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April 02, 2012 5:50 PM Stealing Christianity Redux

By Ed Kilgore

Last week I spun off an excellent article by TNR’s Tim Noah about the tendency in MSM to let conservative evanglicals have a sort of implicit copyright on the word “Christian.” I generally agreed with Tim’s unhappiness at the unrepresentative nature of this practice, and differed from him mainly because I blamed secular media ignorance of and indifference toward religion as much as evangelical intimidation for the phenomenon. And Kevin Drum added value to the discussion by arguing that “Christian” had become short-hand for cultural offerings of an overtly Christian character, which mostly came from conservative evangelicals, so other Christians had little standing to complain.

Now, interestingly enough, NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has taken the occasion of this discussion to deal with listener complaints about the unreflective use of the term “Christian” in Morning Edition host David Greene’s interview of the director of a “Christian” anti-abortion film titled October’s Baby.

Greene argued, much as Kevin Drum did, that this is a recognized cultural usage:

“‘Christian’ is a well-established modifier when describing a genre in filmmaking, as well as a genre in music,” he wrote me. “There’s an award for Christian music at the Grammys, for example. Amazon and other retailers classify Christian movies as a category for sales.”
We absolutely accept the point that ‘October Baby’, with its message on abortion, could have been classified in other ways - perhaps as a socially conservative film, for example,” he added. “But this was a piece about a very broad genre.”

Greene’s self-defense, however, is pretty obviously circular: conservative evangelicals have appropriated the term “Christian” for themselves successfully, so that success justifies its perpetuation.

Schumacher-Matos is more direct:

Everyone, of course, has a right to name themselves what they want. It is up to us, however, in the broader public and the news media to decide whether to go along.

This is a particularly touchy subject for me not just because I am a mainline Protestant, but because I happen to belong to a denomination—the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—whose individual churches typically go by the simple name “Christian.” That usage in turn dates back to the desire of the group’s founders to be as inclusive as possible and resist inter-denominational conflict.

Now it’s an unfortunate but inescapable fact that many (though hardly all) conservative evangelicals use the term in an exclusive as opposed to an inclusive sense, rejecting in particular the idea that mainline Protestants are authentically “Christian” because we do not typically embrace biblical inerrancy or treat involvement in conservative cultural and political causes as matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. While conservatives are free to make that aggressive and divisive claim, it is historically inaccurate and morally dubious.

It kind of reminds me of the incident during the McCarthy era when some conservative Member of Congress called on the Cincinnati Reds baseball team to change its knickname because it was associated with “godless Communism.” One of the player replied: “Let the Communists change their name. We had it first.”

Mainline Protestants (and Catholics, and Orthodox) are generally happy to share the term “Christian” with evangelicals, who hardly “had it first.” If they must distinguish themselves, an adjective or two is not too much to ask, and the same is true of journalists talking to or about them.

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

  • RalfW on April 02, 2012 6:02 PM:

    There is a much broader sloppiness (or, perhaps, journalistic laziness) in evidence.

    I see it all the time in my faith-based work for LGBT equity. Reporters will say that Christians oppose LGBT rights, or only interview conservative faith leaders - usually as the 'balance' to a secular left story such as a march or lobby day.

    But there are always faithful people on the side of LGBT rights, particularly in the past ten years or so, but at least quietly for longer than that.

    I don't know if the reporters think the audience isn't smart enough to understand that Reform Jews, United Church of Christ, ELCA Lutherans, UUs, etc have a different view & message than Catholic priests and evangelical pastors?

    We're starting to see a shift at least some of the time. The MN Rabbinic council put out a press release that they oppose the anti-marriage amendment here, and that got good press. But that's the exception.

    I see this in matters of choice, too. Many mainline Protestant denominations as well as Jews and UUs officially support choice. But you'd rarely, rarely know that from the media. Despite justice advocates working in faith circles, sending out press avails, having events and such.

    There is a real muffling of religious voices on the progressive side. I sure wish I knew why so that we could start to address it and broaden the conversation...

  • Ken D. on April 02, 2012 6:02 PM:

    Except, you know, the Cincinnati Reds did NOT stand up to the "Reds means communist" nonsense. They changed their name to the Redlegs for several years for exactly that reason. I am not sure if that is relevant to the current issue, but you might want to consider a different example.

  • DonppitorD on April 02, 2012 6:03 PM:

    I think you are correct about this. It may be even more important as we "main line protestants" (PCUSA here) rediscover our commitment to evangelism to go along with our historical social action chops. I suspect our discomfort with the dreaded word "evangelism" will raise consciousness about our own, long-standing, claims on carrying the name Christian proudly. I believe "the disciples were called Christian first at Antioch."

