America is a Christian nation. I do not mean this in a political sense, but rather a sociological one. In comparison with Western Europe, we simply have a lot more Christians. According to a 2007 survey, 78.4 percent of Americans call themselves “Christians,” and 59 percent consider religion very important. This is more than in England (71.75 percent and 33 percent, respectively) and many more than in France (approximately 67 percent and 11 percent). True, we aren’t quite Georgia, where a greater portion of the population is Orthodox Christian (83.9 percent) than ethnic Georgian (83.8 percent) — but we are a nation of faithful. I would posit that this is due, at least in part, to our tradition of pluralism, which has allowed the development of so many distinctively American Christianities — particularly that catch-all, “non-denominationalism.” What’s even stranger about this pluralism is that many conservative Christians — particularly so-called “fundamentalist” Protestants — refuse to acknowledge its historical development or current presence, even in their own midst. After all, how similar, really, are the beliefs of the different Christian denominations or “non-denominations,” even of the conservative-Protestant bent?
However, my purpose here is not to comment on American Christianity per se. American Christian language, or, more broadly, the English language’s “Christian vocabulary,” is what interests me. It, like most of the American (and English) Christian tradition taken as a whole, is both immediately conservative and yet surprisingly “unorthodox.”
In most Western European languages, the old gods still live on in the names of the week-days, old toponyms and the like. English is not exceptional in this regard. What is amazing about English (and its cousin, German) is that even the name of the feast which defines Christianity — the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, Easter — derives its name from that of a pagan goddess: the Venerable Bede’s famous Eostre, whose celebrations took place (roughly) in the Germanic April, Eostur-monath. In the Slavic languages, Latin, all the Romance languages, Celtic, the Scandinavian languages and West Germanic Dutch, the word for the feast derives from Greek Paskha, and thereby from Hebrew pesach: “Passover.”
This example really encapsulates the linguistic paradox that, accidentally or not, also manifests socially. On the one hand, the survival of the very ancient word “Easter” is remarkable in its conservatism. On the other hand, the naked paganism in the term marks this conservatism as something other than a strict adherence to “orthodox” Christian terminology.
Examples less striking but probably more telling are the English collection of “-mas” words, many of which are now moribund, at least in the United States. Christmas is the most common of these, as a word at least, but there are several less-well-known others (e.g. Lammas(tide) on Aug. 1, Michaelmas on Sept. 29). Whereas the words for Christmas are in many other languages either simple words for “birth” (e.g. Latin and the Romance languages) or “Christ’s birth” (e.g. Russian and Greek), English has instead substituted, with great stubbornness (the word goes back to at least 1038) a word meaning “the mass of Christ.” Of course, this term could as apply just as well to the Resurrection or Ascension or Transfiguration or just an average Sunday liturgy. Even more unusual is Lammas, “loaf mass,” which seems to be entirely English, whether invented by English Christians or partially of pagan heritage. In either case, these “-mas” feasts again illustrate how innovation, or at least variation, can quickly become entrenched, even when so different from the rest of Christendom.
And so we come back to the beginning. The preceding is neither a criticism of American Christianity in many forms, nor of our idiosyncratic religious vocabulary — indeed, I don’t claim that peculiar habits of our language are related to the peculiar habits of our Christianities. Strange words do not always indicate strange practice, nor vice-versa. However, it is nonetheless worthy of reflection that, in our language as well as our society, reactionaries so often place their trust, not in the original, but in the “new old.” “Fundamentals” — of religions, of political platforms, of grammar — change with both time and place, and the “old way” is not always the “oldest way.” The “oldest way” is not necessarily the best way, but it is what it is — the oldest. Time can obscure these ancient things naturally, but so can, unnaturally, the human will. Some American Christians — the “King James only” set — treat a translation only 399 years old as the Bible. Those words, young as they are compared to the Greek Byzantine text or the Coptic editions, have become, by a bizarre displacement, the “original.” And, like the words, so is the faith. “That old time religion,” then, that the traditional (but only in America!) hymn requests, only comes, for better or worse, as old as the supplicants would have it. Have it your way! And thereby we arrive here: America is a Christian nation.
J. Max Mikitish is a sophomore in Silliman College.