NPR Ombudsman
7:49 pm
Wed April 4, 2012

Christians: Who Are The 78 Percent?

Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 2:30 pm

Last week we explored whether the word Christian has come to be synonymous with conservative. It seems to be in the entertainment and news industries. But Christians, who make up more than 78 percent of Americans, have a wide spectrum of political views and ideologies, and many responded thoughtfully. In the interest of both accuracy and fostering national comity, what follows are some of those comments. There is no consensus yet on labeling, but please continue the discussion with me and NPR.

Religion News Service's Kevin Eckstrom, editor-in-chief, wrote:

One of the problems with reporting on religion that it is often done by journalists who don't know the terrain. There are obviously different kinds of football players, and different kinds of businesses and different kinds of doctors. No one would confuse Tim Tebow with a guy who plays for a neighborhood pick-up league, or mistake Citibank for Joe's Pawn Shop.

The problem with religion reporting, though, is that journalists unfamiliar with the field sometimes confuse and conflate different kinds of Christians, whether writing about politics, films, beliefs, leaders, etc. Religion is a beat where details and nuance matter a great deal, and often they get lost in the shuffle.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president and founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, shared his thoughts. Acton Institute, a think tank located in Grand Rapids, MI, supports smaller government and free market economics informed by "religious faith and moral absolutes." An excerpt from Sirico's response:

Asking "Who are the Christians?" is less an existential query than a question about partisan branding: What political group gets to claim the word for themselves—and exclude others from its rightful use? The irony is that many mainstream groups wish to recover the franchise at a time when several historically Christian organizations (such as the YMCA) are attempting to distance themselves from the Christian brand. Mr. [Schumacher-Matos] claims that "politically and socially conservative Christians have in fact co-opted the title." But perhaps they never really abandoned it while the politically and socially liberal Christians discarded it, embracing instead, the sort of Christianity that Niebuhr (H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Kingdom of God in America") so memorably described as, "A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly published two blog posts on the subject—Stealing Christianity and Stealing Christianity Redux. Kilgore, a mainline Protestant, belongs to a denomination called the Christian Church. He said the name reflects the founders' desire to be inclusive and "resist inter-denominational conflict." He wrote:

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, but it is historically inaccurate and morally dubious.

...

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.

For yet another perspective, Andrew Maddocks from my office spoke with Sam Fulwood, a veteran journalist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.

"There's no question in my mind that 'Christian' has been appropriated by the political right, to the point that Christians don't recognize it's been done," he said. While the Republican right appealed to family values and tried to engrain morality and spirituality in the public sphere, the left became perceived as secularists, or even "anti-religious at worst." The media, Fulwood said, bought into that, largely because in the days of paramount objectivity—particularly the 40s, 50s and 60s—religious topics made the media so uncomfortable they refused to engage in conversations. When they finally did, he said, they got it wrong.

That shift is "all very unfortunate, because in some ways it is a gross misunderstanding of history," he said. Fulwood is an African American, and is high on what he called a "Christian religion index." He thinks most other African Americans would be too. The church was an important part of the civil rights movement, liberation theology and state intervention to help the poor—ideas that in a contemporary context are considered on the "left."

Now, "If you say you're Christian, you're a Republican—before, if you were Christian you were liberal," Fulwood said. Fulwood thought that in this segment NPR should have said "conservative Christian" or "right-leaning Christian" to describe the film. Fulwood wanted the Christianity described in the film interview differentiated from the church he attends—a progressive church. He understood that David Greene was describing a genre, but Fulwood asked whether the average listener would know that genre exists. He thought she or he would not.

So, in conveying a too-narrow definition of "Christian," Fulwood thought the report did not describe the Christianity reflected in "October Baby" as accurately and fairly as possible.

Blog readers also contributed valuable feedback both here and on Facebook. I appreciated reading the scope of responses. A selection:

Alex Miller (3_1415926) wrote:
...It really comes down to the fact that our language encourages us to stereotype and lump people together. The mechanism by which someone comes to the conclusion "black kids wearing hoodies are dangerous" is the exact same mechanism that allows others to say "Christians are conservative bigots". This "mechanism" is, of course, mere laziness. So I simply encourage everyone to use their language more carefully, and not be lazy when it comes to describing subtleties and complexities.

Thomas O'Reilly (Toreilly) wrote:
Thank you NPR for starting this discussion. In my own Evangelical community, we are having this debate of whether true Evangelicals can be liberals. Liberal Evangelicals are fighting against an echo chamber of Fox News, WND, and talk radio that says that people who do not hold to a politically conservative persuasion are trying to directly attack God and Christianity. In as much as Evangelicals' primary identity tends to be rooted in their faith, I don't think it was wrong to call the film a Christian film. If you called a Sunni or a Sufi film a Muslim film, it would still be accurate. However, there are some of us Christians who are sensitive to the perceived inference that only the Religious Right are true Christians.

Angela Nelson (AngelaJoyNelson) wrote:
"Christian" as it is used in media and marketing, is simply that: media marketing. Take something you want to sell and apply the label of 'Christian' if you want to reach a particular audience and it will sell, regardless of its quality, because labels sell...

Patricia Tush Bass wrote:
Thank you for this piece. As a "progressive" Christian minister, I am increasingly concerned that the use of the word "Christian" is being used in exclusive ways, implying that everyone who is "Christian" thinks identically politically and socially.

We tried to pick not just responses, but representative ones. There were many, many more that were worth highlighting. If you are interesting in reading more, you can find many of them on the Ombudsman Facebook page and in the comments of the original column. I look forward to your additional thoughts, including on what might be an agreed way to label Christians with different political and social views.

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