I have a friend of long standing who suffers periodic paroxysms of rage against Christians, whom he calls “Christers” to underscore his contempt. I have pointed out that the term is a slur at which one might take offense, but he is attached to it and I am attached to him, so what am I going to do? When he used the term recently, however, it started me wondering where the word came from, and I think you may be interested in what I found.
Everyone has heard the quote, “to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” This is always attributed to Voltaire, although apparently without warrant, since there is no record of his having said it. In fact, it is most probably a refinement of a statement first made in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, a White Nationalist who was thinking of his persecution for Holocaust denial. Whatever its provenance, it is now an internet meme, and rightly so, since it neatly encapsulates a self-evident truth. Power has its privileges, one of them being lèse-majesté.
We can invert this and say that a sure sign of powerlessness is the absence of lèse-majesté. In other words, “to learn who the truly marginal nobodies are, simply ask who you are allowed to criticize.” Criticize here means mock, ridicule and call rude names. To lay the proposition out fully, we should state it thus: “to learn who the truly marginal nobodies are, simply ask who you are allowed to mock, ridicule and call rude names in polite society.” If you can make a group the butt of a joke, or the object of scorn, and still be invited to the next wine and cheese party, that group has no lèse-majesté. They are marginal nobodies.
Which brings me to the subject of Christers, a group more or less bereft of lèse-majesté. It has been close to a hundred years since anyone was dropped from fashionable guest lists for mocking Christers.
I first encountered the term Christer in the transcript of William Buckley’s 1978 interview of Malcolm Muggeridge. At one point the two men discuss the curious fact that God is one topic one cannot broach in in polite society. To do so would be thought indecent, much as Victorians at the dinner table would have thought it indecent to broach the topic of abortion or venereal disease. Buckley remarks,
“The term, ‘Christer,’ is a pejorative term as socially used and in order to earn the reputation of being one, you have only to mention Christ, I would say, three times. Once per year might be permissible. Twice per year is tolerable. Three times per year is overdoing it. You become, a ‘Christer,’ and people think of you as not quite focused on the important things.” (1)
I believe Buckley is describing the state of affairs in his rather elevated social class ten or twenty years earlier, since, by 1978, one could be denounced as a Christer on much weaker evidence than this. But he correctly states the essential nature of the Christer as a social type and cultural symbol. A Christer is a Christian whose Christianity is obtrusive, as measured against what polite society regards as the threshold of obtrusive Christianity. Buckley describes where that threshold stood around 1950, when he graduated from Yale; by 1978 it was in elite circles considerably lower.
Christer (or Kristor) was, originally, a name in the vein of Christian or Christopher. It means Christ-bearer, and has long been popular in Scandinavia. In England, Christer seems also to be been a general noun denoting a person of unusual piety. Miles Coverdale used the phrase “right Christer” to refer to a true or authentic Christian in 1543, and in that same year the name was applied to six unyielding Protestant martyrs (2). A hundred years later George Fox wrote that neighbors had called his father “Righteous Christer” because the good weaver’s sober conduct gave evidence of “a Seed of God in him” (3). The term was not at all common in print until the twentieth century, but there is reason to believe that it had at least some vernacular usage and meant a person who stood above the religious level of his time and place.
Christer entered American English around 1920, perhaps returning from Europe with the demobilized doughboys. I can find no direct evidence of the word being used, but many of the soldiers complained about sanctimonious busybodies who interfered with their sampling the pleasures of France, and the historian Paul Fussell calls these blue stockings Christers (4). In 1921 H. L. Mencken wrote that the term was new to America and had come from England (5).
Mencken certainly welcomed the term, since it was a good handle for much that he hated in American society. Indeed, to properly understand the idea of the Christer, one must see it as a symbol in the culture war of the 1920s. On the one side stood the Christers, representing the fading evangelical culture of late-nineteenth-century, small-town America; on the other stood the Smart Set of flappers and playboys, representing the new sensibility of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1922 novel Young People’s Pride, we meet a member of the Smart Set who has behaved badly and feels “like a swine.” His friend consoles him this way: “Nobody our age who hasn’t been one or felt like one—some of the time—except Christers and the dead” (6). The word was used in Hollywood by the 1920s, where it denoted Christians who got above themselves and attempted to cramp the studios’ style with small-town morality (7).
There were two principle points of difference between the old culture represented by the Christer and the new culture of the Smart Set, the first a matter of behavior, the second a matter of attitude. With respect to behavior, the Christer stood for “clean living,” whereas the Smart Set stood for a relaxed acceptance of drinking, dancing, cigarettes, and even petting parties. An enemy of the Christers, writing in Mencken’s American Mercury, complained that Christiers in the Y. M. C. A. were haunted by a fear that, without their supervision, college men would “begin to swear, to play cards, to gamble, to smoke cigarettes, to patronize the bootleggers, to read wicked authors. Even graver sins may follow: they may cheat on their classwork, they may acquire habits of skepticism, flippancy and irreverence, they may fall among loose women.” Christers were prudes, puritans and killjoys, a nuisance to the fun-loving undergraduate, who was said to be “a jovial low fellow who smokes and swears and takes a pull at any gin that is offered him” (8). In 1930 a group of debutants said Christer was “a common expression” and meant a “goody-goody” (9).
