Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Of phobias and isms and other new suffix wars

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Two weeks after writing about the fervor of the late Terri Schiavo's "Christianist `supporters,'" Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker last month described Representative Tom Delay as a "hard-right Christianist crusader." A few months before, soon after US President George W. Bush was re-elected, the conservative Weekly Standard reported that an Ohio cartoonist had sent out a communication deploring "militant Christianist Republicans."

Obviously there is a difference in meaning between the adjectives Christian and Christianist. Thanks to Jon Goldman, an editor at Webster's New World Dictionaries, I have the modern coinage of the latter with its pejorative connotation. "I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right," wrote the blogging Andrew Sullivan on June 1, 2003, "who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam."

Not such a new term. You have to be careful about claiming coinage, as I learned to my rue (my 1970s baby, workfare, turned out to have been coined earlier; same with neuroethics). In 1883, W. H. Wynn wrote a homily that said "Christianism -- if I may invent that term -- is but making a sun-picture of the love of God." He didn't invent the term, either. In the early 1800s, the painter Henry Fuseli wrote scornfully that "Christianism was inimical to the progress of arts." And John Milton used it in 1649.

Adding -ist or -ism to a word usually colors it negatively, as can be seen in secularist. In One Nation Under Therapy, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel coined therapism to mean "the revolutionary idea that psychology can take the place of ethics and religion," which they believe undermines the American creed of "self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity and the valorization of excellence." Therapists (a neutral term -- indeed, masseurs like to upgrade their job description to massage therapist) won't like therapism, which is intended to be disparaging.

As Christianist, with its evocation of Islamist, gains wider usage as an attack word on what used to be called the religious right, another suffix is being used in counterattack to derogate those who denounce church influence in politics. "The Catholic scholar George Weigel calls this phenomenon `Christophobia,'" the columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post. She noted that he borrowed the word from the American legal scholar, J. H. H. Weiler. The word was used by Weigel "after being struck by the European Union's fierce resistance to any mention of the continent's Christian origins in the draft versions of the new, and still unratified, European constitution."

Phobia, which means "fear of," was doing fine as a medical term until recently. "Phobias are irrational fears," says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in Santa Monica, California. "They are not just `sort of fears;' they are full and intense and uncontrollable." An anxiety psychologist in Chicago, David Carbonell, says that "the clinical term phobia is not doing well. Often it's appended to another word to indicate a wide range of dislikes that may have nothing to do with the core meaning of avoidance as a response to powerful fear. I just fielded a request for an interview on `nudophobia.'"

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