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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
January 2024
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Book description

'No true Christian could vote for Donald Trump.' 'Real Christians are pro-life.' 'You can't be a Christian and support gay marriage.' Assertive statements like these not only reflect growing religious polarization but also express the anxiety over religious identity that pervades modern American Christianity. To address this disquiet, conservative Christians have sought security and stability: whether by retrieving 'historic Christian' doctrines, reconceptualizing their faith as a distinct culture, or reinforcing a political vision of what it means to be a follower of God in a corrupt world. The result is a concerted effort 'Make Christianity Great Again': a religious project predating the corresponding political effort to 'Make America Great Again.' Part intellectual history, part nuanced argument for change, this timely book explores why the question of what defines Christianity has become, over the last century, so damagingly vexatious - and how believers might conceive of it differently in future.


‘In Who Is a True Christian, David Congdon tells the story of how 20th-century American Christians have repeatedly sought and failed to define and defend a pristine ‘orthodox' or ‘historic' or ‘biblical' Christianity. In contrast to such efforts, Congdon offers his own challenging and inspiring vision of a supple Christianity consciously constructed around an inclusive norm of polydoxy.'

Matthew Thiessen - McMaster University

‘In this work of exceptional erudition, David W. Congdon shows that Christian apologists from ancient times to the present have failed to acknowledge the historicity of their own constructions of Christianity. Although Who Is a True Christian? is primarily a work of intellectual history, it is also a vigorous critique of recent and contemporary Protestant and Catholic efforts to clarify the essence of the faith. Written in the grand tradition of Harvey Cox, Peter Berger, and Charles Taylor, this capacious and contentious book promises to enliven and instruct a generation’s debates about the destiny of the Christian faith in the United States and beyond.’

David A. Hollinger - University of California, Berkeley

‘In this ambitious intervention in the contemporary culture wars, David Congdon situates current debates in the context of a much longer contestation over the boundaries of orthodoxy. Disruptive and thought-provoking, Who Is a True Christian? offers an incisive critique of attempts to define what is true, ‘historical,’ and ‘traditional’ and calls instead for a transgressive Christianity - a dynamic conception of faith that is compatible with a commitment to pluralism.’

Kristin Kobes Du Mez - author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

‘In this compelling challenge to any final answers, political or religious, David Congdon breathes life into a transgressive Christianity: the creativity of his relational, pluralist theology delivers a tour de force of prophetic polydoxy!’

Catherine Keller - George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology, Drew Theological School, author of Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances

‘Congdon’s deeply erudite book is far more than merely another contribution to the debate over the meaning of Christianity that has raged particularly hot in the United States the last ten years. Rather than simply more heat, Congdon brings light. Rather than resolving the debate, Congdon grounds it historically and philosophically, sorting through prescriptivists and descriptivists, revealing what is at stake for all sorts of claimants to the term. And finally, rather than throwing up his hands at the intractability of the problem, Congdon offers a solution that both honors the concept of orthodoxy and preserves the vitality of heterodoxy. I hope it is read, and widely.’

Matthew Bowman - author of Christian: The Politics of a Word in America

‘Combining learned historical insight with thoughtful ethical critique, Congdon has written a much-needed book for our time, as contests over the past and struggles for any future of ‘real’ Christianity demand careful attention. Congdon offers a necessary and provocative history that historicizes debates about who gets to define the essence of ‘true’ Christianity and reflects on the stakes involved.’

Jill Hicks-Keeton - associate professor of religious studies, University of Oklahoma

‘I welcome David Congdon’s thoughtful, historically informed, and theologically astute reflections on the definition of Christianity. What the author calls the ‘militant nostalgia’ of contemporary evangelicals is a construct devoted not merely to a redefinition of Christianity but rather to the imposition of a thoroughly modern vision of the faith. He identifies the myth of immutability and argues that the real divide in Christianity is not between liberalism and conservativism but between pluralism and fascism. Who Is a True Christian? calls, finally, for a ‘polydox’ Christianity that eschews uniformity, one that ‘is constantly transgressing boundaries precisely as an expression of its internal norms.’ This is a very important and timely book.’

Randall Balmer - author of Saving Faith: How American Christianity Can Reclaim Its Prophetic Voice

‘We are living through a time of historic disaffiliation from religious institutions and yet the battle to demarcate the boundaries of Christianity rages on as fiercely as ever. With characteristic insight and wide-ranging analytical breadth Congdon tackles the thorny questions of how we got here and how we might best move forward.’

Heath W. Carter - Associate Professor of American Christianity, Princeton Theological Seminary

‘Congdon’s Who is a True Christian? is both engaging and erudite. I applaud Congdon for bringing theology into the history of ideas in the compelling, historical narrative he spends much of the book crafting, and I am aware of very few scholars who are so adept at interdisciplinary work. As a survivor of authoritarian evangelicalism, I am especially impressed by Congdon’s full-throated rejection of the notion that ‘pure’ Christianity is innocent of harm and his well-reasoned argument that orthodoxy is inherently authoritarian and can only be maintained with the threat (and sometimes execution) of violence.’

Chrissy Stroop - senior correspondent, Religion Dispatches, and columnist, openDemocracy

‘There was only one true Christian, and he died at the cross. David Congdon’s monumental investigation into American Protestantism and its inventions and negotiations of Christianity’s essence, identity, and boundaries draws out the indicting edge of Nietzsche’s famous quip with great material force. Uncovering the anti-modern anxieties, power plays, and polarizing effects that have motivated historical and contemporary investments in ‘true Christianity,’ he also gestures toward the deeper hope Nietzsche’s sentiment might yet reflect, as it opens the door toward the diversity and pluriformity of a ‘normatively transgressive Christianity’.’

Hanna Reichel - Princeton Theological Seminary

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  • 1 - Modernizing the Rule
    pp 43-82
  • The Quest for the Essence of Christianity


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