What’s in a name? Or, what is a “Christian”?

I remember a conversation I overheard twenty-five years ago, after a presentation I gave to a congregation concerning some aspect of the history of Christianity. I had used the term “Christian” repeatedly to refer to the tradition to which I was referring as well as to the doctrines, practices, and practitioners. One matron said to another, “I don’t like that term, ‘Christian’.”

Tim Noah and Ed Kilgore had a conversation this week about how, in the twenty-five years since that conversation, “Christian” has been totally coopted by some Christians, and used in the secular media to refer to Christians of a particular religious and political bent.

Noah writes:

“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.”

According to Pew, only 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.


Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough. So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls “Christian” seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let’s call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that’s what they are. Evangelicals shouldn’t get to claim one of the world’s great religions as their exclusive property.

Kevin Drum points out the changing demographics in American religion. According to his statistics:

  • Membership in religious organizations had gone steadily up over the past century, from roughly 40% of the population in 1900 to 70% today. Lack of belief was more common and more public in 1900 than it is today, even if it was called “freethinking” or “skepticism” or some related term.
  • Conservative Protestant denominations have also been growing very steadily over the past century. It wasn’t a sudden boom that burst onto the public scene when Jerry Falwell became famous. The Pentecostal movement started up in 1906 and it’s been growing ever since. Ditto for evangelical sects, which have grown steadily from perhaps a third of all Protestant denominations in 1900 to something like 60% of them today.

His takeaway: That conservative religious groups have become large enough and powerful enough to constitute an important voting bloc (and marketing demographic for film and music, et al) at the same time that America is becoming more secularized.

He’s writing in response to a piece by Julian Sanchez. Sanchez wonders why so few people in Washington self-identify as atheist or agnostic.

Reflecting on earlier essays to which I’ve linked, Andrew Sullivan asked whether conservative Christianity was “breeding Atheists.” His answer? Yes.

So Christianity in America, as Ross Douthat’s excellent forthcoming book explains, is undermined by both the political temptation and degeneracy on the evangelical right and the failure of mainline Protestantism to advance a Christianity that is both at ease with modernity but also determined to transcend its false gods of money, celebrity, and power, and to require more from its adherents.

We need a via media that lies not in between these models, but transcends both.

He also reported on readers’ responses to his question.