Stealing Christianity Redux

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.