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March 28, 2012 10:45 AM Stealing Christianity

By Ed Kilgore

TNR’s Tim Noah wrote yesterday about one of my all-time biggest pet peeves: the constant appropriation of the word “Christian” by conservative evangelicals as exclusive to their distinctive and hardly uncontested point of view. What sent Noah off was an NPR story on “Christian films,” which, of course, turned out to be films by a very particular and not at all representative type of Christians:

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.”

Amen, brother. So why does this keep happening, asks Noah?

[O]nly 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.

So Noah figures secular media go along with this theft of Christianity in all its diverse glory because they’ve been intimidated into doing so by the endless whining of the Christian Right about “persecution.” That’s clearly a factor, but I suspect secular media ignorance contributes as well: a lot of media types simply don’t know much about religion, which they find faintly ridiculous and embarrassing. And since it’s all, in their view, a shuck, they are inclined to find its most forcefully conservative practitioners to be the most “authentic.” And Noah is right: This is precisely the same ignorance compounded by ill will that leads a lot of gentiles to treat visibly orthodox Jews as the only “real Jews.” I daresay that to the very limited extent they even think about these things, most secular observers of American culture share the assumption of conservative Christians that mainline Protestants and liberal (or “Cafeteria”) Catholics are both dying breeds of people who don’t take their religion seriously enough to practice it.

So why not give the “Christian” brand to those who most aggressively and exclusively demand it? Besides, these “Christians” are a distinct market that can be coopted and pandered to.

For a while last year, I found myself regularly watching the TV show “The Glee Project,” a competition show designed to choose new members for the successful network series “Glee.” I was mainly fascinated by the powerful interest of the show’s creators in finding a “Christian” character for Glee, by which they clearly meant a conservative evangelical. While the “Christian” character they wanted dropped out of the competition because it required morally compromising behavior (again, from a conservative evangelical perspective), the ultimate winner decided at the last minute to proclaim his own “Christian” (conservative evangelical) tendencies, making everyone happy. And I couldn’t decide whether the people running the show were just exceptionally stupid, or rather shrewd in pursuing an audience demographic that believes it holds the “Christian” copyright.

However it has developed, the identification of American Christianity with the views of a minority of its actual practitioners needs to be challenged as factually inaccurate and both culturally and political dangerous.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Ron Byers on March 28, 2012 10:59 AM:

    One of the problems Christian progressives face is the unrelenting derision they endure from progressive atheists who are profoundly ignorant of their own belief system.

  • Gandalf on March 28, 2012 11:08 AM:

    OK here's a fix for that dillema/ The evangelicals and ultra conservative rightwingers are to be called christians from here on out the rest of us are to be called True Christians.

  • R on March 28, 2012 11:13 AM:

    @Ron: Good point; fundamentalist atheists can shut down meaningful communication pretty quickly. (And yes, if it matters, I am an atheist.)

    When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother used "Christian" as a synonym for charitable or forgiving. It's been painful to see the word hijacked by extremists. A friend of mine looking for a roommate made it clear that it was a "Christian household," meaning that another friend, a Congregationalist, was not welcome. That's unchristian, if you ask me.

    Captcha: "byRegar thy" must mean something relevant...

  • Kathryn on March 28, 2012 11:15 AM:

    Amen brother. Suggest reading two opeds in the New York Times today, Thomas Friedman's Elephants Down Under and also Detention is No Holiday by guest author Edwidge Dantocat. My conclusion is the more religious we claim to be as a country, the more rigid and cruel we are in practice. Make special note of the heartless decision by the Supreme Court regarding detainee health care when in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The right wing Catholic members of the Surpreme Court must share one heart amongt them and it's inadequate to the job.

  • Rich on March 28, 2012 11:17 AM:

    Better late than never. Noah is about 30 years too late, but given that he's mostly gone along with the MSM line on things for as long as I can remember, I guess it's progress.

