In contemporary America, apostate is a casual term of derision used to describe someone who is in some vague way at odds with a party, as in Charles Krauthammer’s discussion of the two Republicans who gunned for the 2008 presidential nomination: “Giuliani’s major apostasy is being pro-choice on abortion. McCain’s apostasies are too numerous to count … . [On] tax cuts, immigration, campaign finance reform, Guantanamo he … opposed the conservative consensus.” Paul Waldman used the same metaphor in a recent post at the American Prospect blog: “the Republican Party takes a harsher view of apostasy than their Democratic counterparts.”
To risk splitting hairs: Krauthammer and Waldman should have invoked heresy, not apostasy. Heretics continue to claim identification with their religious community, even as they hold heterodox views. (Martin Luther, for example, was charged with heresy—he did not reject Christianity; he just had revolutionary ideas for reforming it.) The heretic might get thrown out, but she wants to belong, and indeed often claims to represent the authentic expression of the faith. An apostate, by contrast, rejects her faith and religious community altogether—like Paul Haggis, Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter of Crash. As Lawrence Wright describes at great length in his much discussed New Yorker article, Haggis resigned from the Church of Scientology in 2009 over the church’s refusal to denounce California’s Proposition 8, which aimed to undo the state’s recognition of same-sex marriage.
Haggis is now America’s leading apostate, and it is not surprising that this role came to a Scientologist. To make a true apostate you need a religious community that has, among other things, obvious insiders and outsiders. In the United States, with our promiscuous spiritual questing, many of us are never exclusively in one religion enough to one day find ourselves out of it. To leave some religious groups is to apostatize, while to leave other groups—notably mainline Christian groups—is simply to float away. It is hard to imagine a Unitarian-Universalist apostate.
Of course, back when Christianity was young, oppositional, and persecuted, the church kept its eye on the problem of apostasy. Some early Christians apostatized when faced with pressure from the state. A Phrygian named Quintus, for example, “abandoned his salvation” when presented with the choice of renouncing Christ or being killed by wild beasts in the arena. Not all early apostates were coerced into apostasy—some held state power themselves. The most famous, or infamous, apostate in all church history was the emperor Julian, who abandoned his Christian commitments and embraced pagan philosophy. Julian understood that his paganism required a decisive rejection of Christianity because, by the fourth century, even polytheistic pagans were coming to see Christianity and paganism as incompatible: You could worship Jesus or Helios, but not both.
Many religious communities today condone or even welcome spiritual mixing and matching—a member of a liberal Jewish temple is unlikely to feel he has to leave Judaism in order to, say, take up Buddhist meditation. We associate the word apostate with stricter traditions like Scientology, the Amish, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (think Deborah Laake, the late ex-Mormon who wrote a controversial tell-all, in which she claimed to reveal the details of secret Temple rituals), or the Shakers. These groups are wildly different from one another, but they all define themselves, to some extent, against the English/Gentiles/mainstream. And they all have ritual practices that foster communal cohesion. Nineteenth-century Shakers, for example, held all property in common, practiced celibacy, and separated parents from their children, so that members would identify first and foremost not with their family but with the religious community.
When a person leaves, say, the Amish, he is in tangible ways cut off from the community. Although faithful Amish will still speak to people who leave, they are not allowed to eat with or accept rides from apostates. In some communities, faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden even to greet apostates, on pain of “disfellowship.” When Robert Bear, a member of the Reformed Mennonite Church, was excommunicated, church officials ordered the community to “shun” him; even his wife stopped speaking to him. Lawrence Wright describes the Scientology practice of “disconnection,” in which members of the church are ordered to cut ties with disaffected ex-Scientologists or others who criticize the faith.
Though I do not like to think of myself as such, I am technically an apostate, having long ago given up the Judaism of my childhood for the Episcopal Church. We do not readily associate the latter religion with shunning, and I must admit I feel envious, in some small way, of those groups in the American religious landscape that do call out their members. It is not the apostasy per se I envy, but the necessary preconditions: robust community; distinctive practices; and, indeed, some social consequences for leaving the faith. So while I appreciate that my church makes room for patchwork, for doubt, for moving in and out, some days I think: Would that America’s Protestant mainline could produce an apostate. For one might say that a group that lacks the necessary preconditions for making apostates can’t make disciples either.