Bill O'Reilly's Humpty Dumpty Trick

By Jeffrey Weiss

I realize that tuning in Fox's popular Bill O'Reilly for instruction about religion is like watching the "Star Wars" movies to learn about science. But last week, O'Reilly took a position unusually unmoored from what anybody else understands as reality.

O'Reilly asserted, with an apparently straight face and for two consecutive days, that Christianity is not a religion.

The occasion was O'Reilly's annual ginning up of his "War On Christmas" theme, a seasonal tradition as inevitable as house fires caused by under-watered holiday trees. O'Reilly's examples over the years fall roughly into two categories:

People spotting what they believe is an unconstitutional government endorsement of one religion, and merchants who, after considering their customer base, decide that a non-sectarian holiday greeting will be better for business. How dare they?

Anyway, for this round, O'Reilly found a willing combatant in David Silverman, president of the non-profit organization American Atheists, who is in the first category of O'Reilly's putative anti-Christmas warriors. O'Reilly was totally ready for Silverman, who started to make the case that government endorsement of Christmas through holiday displays and the like is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"What religion is involved with Christmas? What religion?" asked O'Reilly, eagerly ready to snap his trap.

"Christianity," Silverman replied.

"That's not a religion," O'Reilly interrupted. "That's a philosophy."

A full day later, having had time to reconsider his assertion, O'Reilly backed down not a whit. In his "Talking Points Memo" segment, O'Reilly fired his big gun again:

"But Christianity is not an organized religion, a church that can be imposed. There are many different churches that promote the Christian philosophy in many different ways... Christianity is a philosophy. You don't have to believe Jesus is God in order to admire his view on life...

"Millions of Muslims admire Jesus as a prophet. In fact the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian philosophy, that's what shaped our constitutional tenets. Again if you are stone-cold dumb and don't understand the difference between an organized church and a philosophy, I cannot help you."

O'Reilly apparently thinks that sects of Christianity are religions and that Muslims are Christians, but Christianity itself is not a religion. This is an amazing claim. But O'Reilly is not simply a dope, whatever else he may be. So I went searching for any historical support for his position.

Mircea Eliade's classic "Encyclopedia of Religion" includes 14 separate articles about Christianity starting with "Christianity, an overview." So apparently Eliade thought that Christianity is a religion.

The 1917 Catholic encyclopedia offers a long definition of Christianity. Here's an excerpt:

"Christianity is the name given to that definite system of religious belief and practice which was taught by Jesus Christ in the country of Palestine, during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and was promulgated, after its Founder's death, for the acceptance of the whole world, by certain chosen men among His followers....By His death, therefore, and His return from the dead, Christ, as the event proved, furnished the strongest means for the effective preaching of the religion He came to found."

Which seems unambiguous.

Black's Law Dictionary 2nd Edition offers a much shorter definition of Christianity: "The religion founded and established by Jesus Christ."

The Rev. Al Mohler Jr, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, addressed the definition of Christianity is a discussion about whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is or is not Christian. Mohler says it isn't. In part because:

"Normative Christianity is defined by the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the other formulas of the doctrinal consensus."

Meaning the beliefs that a fellow named Yoshua was born about two millennia ago of a virgin mother, was the son of God, died for the sins of mankind and rose from the dead three days later, etc., etc. etc. While different sects of Christianity disagree about points of doctrine, Mohler says, these broad (and I'd say utterly religious) points can be found pretty much across the spectrum.

But I may still be too stone-cold dumb to understand O'Reilly's point. Fortunately, I know people. So I pinged Darrell Bock, executive director of cultural engagement and senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

His two most recent books are Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel's King, and Who Is Jesus? Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith.

So I figure he knows something about what Christianity is and is not. His reply was succinct and directly to the point:

"If Christianity is not a religion, since it believes in the worship of God, then no faith is. Even though the faith has philosophical elements, it is not another exercise in the humanities; it is a religious faith. There is nothing to gain in this reclassification."

Of course, there exists Christian philosophy. Quite a bit of it, in fact. But to the degree that is it distinctly Christian, it rests directly on one or more of those unambiguously religious beliefs cited by Mohler. What O'Reilly is actually doing is trying to turn Humpty Dumpty's trick from Through the Looking Glass:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

Unfortunately for Humpty -- and for O'Reilly -- defining words on your own makes it impossible to communicate with anybody else. And pretty much everybody else agrees that Christianity is, and has been since its inception, a religion.

On this point, it appears that O'Reilly is simply an angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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