Christers differed from the Smart Set, not only in their ethos of clean living, but also in their up-beat and sunny disposition. They were “boosters” who embodied the nineteenth-century belief in positive thinking, progress and the value of lofty ideals. The Princeton University Chaplain wrote that the negative stereotype of the “Christer” appeared in the “Jazz Age” and was that of a simpleton who still believed the old pieties and mouthed the old platitudes. Where the Christer was earnest and a real cornball, the Smart Set was blasé, jaded and cool (10). The American Mercury mocked the Christers’ love of “uplift” and enthusiasm for “reforming the world.” It is often said that the three quintessential modern theorists are Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, three writers united by cynicism. The doctrine of each rests on the claim that ideals are bunk, simple rationalizations of low instincts. In Marx, ideals are the mask of greed, in Nietzsche, of the Will to Power, in Freud, of sexual libido. The Smart Set drank deeply from this cup; Christers refused it. The Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a member of the Smart Set who came out of this milieu, and he “would later mock moralistic do-gooders as ‘Christers’” (11).
Needless to say, Christers lost the culture war of the 1920s, and by the 1940s were no longer a force at elite institutions such as Yale. This was a large part of what drove William Buckley to write God and Man at Yale (1951). A professor of philosophy at that university describes the situation in the 1940s this way. “Christer” was applied to “Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews whose beliefs are orthodox and whose devotion to their church or synagogue is as authentic as it is unpopular.” These students were treated with “public contempt,” he wrote, and were thought to be “very queer and not quite ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’” (12).
“Christer” is, therefore, a slang word from the 1920s. It was the name that the Smart Set gave to their enemies, the doomed defenders of the older, late-nineteenth-century culture of small town America. The Waterloo of the Christers was repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, as in this the country yielded to both loose living and cynicism about the possibility of social reform. This lends irony in the story of the novelist John Cheever, who near death from alcoholic poisoning in the 1970s, resisted admission into a treatment center because he feared it might be run by a “bunch of Christers” (13). Even then, in the mind of the aging Smart Set, Christers were poised to snatch their fun away.
In 1976, for instance, the Washington Post columnist Nicholes von Hoffman (fresh from working as a community organizer under Saul Alinsky) denounced sexual prudery and urged Americans to “make anything legal, be it for free or for commerce, that is done in private between consenting adults.” He wrote that furor over political sex scandals, and remaining sex laws, were embarrassing relics of the minority morality of “the Christers, the anti-orgasmic Jeremiahs, the sensual-repressives, and the Savanerolas” (14). In 1980 Gore Vidal complained that “Christers” were throwing their support behind Ronald Reagan became he “is against Satan as represented by rights for women and homosexuals” (15). Ironically, only two years earlier, the Village People had recorded their “gay anthem” Y.M.C.A., a song that literally danced on the grave of the Christers.
Vidal had a morbid paranoia of Christers, whom he imagined on the brink of taking over the government and instituting a theocracy. In his 1995 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, for instance, he warned that “militant Jesus-Christers are organizing to take political control” and embark on a “theocratic age” (16). No one appears to have laughed out loud at this preposterous nonsense, and this is because Vidal was protected by lèse-majesté and Christers were not.
(1) Cecil Kuhne, Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 137.
(2) Miles Coverdale, A Christian Exhortation to Customable Swearers (Antwerp, 1543), p. 16; David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. Thomas Thomson (Edinburgh: Wodrow Sciety, 1842), vol. 1, p. 175.
(3) George Fox, A Journal or Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, and Christian Experiences of George Fox (London, Thomas Northcott, 1694), p. 1.
(4) Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford, 1989), p. 96.
(5) H. L. Mencken, The American Language, second edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), p. 155
(6) Stephen Vincent Benet, Young People’s Pride (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), p. 281.
(7) Victoria Wilson, Steel-True, 1907-1940, vol. 1 in The Life of Barbara Stanwick (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), p. 214.
(8) Richard Dye, “Saving the Sophomore,” The American Mercury (November 1926), pp. 288-294.
(9) Barbara Brown, “The Great American Slanguage,” The Outlook (November 12, 1930), p. 417.
(10) Robert Russell Wicks, “The Self-Sparing Life,” Princeton Alumni Weekly (Nov. 13, 1931), p. 161.
(11) Douglas Brinkley, “Architect of a New World,” Washington Post (August 9, 1998), p. 10; James Chace, Acheson: The Secretary of State who Created the American World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 199.
(12) Theodore Greene, “Religion is a Bore: Let’s Skip It,” The New Outlook, 18 (Jan. 1955), p. 21.
(13) Blake Bailey, Cheever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 511.
(14) Nicholes von Hoffman, “Of Pols, Sex, the Press and Morality: A Commentary,” Washington Post (June 25 1975), p. B5.
(15) Gore Vidal, “But What if You Don’t Like Any of Them,” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 26, 1980), p. G1.
(16) Gore Vidal, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2002).