  • Zorro on March 28, 2012 11:30 AM:

    Note that Glee is aired by FOX... as in the home of FOX News Channel.

    -Z

  • aimai on March 28, 2012 11:34 AM:

    The argument that "a lot of secular" media don't understand religion is a total crock of shit. Really, an embarrassment, Ed. I'm a fucking Jewish Atheist and I know a shitload about the various Christian and Christianist Sects in this country. I know the names of their leaders, their funding sources, the history of Calvinism, Lutheranism, and the details of a lot of Catholicism. Non Christians have been soaking in Christianity for centuries and we have been obligated to know as much about them as the slaves knew about the slave owners and as women know about men. Just because I despise certain forms of modern Christianist theology doesn't mean I don't understand it very, very, very, well.

    aimai

  • Jeremy Holland on March 28, 2012 11:34 AM:

    Whenever I hear people loudly touting their Christian beliefs, I first think of this Bill Hicks piece. And for a more up-to-date riff, Bill Maher

  • Old Uncle Dave on March 28, 2012 11:36 AM:

    So which christians is he talking about, the Sunni or the Shia?

  • revchicoucc on March 28, 2012 11:39 AM:

    Another aspect is that the media looks for a "spokesperson" or other "representative of the group." So they turn to celebrity preachers, who do a better job of self-promotion, to speak for all Christians, like Rick Warren or Jerry Falwell in his day. It's why Timothy Dolan speaks for all Catholics. It's why a Hasidic rabbi speaks for all Jews. In addition, these people claim to speak the "true truth."

    American religion is too diverse, too dispersed into hundreds of thousands of congregations for media to cover it, well, without more work than they want to do.

    Of course, most mainline and progessive Christian clergy have no skills at talking to the media.

  • TCinLA on March 28, 2012 11:53 AM:

    I'm not religious, I have through most of my life been anti-religious, but I do know that religion is important to many of my friends. So I have long been upset by the Fundamentalist Right appropriating the word "Christian," just as I have been upset by the Fascists stealing the word "Conservative."

    The nouns Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, are big important words that represent Big Ideas. But when you put the word "Fundamentalist" in front, they become adjectives that describe the brand of idiocy - and they all have more in common with each other than with their supposed "co-religionists."

    Call them Christian Fundamentalists. It's what they are and if they don't like it, they can always go to the chaplain and get their T-S card punched, as we used to say in the military. And the (bowel)movement "conservatives" need to be called what they are: "far radical right extremists" (there is a one-word equivalent, but many people are too afraid of it to use it).

  • Daryl McCullough on March 28, 2012 11:54 AM:

    In some cases, the reason that the "Christian" label means "evangelical Christian" is because other Christians don't bother to label themselves. For example, Bono of U2 is Christian, but he doesn't call his music "Christian music", he just calls it rock and roll.

    If someone is going out of his way to remind you that he is Christian, you can bet he's evangelical.

  • BillFromPA on March 28, 2012 12:05 PM:

    Whether one is religious or not, there's no down side to asking a Santorum, 'You claim you're a Christian, yet you support torture, the bombing of foreign targets in which innocents will be killed, the abandonment of the poor, and mch more, all things that Christ preached against, how do you explain the divergence between your religion and your actions?'

    Everything we know, or think we know, about Christ comes from 4 very small gospels, there's not much to interpret, and in my 61 years on the planet it's my experience that the more loudly one trumpets their Christianity, the less Christ-like their actual behavior is. Let's start challenging these hypocrits.

  • Peter C on March 28, 2012 12:06 PM:

    "secular media ignorance contributes as well: a lot of media types simply donít know much about religion, which they find faintly ridiculous and embarrassing."

    I'm sorry, Ed, but I can't think of what your refer to here. Do you suppose that non-religious media is dominated by atheists?

    As an atheist, I feel like a member of a small minority and assume that most of the members of society have some religious life. It is just that most politely avoid the topic.

