Tuesday, August 24, 2004


Hijacked faith?

I've been noticing a trend lately among politically progressive Christians. Increasingly, their frustration with the Religious Right is being boiled down to this sound byte: "Conservative evangelicals have hijacked our faith."

Usually, I find myself nodding in agreement with this kind of talk. But today, as I started to notice how pervasive the "hijacking" metaphor is becoming among critics of the Religious Right, I realized that something about it bothers me, too. Bear with me as I try to figure out why.

First, here are some examples. Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal and editor of Sojourners magazine, had an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe last month entitled "Recovering a hijacked faith." It begins:
MANY OF US feel that our faith has been stolen, and it's time to take it back. A misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. Many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?
This month's Sojourners also contains a speech by Bill Moyers which concludes (emphasis added):
OVER THE PAST few years, as the poor got poorer, the health care crisis worsened, wealth and media became more and more concentrated, and our political system was bought out from under us, prophetic Christianity lost its voice. The Religious Right drowned everyone else out.

And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in Nazareth and proclaimed, "The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor." The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who raised the status of women and treated even the tax collector like a child of God. The very Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple. This Jesus has been hijacked and turned into a guardian of privilege instead of a champion of the dispossessed. Hijacked, he was made over into a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist, sent prowling the halls of Congress in Guccis, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapon systems that don't work, and punitive public policies.

Let's get Jesus back.
And most recently, in an interview promoting his new book, Tony Campolo said this:
My purpose in writing the book was to communicate loud and clear that I felt that evangelical Christianity had been hijacked. When did it become anti-feminist? When did evangelical Christianity become anti-gay? When did it become supportive of capital punishment? Pro-war? When did it become so negative towards other religious groups?
From some other disparate examples, see here, here, and here.

This increasingly prevalent use of the "hijacking" metaphor has culminated in a new campaign called "Take Back Our Faith," which includes a fund-raising campaign for a full-page newspaper ad and a petition. But a little looking around on the Internet led me to discover that the "hijacking" metaphor is nothing new. This Google search of the Sojourners website reveals that this year is not the first time that the "hijacking" metaphor has been applied to evangelicals. See, for instance, the magazine's March/April 1995 issue, which includes other articles by Wallis and Campolo. The idea that the Religious Right has "hijacked" Christianity is not being invented just now, but it is undergoing a revival during this election year.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should start by saying that I agree generally with what Wallis, Moyers, Campolo, and others are trying to do. In fact, I signed the "Take Back Our Faith" petition. I'm hesitant to criticize anything about it. I too am angered that the Bush-Cheney campaign appears convinced that it has the evangelical vote in hand. And I'm all for media coverage that dispels the myth that to be Christian means to be Republican.

And yet ... something about the use of the word "hijacked" bothers me. Partly, I think, I'm bothered by the connotation that the word has in this post-9/11 political climate. In 1995, to say that the Religious Right was "hijacking" religion meant one thing; in 2004, the same statement has an entirely different valence. Surely these progressive Christians know that they are framing their criticism in an intensely visceral and loaded way. To say something is being "hijacked" now is to garner almost immediate sympathy for a cause, because "hijacker" means "terrorist." Those who say the Religious Right has "hijacked" our faith may not intend to call evangelicals "terrorists," but they would be naive (or disingenuous) to claim they never anticipated their audiences making that mental equation.

One of the most craven and cynical things about the Bush administration is its manipulation of words like "terrorist." They have used this word, along with related terms like "axis of evil" and "war on terror," to carve the world up into "us" and "them." (Those who aren't with "us" are with "them." Disagree with the way we're prosecuting the "war on terror"? You must be with the "terrorists.") President Bush has manipulated Americans' fear of and revulsion at the actions of terrorists into a blank check for extreme and disastrous policies.

But my worry is this: when Christian progressives apply the word "hijack" to their political opponents, aren't they engaging in the same kind of rhetorical manipulation?

