Define “Christian;” give three examples

Anyone who read GetReligion for more than a week or two knows that we are not big fans of religious labels.

What does “devout Catholic” mean? Beats me.

What does it mean when American diplomats (or journalists) to call someone a “moderate” Mulim, other than the fact this is a Muslim who is acceptable to the interests of the speaker?

Who are what is an “emerging” evangelical? Come to think of it, what does “evangelical” mean (as opposed to a word like “fundamentalist,” which has a precise meaning that many journalists seem to have forgotten)?

I could go on and on — obviously.

The journalistic goal — whenever time and space allows in hard-news coverage — is for reporters and editors to offer readers precise information, rather than vague labels. Labels are great for commentary, but rarely much help when doing straightforward news.

With that in mind, check out this “language cop” piece in The New Republic by Timothy Noah. This is not a news piece, but it is closely related to the journalistic terrain covered by this blog.

The key to his piece is that Noah is sick and tired of how many journalists are using the word “Christian.” I assume that this is, almost certainly, related to the whole messy “Barack Obama is not a Christian” scene. Thus, Noah proclaims:

Today I banish “Christian” — not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

Every morning I wake up to National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” and this morning my first stirrings of consciousness concerned the new movie October Baby, about a young woman who finds out that she was adopted after her birth mother underwent a failed abortion. Ten percent of the film’s profits will be donated to an anti-abortion charity. NPR’s piece about October Baby (audio, text), described it as one of several “Christian” films that Hollywood studios have started churning out. Jon Erwin, who co-directed the film with his brother Andrew, told NPR that he was “raised in the South in a Christian home and family,” and that the values of many contemporary Hollywood films felt alien to him. Quoting The Hollywood Reporter’s Paul Bond, NPR observed that “Hollywood doesn’t like to leave money on the table,” and noted that Fox and Sony have set up subsidiaries to serve the niche “Christian” market.

As I lay in bed struggling to wake up I thought: 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.

There is much that can be said about this, including the fact that the term “Christian conservatives” is usually served up as a term describing political stances that may or may not be linked to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and tradition. Whenever I hear people — some of my students, for example — use the term “conservative” or “liberal” to describe themselves, I quickly ask them to tell me the issue that they have in mind when they use this or that term. They are a conservative or a liberal when it comes to WHAT question, with what doctrine? Without an answer to that question, the whole discussion is meaningless.

Now, Noah proceeds to offer a wide variety of snarky and at times questionable commentary about the beliefs of evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, which he has every right to do. It’s his commentary, after all. He is upset because NPR used a term that gave comfort to his political and moral enemies. I get that.

However, my goal here is to note the fact that the journalistic point hidden in his angry blog post is solid. The word “Christian” is way, way too broad to describe the niche-market products associated with one chunk of the wide spectrum of believers in this land who can — in one way or another — describe themselves as Christians.

A long, long time ago a young man named Bono told me that he was totally opposed to his band’s music being called “Christian music.” He was not ashamed of the word “Christian,” he stressed. He simply thought it was sinfully presumptive to use the word “Christian” as a mere marketing term for the music of someone as sinful as himself. He had a valid point back then and it remains valid today.

And so does Noah.

Now, truth be told, I would assume that most of NPR’s listeners knew what the word “Christian” meant in the context of this particular news report. It was used by NPR to describe a small market for niche entertainment. “October Baby” may or may not deserve being stuck in that niche. However, Noah is right that listeners could have used a bit more information in order to understand the artists and interests behind this film (which looks rather mainstream to me and I hope to see it).

Vague labels cannot take the place of accurate, balanced journalism. It also helps to allow believers to describe their beliefs in their own words. Might that have been possible in this case?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto

    I think that some of the confusion and sloppiness may proceed from the fact that many — not all or even most but a lot of them — evangelicals use the expression “Christian” almost exclusively with reference to themselves and people like them. You work for a group claiming to represent a consortium of “Christian colleges and universities,” which prompts the question: “as opposed to Notre Dame or Belmont Abbey?”

    When we say “Christian schools” we don’t mean the Christian Brothers Academy or Gonzaga Prep. “Christian radio” means WAVA, not Ave Maria Radio, etc.

    In other words, the press may be taking its cue from its audience. This doesn’t excuse sloppiness or imprecision but it does explain part of the problem.

  • Jerry

    Roberto makes a good point. There’s frequently the implied word “true”, as in “true Christian” (or true Muslim or true liberal) behind how some groups use the word Christian.

    Even the dictionary does not help:

    Noun: A person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings.

    So an atheist who was baptized as a baby is a Christian by virtue of the baptism? And if I believe in Jesus as a man? And what about believing in Christ but rejecting part of the Nicene Creed because someone believes Jesus is buried in India?

    Intelligence is a wonderful thing, but sometimes it can get caught in an endless cycle of nitpicking details and lose sight of main point.

  • Jeff

    In contemporary MSM parlance a “Christian” is a non-Hispanic white in the Southeast, Midwest, Mountain West, or Texas who maintains a literal belief in what’s contained in the New Testament and Nicene Creed and draws on that belief and on orthodox Christian moral teaching as the basis for objecting conscientiously to all or parts of the Democratic Party’s policy positions on abortion and same-sex marriage.

    The term “Christian” defined in this sense is interchangeable in MSM parlance with the terms “Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist.”

    Conversely, the term “Devout Christian” is used in MSM parlance to refer to anyone who identifies himself or herself as Christian and also supports the Democratic Party’s policy positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, especially if he or she is a non-Hispanic white who lives in the Northeast or on the West Coast and/or attended a private university there. Literal belief in what’s contained in the New Testament and Nicene Creed and adherence to other aspects of orthodox Christian moral teaching are entirely irrelevant to “Devout Christianity” defined in this way.