    Evangelicals have the "Christian' label both because they've siezed it but also because the main-line denominations have let them. This is not surprising since most main-line denominations aren't out to convert anyone; they are busy serving the spiritual needs of their congregations and are no longer looking to run the world. For the Evangelicals, everything is an existential struggle and non-believers are a threat - be they atheists or 'misguided' religious folk from other denominations.

  • jhm on March 28, 2012 12:25 PM:

    I'm not sure were, if anywhere, this fits in with this thread, but while I acknowledge that certain Christians are closer to my belief system, I tend to lump them all together (along with, I should say, other theists) because no self described Christian can offer any real reason that they differ from another Christian, or chose to appropriate a particular label for themselves only, without resorting toóto meómeaningless theological angel counting which I have no time for. Why do you believe X? because chapter:verse yada yada; Why does he believe ~X? because chapter:verse yada yada. None of these are actual arguments, and as such are identical to my eyes, and the more time we spend on them, the less we have for real debates.

  • cmdicely on March 28, 2012 12:26 PM:

    It's why Timothy Dolan speaks for all Catholics.

    It would actually be progress if the mainstream media treated Cardinal Dolan -- across the board -- as the voice of all American Catholics (it wouldn't be at all good, mind you, but it would be progress compared to what we have now, and it would at least have some kind of integrity.) As it is, what they do is pay attention to whatever Catholic voice is most convenient for painting Catholicism as part of the Christian Right. On the handful of issues where the national conference is in line with the political right (e.g., mostly marriage and reproduction issues), they'll pay attention to the Cardinal Dolan and the conference -- on issues where the national conference is uncommitted (perhaps due to lack of consensus or priority), insufficiently stridently conservative, or actually strongly embracing a left leaning position (many non-reproductive health care issues, issues relating to the social safety net, issues relating to labor, and on and on) they'll find some a spokesman for some politically conservative Catholic lay group as the voice of Catholicism. Or, they'll ignore Catholicism altogether and take some voices from the evangelical/fundamentalist Right as the voice of all Christianity.

  • martin on March 28, 2012 12:27 PM:

    As I am more than happy to let the rightwingers have Christian, it doesn't bother me. But if you need a better word, how about "Christianish"?

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 28, 2012 12:41 PM:

    This may explain the explosion of "Christian" or "Faith" genres of music. Why isn't it just called gospel? Oh! It's for conservative Christians. Right-O...

    I think that kind of subgenre-ing is a slap in the face to Christians artists (singers, actors, athletes) who don't feel the need to use their work to validate their beliefs. Many R&B singers and rappers, especially if they're Black, are Christians - evidenced by how often they thank God when they get awards (even if they couldn't peform their songs in any church without significant editing). Many grew up singing in church, and they could easily record a song about getting their freak on while wearing a blinged-out thong and then record a gospel song in the same studio session. R. Kelly has. No biggie. Point being that most of these artists (and their Christian fans) don't find mainstream/secular entertainment at odds with their faith.

    And take someone like Tyler Perry, a very devout Christian. While his plays and movies could have been marketed exclusively as "Christian" because of their themes, they weren't and still enjoyed a secular/mainstream appeal. My dad--anti-religionist supreme--LOVED the Madea plays, even though they'd break into spontaneous gospel singing every 30 minutes. My point being here that secular/mainstream audiences aren't necessarily at odds with or opposed to christian themes in entertainment. Fundamentalist Christians would have us believe that "Christian" values are being suppressed/persecuted in the "liberal" entertainment industry, but the truth could simply be that unpopular belief systems (fundamentalist anything) rarely survive the "will it appeal to the masses" whiff-test... Free market capitalism, anyone.

  • Ron Shook on March 28, 2012 12:47 PM:

    Ed,

    An important blog that you might want to look further into. The whole "Christian" denominating thingy has been hijacked by the extreme right-wing political whackos for their own ideological ends and secular media lets them get away with it.