Perhaps not intentionally. But the dangers of this manipulation are potentially the same. For one thing, when you call your opponents terrorists/hijackers, any discursive space for self-criticism immediately shrinks. If "they" are the hijackers, then "we" are the good guys. This was precisely why so many progressives criticized the Bush administration's immediate invocation of a "war on terror" in the fall of 2001. As soon as that term was used, all opportunity was lost that we might have a substantive national discussion about our own foreign policy, and how it might contribute to the rise of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

This was the point that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made in an excellent essay after September 11, collected in this excellent anthology. "So much of this seems to oblige us to think about language," Williams began. Once "evil" became the dominant adjective applied to the hijackers, and later to Iraq, certain options for American action and reaction were irrevocably lost. As Williams says:
... bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understanding anything. Even vile and murderous actions tend to come from somewhere, and if they are extreme in character we are not wrong to look for extreme situations. It does not mean that those who do them had no choice, are not answerable, far from it. But there is sentimentality too in ascribing what we don't understand to "evil"; it lets us off the hook, it allows us to avoid the question of what, if anything, we can recognise in the destructive act of another. If we react without that self-questioning, we change nothing.
Williams warned, presciently, that we should be "very suspicious of any action that brings a sense of release, irrespective of what it achieves; very wary of doing something so that it looks as if something is getting done." That is what the language of "evil" and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did. They gave Americans an outlet for anger, a feeling that something was being done. But that language also closed down the possibility of self-questioning and the recognition of ourselves in the Other.

What bothers me about calling religious conservatives "hijackers" is that, in today's public sphere, this kind of talk does the same thing that Williams warned the language of "evil" would do. First, it makes Christian progressives feel good; it makes it look "as if something is getting done" to restore the authentic social vision of the gospel. It brings a "sense of release." But it also "lets us [progressives] off the hook." If those other Christians stole our religion, then we progressives are just the victims here. Thank God that we are not like these other men.

Finally, accusing evangelicals of a hijacking "allows us to avoid the question of what, if anything, we can recognise" in them. We disclaim responsibility for the church's sorry state; our responsibility only becomes the virtuous one of vanquishing the foe. And so, just as President Bush's "axis of evil" immediately polarized issues and set us on a path away from real understanding, the concept of "hijacked faith" robs us of common ground with our enemies and clothes us in a holier-than-thou hauteur. If we actually begin to use the same linguistic weapons as the Bush administration, are we really allowing our faith to be "hijacked," or are we simply handing it over?

As dangerous as I believe it is speak of our faith being "hijacked" by conservatives, it may be even more dangerous to speak of "our faith." Wallis, Moyers, and Campolo refer to their project as though it were a rescue mission, as if by "taking back our faith," we--progressive Christians--are somehow saving God. Notice how Wallis says: "some of us feel that our faith has been stolen," as though Christianity was our property, and "some of us" are miffed that it has disappeared from the lock box we had it in. And imagine the ludicrous scene that Moyers implicitly describes, of a thuggish gang of evangelicals "hijacking" Jesus, until--like a holy A-Team--we have determined to round up a posse and go "get Jesus back."

This kind of talk tastes sour in my mouth. As though any of us can claim that Christianity is "ours," that Jesus is depending on us to save him from his enemies. My criticism may seem like a semantic quibble, but it is more than that. For when we speak of Christianity as "ours" and describe it as being stolen by "them," we are falling into the same self-righteous patterns of speech that the Religious Right employs. Just as to use the word "hijacker" is to mimic the corrupted speech of Republican hawks, to use this possessive pronoun is to echo those whom we oppose.

