In our work here at Truth Wins Out, we go to great pains to make sure that when we’re talking about Fundamentalist Christian hate groups like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, or even Porno Pete’s Dungeon of Leather Photography, we are talking about a specific subset of American Christians who believe they are entitled to a special, supremacist place in our society based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” i.e. their bigotry. It does a disservice to the broad swath of American Christians who are not hatemongers obsessed with what’s going on in everyone else’s beds and wombs to simply use the term “Christian” to describe these conservative Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, much of the culture and the media doesn’t grasp this distinction, and it hurts a lot of people. In a phone conversation with my mom last week, she said something to the effect of, “I’m a Christian and I’m right of center, but I’m not a wingnut.” Indeed, she is not, but she was kinda pissed that so often the media glosses over these distinctions. It doesn’t just give liberal Christians a bad name — it smears all the rest of them.
Of course, the media is at fault, but we have to also look at the hate groups themselves, who constantly use the blanket term “Christian” to describe their activities, most of which are quite un-”Christian” indeed. Timothy Noah has an important piece in The New Republic addressing this very issue, and he’s seeking to reclaim the term from that tiny subset which co-opts it and gives the rest of Christendom a bad name:
Christian? Christians aren’t some twee boutique demographic. Christians represent the majority. 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.” 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.”
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.
I’ll co-sign that sentiment. Noah goes on to suggest that the media really should wake up and specifically use the phrase “Christian conservative” to describe the culture — films, music, hate group rallies — enjoyed by the subset of Fundamentalists who seem to think they’re the only real Christians. It’s not pejorative. It’s simply what they are.
But this disconnect is the reason why people like Tony Perkins are able to call gay rights an attack on “Christians” and get away with it. Most Christians couldn’t give a tinker’s damn what Tony Perkins or Bryan Fischer says, but you wouldn’t know it watching the news. This is a theme that Truth Wins Out will be pursuing in more detail in the coming months, so stay tuned.