Monday, July 07, 2008


Ferris Bueller says, "A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself." But nobody can totally escape -isms, not even Bueller (who is basically preaching individualism). Still, many people find something ugly about the suffix, which is why they keep adding it to words to make existing ideologies sound more ideological.

Take Islamism. It's supposed to suggest the politicized, theocratic version of Islam that has taken hold in places like Iran. Journalists have been using the term for a while now, though I'm unaware of anyone who self-identifies as an Islamist. More recently, some bloggers have begun using the term Christianist to denote the politicized Christianity of some of the more extreme evangelicals in this country. Daily Kos defines Christianism as having the following goals:
1. The establishment of a state religion. This state religion, of course, is not to promote Christianity, but rather to consolidate power in order to achieve their second goal.

2. Legislation of their repressive moral agenda. The Christianists plan to destroy the system of checks and balances in the Constitution, and they plan to do this in the name of Christianity.
A definition like that isn't likely to go very far. It shows too much contempt for what it's supposed to be defining. (What person would ever admit to promoting a "repressive moral agenda"?) You can't expect the term to catch on without at least a pretense of neutrality. Other commentators, like Andrew Sullivan, have made more eloquent attempts to define the concept. Sullivan identifies Christianism with the Christian Right and argues that the proper response is not the Christian Left but a separation between religion and politics altogether.

So far there's no comparable term to describe a politicized Judaism. Partly this is an accident of semantics, since Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, already ends in -ism. "Judaismism" would never work, and neither would "Jewism" or "Jewishism." One blogger proposes "Judaicism," but even he seems to realize that it probably sounds too academic to catch on. He doesn't think it's necessary, anyway, because he thinks the term Zionism already fills that slot.

The problem is that Zionism is not in any way the Jewish equivalent of Islamism or Christianism. It began as a secular movement, primarily the work of activists who didn't believe in the Torah. Even the religious variety of Zionism, far more prominent today than it was in the past, is not inherently theocratic, and some of the most theocratic Jews today don't consider themselves Zionists and are hostile to the State of Israel, at least in its current form.

Zionism, in any case, isn't a politicized form of Judaism but a political movement aimed at advancing the Jewish people. That's why you don't even have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, any more than you have to be a woman to be a feminist. Islamism and Christianism are, in contrast, intrinsically forms of the religions that precede their -isms.

In the end, our language won't allow us to create a single word to describe Judaism's more theocratic sector. Maybe that's a good thing. It prevents people from lumping together different groups, one of the more unfortunate consequences of terms like Islamism and Christianism. The real problem with -isms is not that people believe in them, but that they make separate factions seem more unified than they actually are.

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