Please do not mistake me: We do need to be concerned by the political power of pro-war and pro-wealth Christians. But we need to adopt a rhetoric that confesses to our own failures even as it criticizes. We need to give up a posture of holiness for a posture of humility, to see within ourselves the same evils we denounce in others--the same partisanship, the same self-righteousness, the same conformity to the world's way. Instead of expressing our wrath, we need to do more mourning, for only those who mourn will be comforted and changed. Instead of venting anger, we need to act. The best way to convince people that not all Christians are right-wing politicians is to act like Christians. "To-day there is rather too much than too little said about the Church," said Karl Barth, years ago. "There is something better: let us be the church!"

What we don't need are aggressive and counter-productive words like "hijacking." "Let's get Jesus back" sounds to me a little too much like "Let's roll." And the record on that phrase is not good.

UPDATE: Carlos Stouffer has some similar worries.

Collective Improvisation:
Caleb, that was an inspired post! I hope you do not mind that I quoted your entire nicely crafted meditation on my blog. Please write more about all of this.


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/28/2004 02:05:00 AM : Permalink  

I have used "hijacking" in a similar context to the one you described (e.g. I recently wrote something called "Born again: How fundamentalists have hijacked a term that belongs to all of us").

Now, in my honest opinion, "hijacking" is a dead metaphor. In other words, when I hear that term "hijacking" in the sense of some group (e.g. fundamentalists) taking over some other group (e.g. Christianity) illegitimately, my mind doesn't hear the terrorist connection. Doesn't occur to me, even post-9/11. That probably sounds odd to you, since obviously for you the connotations of terrorism are the first thing that leap out at you.

Personally, I'd give Wallis and Campolo the benefit of the doubt, if only because I have both used and heard the language of "hijacking" in relation to fundamentalism, and to me it's a dead metaphor. I'm not sure the thought even crossed my mind until I read your post.

Having said that, there's lots of food for thought in that post, and I'll be coming back to read it again.

Posted by Blogger Dave on 8/28/2004 05:16:00 AM : Permalink  

I am a bit of an amateur linguist, by the way, and I say that not to pretend I have some authority to talk about this, but just to indicate that I do actually think about these kinds of things quite a lot.

So, anyway, here's an observation I had as I was rereading the entry.

For me, "hijackers" DOES have connotations of terrorism, even in the context of criticizing fundamentalists. For that reason, I don't think I would ever use that phrase. And if I heard someone refer to evangelicals or fundamentalists as "hijackers", I think I would feel more than a bit uncomfortable.

"Hijacking" in the same context does NOT automatically bring terrorism to mind.

To someone who's never really thought through this linguistic phenomenon before, this might sound like disingenuous hair-splitting. But I've been trying to analyze why this is, and I think it's because "the hijackers" is a recurring post-9/11 phrase, where "hijacking" and "hijackings" just aren't as much a part of the language of post-9/11 media and politics.

I did a quick Google search to see if I could gauge whether my instinct was correct, and discovered that "hijackers 9/11" (minus the quotation marks) yielded 110 000 results, where "hijacking 9/11" yielded only 59 700 and "hijackings 9/11" only 37/200. I think there's a definite trend in the use of "hijackers" and its corollaries there that may yet explain why I have no problem talking about the "hijacking" of Christianity by evangelicals or fundamentalists, and yet wince at describing evangelicals and fundamentalists as "hijackers". To me, the latter term almost instantly conjures up images of 9/11, the Twin Towers and the terrorist faces we saw plastered all over our TV screens for weeks on end, in a way "hijacking" does not.

Thanks for the article. I may yet blog about it myself.

Posted by Blogger Dave on 8/28/2004 05:37:00 AM : Permalink  

I have blogged...!

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/28/2004 07:22:00 AM : Permalink  

Oops... that was me. I blogged about this. (Click below/above/wherever.)

Posted by Blogger Dave on 8/28/2004 07:35:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks for your comments, Carlos and Dave! Sorry that I'm just now replying.

You make some very thoughtful points, Dave. I was very interested by your observations about the different connotations for the noun and verb forms of a word. And I appreciate your challenging me to think a little harder about what I mean to say.

