The word 'Christian' as a too-broad brush?

In The New Republic, Timothy Noah wants to know just when it was that the word "Christian" came to be exclusive and synonymous with evangelicalism.

Every morning I wake up to National Public Radio's “Morning Edition,” and this morning my first stirrings of consciousness concerned the new movie October Baby, about a young woman who finds out that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion. Ten percent of the film's profits will be donated to an anti-abortion charity. NPR's piece about October Baby (audio, text), described it as one of several “Christian” films that Hollywood studios have started churning out. Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter's Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn't like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

As I lay in bed struggling to wake up I thought: Christian? Christians aren't some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. About 78 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. What NPR and Fox and Sony mean when they say “Christian” is “Christian right” or “Christian conservatives,” terms that adherents don't like because they think they're pejorative. “Fundamentalist” and “evangelical” are imperfect substitutes because a) the two categories, though they overlap a lot, aren't precisely the same; and b) some of these folks consider themselves political liberals. (The worldly Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr called himself an evangelical Protestant.) What conservative Christians really like to be called is “Christians.” Hence “Christian rock” and “Christian college” and now “Christian film.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn't perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

According to Pew, only about one-third of Christians call themselves “evangelicals.” That's about 26 percent of all Americans. The other two-thirds self-identify as Catholics (23 percent) and with either mainline (18 percent) or historically black (7 percent) Protestantism. (A smattering of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other tiny subgroups make up the remaining 4 percent.) To suggest that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews. It's a cartoonish misconception that the Christian right has managed to sell to a largely secular news media that's too sensitive to accusations of anti-religious bias.

Comments (5)

I have struggled myself with the label of Christian, because in our society it communicates something that I don't want to be associated with, especially since I'm in the buckle of the Bible belt. I think, "I'm not attached to the word, personally- God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church, aren't going anywhere. In some sense the fundamentalists can have the word, if they want."

Then I cycle into the various kinds of qualifications- are we liberal, progressive, emergent Christians? But I realize in the very act of qualifying myself I am ceding to the fundamentalists a legitimacy they don't have. Furthermore, we are every bit as traditional and conservative as the fundamentalists- we are adhering to parts of the tradition and conserving different elements than they are. Furthermore, we should all be liberal (open and free) and progressive (moving into God's future).

I have tentatively settled on "patriarchal" or "authoritarian" Christians and "feminist" or "Spirit" Christians. Patriarchy is not a pejorative to them, in fact the Orthodox call their organizational structure the Patriarchate. Patriarchy is at the root of everything about their faith- their views on Creation, women, ordination, language, sex, the Bible, other religions, and on and on and on.

A feminist label, especially as it is associated with the feminine pneuma or ruach (Spirit in the Bible, with connotations of newness, life, breath, generativity) is not perfect, but at least the distinctions go to the heart of our differences better than other terminology I have found.

I don't think it's a complete snow job of the media on the part of conservative Christians. The same phenomenon takes place in Israel, where many ardent secularists define Orthodox Judaism as the only "real Judaism," denigrating more progressive streams like Conservativism/Masorti and Reform. I believe it lets them off the hook as far as religion is concerned - Judaism is defined as something medieval, backwards, life-denying, clad in black gabardine, xenophobic, something that not only can be safely abandoned but that should be abandoned. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and when it comes to religious pluralism in Israel a lot of secular types are in bed with the Chareidim.

I think the same thing applies here, to a certain extent. If Christianity is something identified with the likes of Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family, then it's something that can be ignored.

Forgive my ignorance but I thought one of the important foundations of the whole Anglican experiment was keeping foreign bishops from meddling in the affairs of other nations and churches. Perhaps I am misguided?

I have listened to NPR's report, and neither NPR nor director Jon Erwin implies that Christian belongs exclusively to anyone. Erwin uses Christian (just as he refers to the South) to describe his cultural background and his assumptions. A few times the context is self-critical, as in acknowledging that his subculture has neglected the arts.

Yes, NPR uses Christian as a shorthand adjective in this story. NPR also alerts listeners to the content of October Baby, calling the film hardcore and referring to Erwin delivering a rant at the Heritage Foundation. Would this story be stronger by piling on adjectives in front of Christian? Most NPR listeners are smart enough not to require such hand-holding.

I would love to make it through even one week without seeing my fellow Episcopalians grouse about evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, using those adjectives as if they are synonyms.

The Associated Press Stylebook has cut to the heart of it for decades: "In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself." Apply the same guidance to other adjectives and it's much tougher to go wrong.

Funny, Douglas, I would like to have even a week being a full & EQUAL citizen of the United States . . . but those "evangelical and fundamentalist Christians", most of them, have very strong feelings (expressed at the ballot box) against my equality.

Makes me a bit grouse-y. >:-/

JC Fisher

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