    For instance, the National Association of Evangelicals is by far the largest organization of its kind in America, representing in one way or another some 2/3rds of American Evangelicals. You might be interested to find out how progressive they can be. They have been attacked vehemently and irrationally from the right for their stand on political and civic involvement by evangelicals. That stand is embodied here:

    http://www.nae.net/images/content/For_The_Health_Of_The_Nation.pdf

    I think that you'll find it a very interesting read and even more interesting when you look into the history of this document.

  • Frank Wilhoit on March 28, 2012 12:48 PM:

    "... the identification of American Christianity with the views of a minority of its actual practitioners..." is due to the majority's failure to prevent their brand from being hijacked -- but hijacked it has been and it is idle to pretend otherwise. The labelling that Noah complains about is neither inaccurate nor misleading, as long as the minority speaks and acts in the name of the majority and that claim is not effectively challenged.

  • 2Manchu on March 28, 2012 12:50 PM:

    It's funny, but I was taught in my CCD classes that a Christian was someone who cherished love, kindness, empathy, sympathy, pity, charity, forgiveness, social justice, humility, tolerance, and understanding.

    (It was the mid-to-late 70s, and I think most of my teachers were former hippies)

    I was never told to judge others, while at the same act like I was above judgment, to be proudly smug in my self-righteousness and supposed moral superiority over those who didn't share my social and political beliefs, to ignore the plight of others who needed help, to serve mammon over Heaven, and to act like I know more about the intentions of God than anyone else.

    So I guess by today's standards, I'm not a Christian.

  • David Ellis Dickerson on March 28, 2012 12:58 PM:

    The reason evangelicals co-opt the word "Christian" is because of three factors: First, they're a proselytizing religion that believes in hell, which means the stakes are high, and truth must never be left vague. Second, among Christians generally there's no single overarching authority to claim who is and is not "Christian" (which is why this same slippage does not occur with Catholics or Greek Orthodox or any other religion with a strong hierarchical structure; you can talk about "liberal Mormons" and there's no logical disconnect); and thirdly, precisely because this vagueness exists, the term "real Christian" gets applied to whoever cares the most. And fundamentalists will ALWAYS care more about being the REAL Christians or the REAL Muslims than anyone who feels less hellfire beneath them or those for whom their religion is a smaller part of a more nuanced and wholistic identity.

    As a result, I'm not exactly sure how to fight this irritating human tendency (it's very hard to raise an army in the name of tolerance and peace), but I think a good start would be if journalists dared to a.) specify "conservative evangelical" every time a guest called themselves "Christian," and then b.) made sure to ask evangelicals if they thought Person X was not a true Christian or--better yet--simply asked, "Do you believe in the Rapture?" Most evangelicals are crouched over a set of frighteningly weird and divisive ideas that would make them a lot less popular if they were regularly aired. Especially their tendency to assume everyone is damned but themselves.

  • Bob/SoCal on March 28, 2012 1:06 PM:

    It's a whole new breed of Christinity theses days.
    " Judge EVERYBODY who is any different from you as an enemy"...Can't trust anybody if they don't belong to your church or political party..Like the 'in crowd" in high school, change your views to reflect the popular view of the day...What a waste brain power!
    Todays rightwingers should be re-named HypoChristians!

  • Ron Byers on March 28, 2012 1:08 PM:

    Frank Wilhoit, you make a good point. It is very difficult for mainstream Christians to defend their brand. For theological reasons, unrelated to the crap the fundies are selling, they have a hard time denouncing someone who claims to be a Christian even if they sound more like followers of some Old Testament based religion that has little in common with the teachings of Jesus. The problem isn't new. It goes right back to the 3rd Century when the Roman Church gained total control of a very broad based Christian movement.

  • SteveT on March 28, 2012 1:20 PM:

    The so-called "Christians" who reject tolerance, generosity, forgiveness, empathy, peace, love and the "brotherhood of man" -- you know, all the stuff that Jesus preached about -- should be called something else.