  • mad_nVT on April 02, 2012 6:54 PM:

    Okay Ed, what are the two adjectives that you would suggest be used when describing those right-wing Christians?

  • massappeal on April 02, 2012 6:57 PM:

    Just to add another reason for resisting this misuse of "Christian". Conservative Protestant Christians often use "Christian" in a way that intentionally excludes Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and their churches. It's their prerogative to do so. However, it doesn't mean the rest of us have to go along with them.

  • POed Lib on April 02, 2012 7:09 PM:

    I was one who wrote to them following the extremely annoying comments about the forced-birther propaganda trash "October's baby". Not only are these assholes trying to steal "Christian" but they were also trying to state that "Christians" invented family life and all the virtues of normal moral persons. These virtues have been taught in every culture of the world, from millenia before Jesus. It is profoundly wrong for these people to try to usurp these concepts, which Homer, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and every culture has taught.

  • tcinaz on April 02, 2012 8:17 PM:

    As a non-practicing but well-trained "christian" I have seen the decline in real christian values, exponentially relate to the number of those claiming to be "christian". (I deliberately use a lower case c to describe this phenomenon.) Jan Shakowsky did a spectacular job of showing just how un-biblical Paul Ryan's budget is today, and that should be seen as as case in point. It is clear that the term christian has been misappropriated by a group of zealots who wish to mask their authoritarianism in the cloak of established religion. In the process, they have driven thoughtful Christians from their midst, just as Republicans have driven moderates from theirs for the same reasons. They have, as is always the case with extremists, displayed their true agenda since the election of Barak Obama. They are authoritarians, bigots, and reactionaries, who wish to maintain a stranglehold on power to protect their privilege at the expense of anyone seen as different from themselves. Finally someone is unmasking this charade, and more power to those who do.

  • sfer on April 02, 2012 8:31 PM:

    I understand the problem, but I can't plant the blame to either the media or the evangelical Christians.

    I was raised Catholic, and I learned when I was a teen-ager that if someone approached me and said s/he was a "Christian", this meant I was outside the group. The term "Christian" has always been exclusive. It does not include Catholics, Episcopalians, Quakers, or Unitarians. Oddly, the Catholic bishops seem to be on a campaign to join up with the group which has historically distained them as "Papists".

  • Texas Aggie on April 02, 2012 8:40 PM:

    "an adjective or two is not too much to ask"

    how about any of the following:

    1. reactionary rightwing

    2. regressive rightist

    3. ultraconservative paternalist

    4. looney whackjob

    Sorry to sound so bitter, but having to deal with these people on a constant basis does that to you. I suppose that there are worse places than TX where these people are concerned (OK comes to mind), but TX is bad enough.

  • c00p on April 02, 2012 10:22 PM:

    Hear, hear to Texas Aggie. (I'm a Texas Longhorn. And the days of Texan politicians like LBJ are LONG GONE...) I do think a big part of the problem is that the "evangelical fundamentalists" are so loud and obnoxious in their confiscation of the term "Christian" that they have drowned out other voices, AND the more "liberal" Christians (those who actually believe in turning the other cheek, for example) have allowed their belligerent "brethren" to do so. To many of us, "Christian" has long since become a term with primarily negative associations and connotations. That will not change until more loving and less judgmental Christians MAKE it happen.

  • anon's honey on April 02, 2012 11:53 PM:

    When I think of Christian I think of a long view of taking care of the poor and the sick, of themes of forgiveness and comraderie, of --community organizing---
    Ryan plan's bogus budget is absurdly deceptive, fraudulent, mysteriously make-believe, and certainly not genuine.
    It's thoughtless, illogical, and ill-considered. Hello billionaires, here's more money 4-U from Ryan. Sorry, poor and disadvantaged people. Ryan's differentials suggest it could be your fault.
    Lack of specificity from a Wisconsin panderer with no specifics.

  • smartalek on April 03, 2012 12:13 AM:

    "...family life and all the virtues of normal moral persons. These virtues have been taught in every culture of the world, from millenia before Jesus. It is profoundly wrong for these people to try to usurp these concepts, which Homer, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and every culture has taught."

    So what you're saying here is that the specific conception of "family life" put forward by the christianists as the one and only proper, moral conception, and so identified universally, across all cultures -- one male and one female, and however many offspring -- really IS the one and only morally correct model?
    Really?
    Is that what "liberals" are like wherever you're writing from?

