Andrew Sullivan’s bigoted term “Christianist” is a label that lacks definition. I wrote on that subject yesterday in the course of responding to Sullivan’s increasingly bizarre attempt to turn my appreciation of the film The Passion of the Christ into some sort of guilt by association with Mel Gibson’s repulsive remarks. (“I should add that Hewitt still refuses to acknowledge or account for his own role in credentializing, supporting and using for political purposes the work of fanatical anti-Semite Mel Gibson.”) I did write a favorable review of the film, and I don’t believe it is anti-Semitic. This, thunders Sullivan, cannot be! As Lileks wrote yesterday about Sullivan’s wild accusations: “There is no other possible opinion, and if you hold a contrary idea, your motivations are subterranean. Devious. Possibly Christianistical. Maybe Masonic.” When Sullivan asserts today that “Hewitt backed the movie for political reasons,” I realized that there really is no arguing with omniscience.
But there is the matter of the definition. Sullivan calls me a fanatic, suggests I am not sane, and brands my assertion of his slur as lacking a defintion a lie.
Sullivan today insists that he has indeed defined his slur, and points to and quotes from a Time Magazine column, and three other posts. But he doesn’t quote the definition, because there isn’t a definition. A definition of a “Christianist” would allow you to identify a “Christianist” based upon a set of specific attributes, which anyone could apply and which would lead everyone to the same conlcusion. A “definition” isn’t personal, it is neutral. For example, an Islamist is a Muslim who is willing to use or applaud the use of violence, including terrorism against civilians, to either advance the faith or destroy non-Muslims.
Most of the definitions of “definition” include the idea of precision and specificity. In a political context, especially, identifiers require their applicability by neutral parties. People unfairly branded “communists” at least could argue that they’d never been to a Party meeting. The utility of bigoted slurs that aren’t defined is that they can’t be replied to on the basis of any set of factual statements. In the hands of the bigot, slurs suppress argument. If you brand someone as pro- or con-some specific proposition, that assertion can be replied to. You can’t reply to a slur.
Here’s the test. No one, even using Sullivan’s many citations, can answer the question of whether, say, Senator John Thune is a “Christianist,” or Kay Bailey Hutchison;John Roberts or Mary Ann Glendon; Mark Steyn or Kathryn Lopez. The term is empty of meaning and thus of no use except as shortcut slander. Sullivan’s post is a windy admission against interest, when a simple definition would have been a complete response.
I have seen people at The Corner tire of responding to Sullivan’s tirades. E-mails pour in and comments accumulate urging me not to pay him any attention at all. Perhaps that is the wise thing to do. But to be linked with anti-Semitism or religious fanaticism in a time of great danger to Israel and when real anti-Semites are killing real Jews is a serious matter, especially for a very strong defender of Israel, of religious tolerance, and of vigorous political debate but always without hate or vulgarity. Sullivan’s writing has degenerated to a point where it is difficult to imagine any serious person taking him seriously, but against the chance that someone might not have figured out that you really, really cannot trust his judgment on such matters, I can’t say –though I wish I could– that I won’t be obliged to answer again.
For those coming here from Sullivan’s site, you will find a balanced portrait of me, from the pages of The New Yorker, written by the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism Nick Lemann of some use.