“I identify as…”
It’s the beginning of every conservative’s favorite joke. And only joke. “I identify as an Apache helicopter.” “I identify as a disabled Black woman.” “I identify as a a hawk.”
You see, the joke is on those wacky transgender people, based on the supposed immutability of the genders. You can’t just identify as whatever you want. You are what you are, no matter what you feel you are. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as a famous Christian Fascist likes to put it.
Which is genuinely funny (as opposed to conservative joke funny), because anyone can identify as a Christian and it means literally nothing.
What do I mean by that?
There are currently 2.2 billion Christians on the planet, of which almost all fall within the three main branches: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. They all identify as Christian, and yet, strictly speaking, each branch believes it represents the only true version of the faith. And then, of course, those branches break down into hundreds of denominations, many of them claiming they have the one and only truth.
I could go on about this for pages, but this classic Emo Philips joke sums it up better than a hundred theologians ever could:
Beyond the three branches, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also identify as Christians, even though Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians all reject that claim and dismiss them as cults. But for demographic purposes, Mormons and JWs are counted as part of the 2.2 billion Chrizzos.
Alright, so a bunch of people have differing theological ideas about their religion. Who cares, right? That’s not any great gotcha. It doesn’t undermine the faith. I agree, it doesn’t. I don’t care what a self-proclaimed Christian believes. But shouldn’t Christians?
The Christian Nation
Let’s narrow our focus to America. The United States, as conservative politicians and religious leaders claim again and again, is a “Christian nation.” Founded on Christian values with a predominantly Christian citizenship, it’s totally reasonable for the Ten Commandments to be etched into US government buildings and “In God We Trust” splashed across the currency. So we’re told.
Never mind that the number of Christians in America dropped to an all-time low of 64% in 2020 and is, according to the Pew Research Center, on track to drop below 50% within roughly two decades. America is still a Christian nation. So says a majority of Republicans. So, beat it, Jews and Muslims.
But, here’s the real catch: Among those conservative Christian Nationalists who believe Christianity is the foundational truth of America, there is a growing contingent who don’t believe Jesus was God, which is literally the foundational truth of Christianity.
Don’t just take my word for it. That’s the finding of the most recent biannual State of Theology survey, which is overseen by two Christian organizations, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. This isn’t a survey of “gotcha” questions from Marxist college eggheads. These are Christian groups looking to understand the American Christian™.
A whopping 38% of self-identified Evangelicals said they “strongly agree” with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Another 5% somewhat agreed, meaning a full 41% of Evangelical Christians question whether Jesus was God. For those who haven’t been to Bible study in a while, if Jesus isn’t God, there is no Christianity.
If you don’t trust an atheist’s definition of Christianity, how about the National Association of Evangelicals:
Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.
So, 41% of Evangelical Christians identify as Evangelical Christians while denying the foundational belief of Evangelical Christianity, namely that Jesus is the Lord.
That should probably raise some holy eyebrows. Evangelicals Protestants, which, for the record, are not a denomination but a subset (there can be Evangelical Baptists and Lutherans; there are even Evangelical Catholics), make up at least 25% of all Christians in America, and growing.
Let’s do some quick math: There are 330 million people in the US. Since 64% are Christian, that is 212 million (rounding up), which makes 53 million Evangelicals (more than the population of Spain, by the way). And if 41% of those 53 million don’t believe Jesus is God, there are at least 22 million people in the United States who identify as Christian but don’t actually meet the technical definition of Christian.
(For the record Wheaton College estimates 30-35% of the US is Evangelical, which would mean 90-100 million people, with between 37 and 41 million doubting Jesus’ divinity.)
What should we call these millions of people who identify as Christian while denying the central, essential tenet of Christianity? TransChristians? Christian-adjacent? Apache Hell-icopters? (Get it? Because according to their own religion they’re going to Hell.)
I don’t suppose it matters. They identify as Christians, and therefore they are Christians. I have no right to question it, and neither do you. Funny how that works.