You are absolutely right that "hijacking" might not connote terrorism to everyone. And it was wrong for me to suggest that anyone who uses the term would be "naive (or disingenuous)" not to see the connection. That was a sloppy and unfair sentence. I also did not mean to impugn the intentions of people who use the metaphor to criticize conservative evangelicals. I tried to convey (but perhaps should have tried even harder) my great respect for Sojourners and what people like Wallis, Moyers, and Campolo are doing.

As I read back over my post, I think what most concerns me about the "hijacking" metaphor is not that it will lead to an automatic association of evangelicalism with terrorism. As you rightly point out, not everyone will make this connection. Rather, what concerns me is that accusing other Christians of "hijacking" our faith polarizes discussions in much the same way that President Bush has polarized public discourse on terrorism. (Maybe I'm also splitting hairs, but these seem like two different points, even if I casually conflated them in my post.)

Saying that someone has "hijacked" our faith is similar to branding a country as "evil," in the sense that it immediately pulls the rug of legitimacy and credibility out from underneath our interlocutors. It is the kind of word that gains an immediate rhetorical sympathy for one's position without necessarily moving discussion forward or achieving real change. Accusing another group (amorphously defined) of "stealing" Jesus or "hijacking" our faith is the kind of charge that one seldom directs at oneself. It is always the kind of thing one says the other party is doing. For that reason, it closes down space for self-criticism, constructive exchange, and mutual understanding.

This isn't to say that we should refrain from criticizing Christians who are not being faithful to the gospel. But in framing our criticism, we should try to use language that conveys a shared concern for holding one another accountable to the radical social vision embodied in the cross.

We should have the courage to defend our deepest convictions about what is right and wrong. But we should also be humble enough to admit that we ourselves fail to live up to the same convictions. I'm not accusing Wallis or anyone else of lacking that humility--far from it. But I am arguing that the word "hijacking" itself tends to subvert countervailing words intended to convey sincere humility.

When we say, "All of us, left and right on the political spectrum, need to listen to Jesus better," but simultaneously say that some of us have "stolen" Jesus or "hijacked" his message, listeners would be right to perceive some dissonance in our rhetoric, precisely because "hijacking" is a unilateral criticism. By definition, it has to apply to only one side, since the other side has to be the one who has been stolen from.

I'm not sure whether that makes sense. I'm still trying to sort out what bothers me about the metaphor, and I'm not sure I'm there yet. But right now, I guess what I would say is that in pointing out how conservative evangelicals are falling short of the gospel, we should let the gospel speak for itself. In the process, it will probably show us ways in which we too are falling short. On the basis of our shared confession of shortcomings, we can better encourage shared change.

Here I think I agree with Carlos: let's just say what Jesus said. Let's avoid mixing the judgment of the gospel--to which we are all accountable as Christians--with the polarizing language used by the political powers-that-be, the kind of language that tars the enemy while shielding ourselves from rebuke.

Instead of saying, "You hijacked Jesus." Let's say, for example, "Jesus preached good news to the poor, but you've forgotten about the poor and seem to care only about the rich." This is still a rebuke, but it is the kind of rebuke which we could also direct at ourselves. The "hijacking" metaphor, I fear, can imply (as Williams warned) that we are reacting without self-questioning, and letting ourselves (rhetorically at least) off the hook.

Thanks again for the discussion! It is a great honor that you thought enough of my post to respond in such a substantive and thoughtful way.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 8/28/2004 08:13:00 PM : Permalink  

Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I hadn't thought these issues through, and I find myself agreeing with you a lot here. :-)

The word I tend to use is "co-opted," as in "it frustrates me that the label 'Judaism' has been co-opted by people who define it differently than I do and whose definition doesn't necessarily make room for me." It's less loaded than "hijacked," I think, while still expressing my frustration...

Posted by Blogger Rachel on 9/02/2004 12:23:00 PM : Permalink  

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