christian sect to join another because of a dispute over a bicycle path. When I speculated that Howard Dean was probably not a committed Christian at all, but had to pretend he was in order to get elected, Lowry agreed with me. Dean failed in his 2004 bid to gain the presidential nomination. He lost, of course, to another Christian.
In 2008, we showed how diverse the United States could be when we elected a black Christian instead of the usual white Christian. Anyone have another idea for diversity? In my home state of South Carolina, Nikki Haley is now the leading candidate for governor. She was raised as a Sikh, and has since become a Sikh Christian. Obama was once an agnostic, but became a Christian in time to run for public office. I suspect that both Haley and Obama are political Christians. Obama even chose a political minister, whom he abandoned when it began to hurt him politically. I don’t know what Dean, Haley, or Obama really believe, but I think it says something about our politicians and the electorate that many politicians feel they must pretend to be religious.
In a recent Under God blog, “Nikki Haley’s confession of faith,” On Faith editor David Waters wrote about the evolution of the South Carolina Constitution. The 1778 version stated, “That the Christian religion is the true religion” and “The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.” That was updated in 1868 to its present form, “No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor who denies the existence of the Supreme Being.”
Of course, this more “tolerant” version is still unconstitutional, since Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. I challenged the clause in 1990, running for governor as “the candidate without a prayer.” I lost the election, but eventually won a unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court decision in 1997. So the offending clause is constitutionally invalid, though politically as relevant today as it was in 1868. The only way to remove this clause from the South Carolina Constitution is through a referendum, which I don’t expect to see in my lifetime.
I wonder if I would be more successful in South Carolina politics if I were to run as an atheist Christian, or maybe as a Christian atheist? I guess I’ll let a Focus Group decide.