    I've started calling them 'Jesusistas'.

  • Jimo on March 28, 2012 1:21 PM:

    Andrew Sullivan has been addressing this question for years, originally springing off the post 9/11 meme of Islam versus Islamicists.

    Sullivan eventually adopted the term Christianists to designate those persons whose superficial culture adopts the symbolism and themes of Christianity but substitute politics for religion in its substance.

    For example, there's plenty of room for political debate as to the best (most effective, most efficient) approach to addressing poverty (its present reality, its origin, prevention, etc.) between political philosophies. In this sense, Jesus is neither Republican nor Democrat.

    But there's no room for a religious debate as to the identification of Jesus with the poor (their concerns, their interests) at the expense of the wealthy. No Christian, therefore, could ever utter words such as we've seen from GOP candidates to the effect of "I'm not concerned with the poor" or to fail to even discuss (let alone adopt as policy) the needs of the poor beyond 'if you're poor, that's your fault' or a general theme that says: give the wealthy enough money and it's inevitable that opportunity must someday trickle down to the poor, even if it's just using homeless people as mobile wifi hotspots.'

  • boatboy_srq on March 28, 2012 2:07 PM:

    The usurpation of "Christian" by Xtians is at once evidence of the spiritual solipsism of Xtians ("nobody is Xtian but me") and cheap marketing to the rest of us.

    The "Christianity is under assault," "Christians are being oppressed" is used far more often than not to gain sympathy from the majority who adhere to Christianity: for Christians, hearing those phrases gives an instant momentary pang of association and empathy. Let's not pretend here: Xtians count on that empathy, and use it to their advantage. Prayer in schools? Well, that can't be so bad - until you hear about how Catholics and mainstream Protestants need to be "saved" is included, or prayers for harm to come to political/social opponents; "Christians are at risk in foreign countries" sounds horrible until you learn they're actually Xtian missionaries out to convert a la l'Inquisition the various countries they're visiting; etc. They buy themselves time and sympathy, and depend on the gullibility of the rest of us, by implying that they're part of the larger whole whenever it's expedient. The true test comes when you ask them to define the word: their Christendom is a whole lot smaller than most - not infrequently not reaching four-digit numbers - and describes a much less inclusive group. The fact that the media goes along with this is just convenient: it makes for sexy stories, spicy copy and good ratings, and it's as likely that the newsreaders/producers are subject to the same momentary spike of empathy as anyone else, which gets the story in the door in the first place.

    @Sgt. Gym Bunny and others: "Christian rock" is no less orthodox a world than the world of their churches. One look at Amy Grant's tribulation-ridden career is proof that even hinting that something exists outside their sphere is enough for immediate and durable excommunication.

  • Texas Aggie on March 28, 2012 3:30 PM:

    I've always liked and used the word "christianist" for the right wingers whose actions are about as far from what the rabbi Jesus actually taught as you can get. It has been instructive that you can always find these christianists throwing hissy fits about not being able to post the Ten Commandments, but I have yet to hear one of them even try to post the Beatitudes anywhere.

  • boatboy_srq on March 28, 2012 3:42 PM:

    TEXAS AGGIE FTW.

  • Rhymes With Right on March 28, 2012 3:52 PM:

    How about a different take on this one.

    When we group folks, we primarily do so by what we -- or they -- view as a "defining characteristic", usually the one that seems to be the primary one. Barack Obama is, dare I suggest, someone who could be categorized many ways, but who will always primarily be defined in terms of the category that he (and our society) place first -- his race. Something similar happens when we talk about "women's issues" -- we are referring to those who primarily define themselves in terms of gender, despite the fact that their views may or may not represent the majority of females (as witnessed by the recent words of a liberal female legislator in PA who asked if her female colleagues who opposed her were actually "men with breasts").

