WASHINGTON — Call it Christianity Lite. It's the assertion -- no, the insistence -- that you can be a Christian in good standing though you reject all or significant parts of the brand of Christianity to which you formally adhere. Even Jesus Christ -- and who he was -- is negotiable, not to mention traditional teachings on sex, abortion and divorce. Who's to tell you what to think and do as a Christian -- or to judge you wanting? It's a heresy nowadays to accuse someone of heresy.
Consider these phenomena:
* John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is campaigning as a Catholic candidate. His website declares that he "was raised in the Catholic faith and continues to be an active member of the Catholic Church." Kerry is also campaigning as the candidate of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion-industry advocacy group, whose endorsement he won with an absolutist stance on abortion rights, which is anathema to the Catholic Church. Several U.S. Catholic bishops recently have stated that Catholics in public life who support abortion rights are not in good standing with the church and should not receive the Eucharist, the church's most sacred sacrament, at Mass. Kerry's response -- besides scrambling to find individual Catholic churches liberal enough to allow him into their communion lines -- has been to declare that the church has no business "instructing politicians" on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
* Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, fathered a child by her and installed her as the head of his new religion centered on goddess worship ("the sacred feminine," in Brown's words). None of this is in the Gospels, but that's because, says Brown, the all-male hierarchy of bishops conspired during the 4th century to squelch rival gospels and other Christian texts that granted power to women. The bishops also forced their flocks to adhere to the Nicene Creed, which declares there is but a single, male deity whose son, also divine, was Jesus (in Brown's view, the real Jesus was just a wise human teacher of feminist leanings). In short, Brown contends, what we know as traditional Christianity is simply the result of a long-ago political struggle.
* Religion historian Elaine Pagels' latest book, "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," another bestseller, also contends that creeds -- professions of faith that go hand in hand with Christian orthodoxy in many churches -- were a belated and oppressive development, crushing a vibrant, competing spirituality embodied in the Gnostics, a group of early Christian seekers deemed heretical. Pagels urges a do-it-yourself reorganization of the New Testament that would jettison the faith-promoting canonical Gospel of John ("He who believes in Me ...") in favor of the Gospel of Thomas, a loosey-goosey Gnostic collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that stress finding the kingdom of God inside yourself. "I cannot love ... the tendency to identify Christianity with a single set of authorized beliefs," Pagels writes.
That's having your Christian cake and eating it too. The phenomenon -- a pervasive anti-authoritarianism, a readiness to accommodate religious teaching to prevailing secular mores and an insistence that individuals have a right to carve out their own relationship with the Christian tradition -- exists not only among mainline denominations but even, if to a lesser extent, among evangelicals, whose high divorce rate contradicts Jesus' teachings in the Scriptures about the lifelong nature of marriage. "There tend to be much more liberal attitudes toward divorce [in the evangelical churches] than when I was a kid growing up," says John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, the literary arm of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "Evangelicals' expectations about marriage have been contaminated by the expectations of the larger culture," Wilson says. "You give it up and look for someone else who's going to be the perfect person whom God wanted you to marry."
Christianity Lite has not quite reached the stage of the mass-market Zohar studies at the Kabbalah Centre, frequented by Madonna and other celebrities, whose website avoids all mention of the words "Jewish" and "Judaism" and declares, "Kabbalah is about 'light' ... not religion!" But the distrust of tradition among many Christians disturbs some observers.