  • MelanieN on April 03, 2012 12:27 AM:

    Fundamentalists have been using "Christian" as a synonym for "fundamentalist" all my life. I once had a sister-in-law who would happily prattle to me about the things she did with her "Christian friends", not even noticing that she was excluding me from that description although I was and am a practicing Christian. What is different now is that the usage has gone mainstream, and I think that is due to both of the factors you suggest: constant repetition by the fundies, and laziness/ignorance by the mainstream media. The ignorance has spread from the media to the public at large. Many people, for example, are surprised to learn that you can be a Christian and accept evolution - and astonished to hear that the Pope has explicitly endorsed the teaching. Who gave them the idea that "Christians" oppose evolution? A combination of loud fundamentalists and lazy reporting. Wouldn't it be nice if we could convince the media to label these people as "fundamentalists" instead of "Christian"?

  • Shane on April 03, 2012 3:41 AM:

    Yeah, I hate it when people make my Invisible Sky Fairy look bad by using the same name to talk about their own, much crazier Sky Fairy...

  • MuddyLee on April 03, 2012 8:16 AM:

    Conservative Christian, Ultra-Conservative Christian, Fundamentalist Christian, Home-Schooling Christian, Rightwing Christian, Anti-Science Christian -- why not some of those terms to describe Christians in the current Republican party? As for those who vote/support Democrats, how about Progressive Christian, Christian Left, Non-Fundamentalist Christian, Pro-Science Christian, Public School Christian, Christian Democrat, and dare I say it, Sane Christian?

  • jhm on April 03, 2012 8:24 AM:

    I don't have a lot to add to this which would be likely to be constructive (I liked Shane's comment above a lot, in spirit if I wouldn't have been quite so blunt in practice), but my reaction to the recent shootings in a "christian school" should be instructive. What does the addition of 'christian' add to this story? irrespective of whether they were a bunch on fundies, there was no indication that religious motives were involved, but they were implied by the inclusion of this adjective. I wonder if we are supposed to think that this incident is qualitatively different that an identical one which might take place in a generic school (I gather that is was some sort of secondary school, but even this information was omitted in initial reports in favor of the religious.

  • rea on April 03, 2012 10:04 AM:

    "Conservative Christian, Ultra-Conservative Christian, Fundamentalist Christian, Home-Schooling Christian, Rightwing Christian, Anti-Science Christian"

    Or maybe just the Biblically-accurate "Pharisee".

  • G on April 03, 2012 10:13 AM:

    As OP Ken D, already pointed out, the Cincinnati Reds DID change their name to the Red Legs from, 1953-58.

    Here is an image of the logo that Cincinnati used during that era. Note the uniform top says "Red Stockings" and not Red Legs.

    http://www.sportslogos.net/logo.php?id=7266

  • Eugene Debs on April 03, 2012 10:24 AM:

    On a related note, my skin crawls when people refer to the "Democrat Party".

  • waddanut on April 03, 2012 11:57 AM:

    My 91 year old mother has been going to the same old "New England liberal" Congregational church her whole life.

    NEVER try to tell her that she is not Christian....

  • David Carlton on April 03, 2012 1:00 PM:

    I think that one problem with the use of the "Christian" label for cultural productions like music is that that it's become roughly synonymous with "safe." Here in Nashville the Christian music industry essentially sells its wares more to parents than to kids, and mainly as music that won't "corrupt" their children. There are musicians here who employ Christian themes in their music, but who would never be treated as "Christian" artists because their stuff is too complex, or too deep, or, well, too dangerous. I think, for instance, of my friend David Olney, who performed his oft-covered "Jerusalem Tomorrow" as the introit to my Presbyterian congregation's Palm/Passion Sunday service; the song's charlatan-preacher persona, trying to cut a deal with Jesus, will never make it to Christian radio.

  • Jason O'Malley on November 22, 2012 11:33 PM:

    Im a theology student in the Uk and the origin of people being called christians comes from Antioch predating 500 ad, What really bugs me however is the highjacking of christianity by probably well meaning but wholly inacurate pseudo scholarship by the God brigade who make us good God fearing folk almost ashamed to use the word christian because then we might be associated with the lalliographers creationist and pseudohistorians that try to do God a favour but end up putting a stumbling block in front of us, I fully intend to use TNT (metaphorically of course) lol...in my own personal belief love is the only real 100 per cent truth in the bible and Jesus is Lord who came in the flesh evolution is true but I think God is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover and the giver of life behind it all. Science is how and the mystery is why.