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Greetings, Acts of Faith readers:

What does it mean to be “Christian” in America today? And what does it have to do with politics? Matthew Bowman dives into these tricky topics in his new book, “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.” For many American Christians, ideas like liberty and equality are based in Christian claims. Some associate Christianity with individual liberty and an affirmation of capitalism. But others believe Christian beliefs demand economic communalism, international cooperation, racial egalitarianism and social justice.

So what does it mean to be a Christian in politics? See what you think of what Bowman has to say below. And, as always, I can be reached at

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— Sarah Pulliam Bailey, editor of Acts of Faith

The Memorial Peace Cross that sits at the intersection of Baltimore Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, Md. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)

How do you define 'Christian' in America today?

Matthew Bowman

Many discussions about the reasons Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election wind their way back to the seemingly boggling fact that somewhere around 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a self-confessed sexual abuser who mangled the titles of biblical books and dismissed without consideration the Christian notion that he is a sinner in need of repentance.

What does this say about the state of Christianity in America? Some evangelical Trump supporters wanly invoke phrases like “baby Christian,” insisting that the president is young in his faith. But such protests seem wilted fig leaves straining to cover Trump’s grotesqueries. Even those who invoke such justifications seem aware they are simply pro forma necessities to maintain faith that the moral principles espoused by most evangelicals hold some sort of sway in the American public sphere so long as a Republican is president.

On the other hand, this grim charade has provided much grist for the mill of the growing number of American secularists — usually on the political left — who are certain that American Christianity has traded its soul for the foul pottage of influence over Republican Party politics. The odd thing about these critics is that many have more or less accepted conservative white evangelicals’ insistence that socially conservative politics is the same thing as Christianity to blast Trump’s supporters as hypocrites. So powerfully has the Religious Right managed to equate Christianity with conservative sexual norms that recent polls have shown that among the most powerful associations millennial Americans make with the word “Christian” is “anti-gay.”

What we are left with, then, is a debate about the nature of Christianity in America that has been narrowed to the vanishingly small turf of whether Trump has an ethical sex life. Perhaps, if our definition of the term has become so narrow, Christianity indeed has lost its moral force in the United States.

But a look at the rich and vigorous history of Christianity in the United States points us in another direction. What we see there is that debates about what it means to be a Christian in the United States are as wide as debates about what it means to be an American — precisely because the two concepts have long been so deeply intertwined, for good and ill.

American Protestants have long linked political freedom with the spiritual autonomy of their version of the faith. This vision has given birth to the moral fervor of the abolitionists who blasted slavery as a grievous sin, but also to the ethnonationalist notion that Christianity is inseparably connected to a white “Western civilization.” To reduce it to one or the other is to forget the ambiguity of the Christian tradition.

Indeed, even beyond the Protestantism that has been the faith of most white Americans, Christianity in the United States has taken on a multiplicity of forms and joined itself to a diverse range of beliefs about what American society should look like and what Americans should believe about themselves. The radical Catholic Dorothy Day blasted the paganism of American commercial capitalism. The pan-Africanist Protestantism of many African Americans located true Christian civilization in the freedom movements of the world’s people of color, from the anti-apartheid crusades in South Africa to the freedom marches in Birmingham and Chicago.

The question, then, of whether a Christian can support Trump is unanswerable because it depends on what “Christian” means, and those answers are as variegated as are American Christians. What is certain, though, is that to reduce the debate to the terms offered by the evangelical defenders of Trump is to reduce the moral complexity and promise of the tradition to among the most sterile of its manifestations.

Matthew Bowman is an associate professor of history at Henderson State University.

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