A dilemma for liberal religionists

If someone says to you “I am a Christian”, where do you think they are likely to fall on the political and social spectrum?

It used to be that people who called themselves Christians could not be that easily pinned down as to their social and political and moral attitudes because they could span a wide range of viewpoints, from extremely liberal to rigidly conservative. But in an article in The New Republic, Timothy Noah argues that things have changed, and that the label Christian has been increasingly co-opted by one narrow faction, and the media is going along with it.

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.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn’t perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”

Noah is right. It looks like conservative/fundamentalist/evangelical Christians are quietly stealing the Christian label for their own exclusive use and getting away with it.

Noah deplores this tendency, but from the view of secularists like me, this may be a good thing. If religious labels such as Christian, Muslim, Jew, and so on become identified with the most narrow-minded and intolerant segments of those groups, then religion as a whole risks becoming discredited as those views become increasingly marginalized.


  1. mnb0 says

    Well, I would not call Springsteen christian rock either -- just pop. But that’s quite another discussion.
    This tendency seems to be typical American, though that might change. Interestingly enough Dutch paper Trouw had an article on the nature of christian politics in The Netherlands:


    The header translates “The Christian Democratic Party is not a christian party”
    The CDA is a fusion of three former clearly outspoken christian parties. These three used to have the majority in The Netherlands, but CDA now has shrinked to say 20%.
    The second alinea mentions two “real” christian parties. Together they have less than 10% of the votes (and that’s an optimistic estimation; it’s closer to 5%). Both are conservative on the typical issues of abortion and gay rights.
    So we might conclude that in The Netherlands happens the same, but via another route.
    I don’t know about other European countries alas.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    So the same people who make the word “liberal” synonymous with “Communist” object to being called “conservative”. Interesting.

  3. JustKat says

    Christian rock usually refers to bands who identify themselves as Christians and who play worship-type songs to a rock beat. I don’t see what the problem is with them being called or calling themselves Christian rockers. Maybe that’s just me.

    The Christians I’m surrounded by ARE the right-leaning conservative types. Of course I’m in southeast Texas so that’s not surprising.

    I love your last paragraph. Isn’t this like what’s happened in the UK? I’ve never been but from reading comments on the internet it seems that religious belief is a bit of an embarrassment, at least in public. Or no?


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