    Which brings us back to the use of the term "Christian" to define a particular segment of the population in terms of politics and culture. These are the folks whose first identification is with their religion and whose whole self-identification is bound up with that aspect of their being. That would exclude those of us who are unambiguously Christian but don't feel a need to be totally immersed in religiously themed music, literature and broadcasting. So i would argue that there is certainly a "Christian" market made up of those who focus on that aspect of their life as defining -- and recognizing/labeling it is not a bad thing.

  • Brock on March 28, 2012 4:46 PM:

    "Thatís clearly a factor, but I suspect secular media ignorance contributes as well: a lot of media types simply donít know much about religion, which they find faintly ridiculous and embarrassing."

    Insofar as the media tends to be secular, one should actually expect them to be *more* knowledgeable about religion, based on the Pew Forum's religious knowledge survey, which found "Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge."

    http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

  • mishanti2 on March 28, 2012 8:03 PM:

    I grew up going to a Roman Catholic church with my cousin but became an Episcopalian as an adult as I couldn't stand some of the RC teachings. I was shocked a few months ago when my niece who has been going to a Baptist church stated that Catholics and Episcopalians were NOT Christian. That is what her pastor has been preaching. Since I spent many semesters in Religious study courses in college I could explain the real truth to her much to the dismay of her said pastor.
    It is so easy when you simply just follow the so-called words of Jesus Christ and most of these evangelicals do not. I understand where atheists are coming from and have struggled with the same doubts. BUT I keep my faith to myself and do not preach to other or try to convert others. I am always uncomfortable with the terms labeling anything as "Christian".

  • Scott Smith on March 29, 2012 12:50 AM:

    I hope your article can lead to some greater involvement among Christian progressives. Not sure that progressive Christians aren't evangelical too, as evangelical merely means good-news bearer. But more to the point, Christianity has not been appropriated by Conservative Christians, Progressive Christians are just not as vocal. Call it sensitivity to the broader culture's spiritual variety, political correctness, but for whatever reason, Progressive Christians are not as open about their faith, generally.

    Let me give an example, I have attended Christian conferences sponsored by Christians of all perspectives but one event still has me amaed. It was put on by a denomination proudly Progressive Christians in their spiritual life. No cross was displayed, we were told Christian t-shirts and jewelry would not be allowed on the floor, in the 4 day event, Christ was mentioned 8 times always outside of the meeting hall. When someone finally had the temerity to ask why no cross, why no symbolism, why not even mention the one we are in mission to follow, the answer was, "We don't want to offend anyone by discussing Christ." This opened a can of worms and eventually the Bishop promised there would always be a cross at the conference in the future. In effect it was a business meeting in which the Christian denomination was afraid of offending people who attended because of one of the central images of the faith.

    Now someone is going to want to say they were correct, that those serving us during the event may not have been Christian, but the venue rented the facility to a Christian conference, they had to have some inkling that Christian objects would be there, that the name would be invoked. So I say to my Progressive Christian friends, you can be a respectful, overtly professing Christian without being conservative, but at some point you need to be vocal about what you believe, if you do not want us whacky evangelical conservatives to gt all the attention. I am not saying it to be mean, I am saying it because we need your voice too and it is okay for people of good conscience to disagree. The issue isn't lock-step agreement, it's how faithfully we handle disagreeing. And I say you are my brothers and sisters.

  • tsol on March 29, 2012 1:38 AM:

    This is the same complaint about the right "owning" patriotism. They didn't steal Christianity and the flag, the left just abandoned them in the interests of being more "inclusive".

    Look at any Democratic president or candidate prior to 1980 and you'll find enough "God and Country" talk to make even Rick Santorum proud.

    Quit complaining: they didn't steal it, you both shared it and at some point you decided that you didn't need it and gave them your portion. Not happy? Put a cross around your neck and wave the flag like it means something positive to you and you're proud to let other people know.

    No one's stopping you.