By Tom Ehrich

Today's cultural tussle over who gets to call themselves "Christian" reminds me of the Vietnam-era battle over "patriotic"

The fault line then was both generational and cultural. An older generation came out of World War Two believing that, when the nation went to war and the cause was just, patriotism required people to back the leaders and do their part.

Vietnam was different. Many of military age considered the war unjust and harmful to the nation. In their minds, patriotism required them to resist the war, not fight in it.

Also, the Vietnam era echoed the 1860s, when wealthy New Yorkers bought their way out of serving the Union, leaving duty to immigrants, mainly Irish, and leading eventually to terrible draft riots. Many young men in the 1960s avoided military duty by turning entitlement to their advantage.

"Patriotism," in other words, was complicated.

Same is true now of the label "Christian." To conservative believers and the politicians who crave their financial and electoral support, "Christian" is synonymous with a set of cultural attitudes: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-same-gender-marriage, anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative-action, and pro-guns.

Progressive Christians say that these cultural values have nothing to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ. Either he said nothing about them, or he taught exactly the opposite. In fact, progressives say, an honest Christian moral theology would affirm tolerance, diversity, freedom, inclusion of minorities, and opposition to violence.

Neither side has it all right or all wrong, of course. But one thing is clear: the term "Christian" is far more complicated and diverse than some religious folks want us to believe.

We are all partisans to some extent, and we want to use whatever tools we have to promote our cause. Some tools, however, need to be off-limits.

Turning "gay" into a slur, for example, doesn't just express a considered belief that homosexuality violates God's desire, it also demonizes persons and incites repression.

Using "Christian" to mean a certain set of moral and political absolutes empties the term of faith and makes it ideology. That is a troubling loss that all sides of these debates should regret. For we believe Jesus is Lord of all, not just the champion of our cause and friend to our kind. When we treat Jesus as a political ploy, we all lose.