Stealing Christianity

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

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.