  • tmatt

    Roberto (and Jerry, sort of):

    The CCCU would gladly take Catholic members, methinks, that are of the liberal-arts school model. Some of my program’s best students, for example, come from Franciscan University of Steubenville.

    Also, the CCCU also includes Mennonite schools and some with mainline Protestant roots. I don’t think “evangelical” would safely describe all of its members.

  • MikeD

    Thanks for the shout-out to my alma mater.

    I know we shouldn’t hold him to the same stndards as journalists, but I noticed that Noah referred to the donation of proceeds to “anti-abortion” charities when the actual charities have a much broader scope per the movie’s website: “The producers of OCTOBER BABY have assigned 10% of the profits of the movie to the Every Life is Beautiful Fund, which will distribute funds to frontline organizations helping women facing crisis pregnancies, life-affirming adoption agencies, and those caring for orphans.” I think in this case, the “pro-life” moniker is much more accurate.

  • carl jacobs

    Different groups define ‘Christian’ according to different criteria. Theological conservatives define it according to doctrine, which of necessity leads to an inference of true Christian vs false Christian. Theological liberals define it relationally. They typically appeal to church membership and sacramental observance. Doctrinal fidelity is not just suppressed in this model. It is outright proscribed. This is why liberals and conservatives cannot agree on who is a Christian. Non-Christians tend to define it according to lineage. They look to historic association with some church that is associated with Jesus. …

    Like ‘evangelical’ before it, the word ‘Christian’ is fast losing its ability to make meaningful distinctions.


  • sari

    How do y’all describe the uptick in Christian labeled business, professions, and genres: Christian therapists, Christian bookstores, Christian media (print, movie, music, etc.)? What does adding the label Christian say to the consumer or person on the street? What caused people to adopt these labels?

  • Tragic Christian

    MikeD, he IS using the standards of journalists. In my hometown paper (the LA Times) is is “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion.” See, “abortion” is an ugly word, and in the wisdom of the Times we have to stick it on those Neandarthals who oppose it — we’ll even prefix it with “anti-” because, well, who wants to be “anti-” anything? Whereas the people who actually approve of abortion don’t have that ugly word stick to them — we’ll call them “pro-choice,” because we love “pro-”, and who doesn’t love “choices?” So, people who approve of removing inconvenient pre-birth humans get to be called “pro-choice,” said with a smile — whereas those who are actually “pro-life” get to be called “anti-abortion” instead (BOO Anti! BOO Abortion!).

    NPR is even worse, because the house style is calling pro-lifers “opponents of abortion rights.” We not only stick “abortion” on ‘em, but they’re “opponents of rights,” too. It’s a trifecta! Nope, no bias here.

  • Bill

    Tragic Christian #8 wrote:

    the house style is calling pro-lifers “opponents of abortion rights.” We not only stick “abortion” on ‘em, but they’re “opponents of rights,” too.

    Yes, it’s like calling Abolitionists “opponents of property rights.”

    Sari makes a good point about the use of Christian symbols and Christian terms in marketing. Is this aways an expression of faith and religious solidarity? Is it sometimes just a marketing strategy? Or both?

    Jerry #2 reinforces TMatt’s coda about what kind of Catholic (or Christian, Jew, conservative or liberal) we’re talking about. (I did read one story describing Kathleen Sibelius as a moderate Catholic. In the reporter’s eyes maybe she is!) And Jerry points out limits to human intelligence; as St Paul reminds us, we see now as through a glass darkly.

    With Christians of some affinity comprising 78% of the population there is bound to be a lot variation in what is described as Christian.

  • sari

    Bill and T.C.,
    Abortion is a right insofar as it continues to be legal. Opponents of abortion rights is a more correct description than anti-abortion, since the goal is to eliminate the legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

  • Chris Jones


    Abortion is a right insofar as it continues to be legal.

    This is sloppy thinking. If this were correct, Congress or any state legislature could extinguish the right to abortion simply by passing a law making abortion illegal. Constitutionally, abortion is a right precisely because Congress and the state legislatures are not allowed to pass such a law — because the Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot. Whether or not abortion is legal is a policy question; whether or not it is a right is a Constitutional question.

    the goal is to eliminate the legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

    That does not fully describe the goal of the pro-life movement. One goal is “to eliminate the legal right” to an abortion — that is, to establish that the Constitution does not prevent legislatures from regulating or prohibiting abortions (by overturning Roe v. Wade or by Constitutional amendment). However, if that goal were to be reached, a further goal would remain: to pass laws, state by state, to make abortion illegal.

    Even then, still another goal would remain, because making abortion illegal would not prevent abortions from happening. Hearts and minds must be changed so that our culture itself knows and teaches that an unborn child is a precious human person to be loved, not killed. The ultimate goal is not simply to make abortion illegal, but to make it unthinkable.

    Given all of that, “opponents of abortion rights” is correct as far as it goes, but does not tell the whole story. “Anti-abortion” is better, but “pro-life” really does capture the motivation and mind-set involved better than either of the other terms.

  • Dave

    One resolution would be to substitute “religious” for “Christian” as a descripton. “Religious movie” doesn’t raise the questions that “Christian movie” does.

    Another approach would be to apply the label “Christian interest,” indicating that the content is of interest to Christians, but “Christian-interest movie” might be too long a phrase to hold the reader’s attention.

  • sari

    Religious is generic and refers to any religion.

    Christian is more specific. Books and movies marketed as Christian play to a specific clientele, not to members of all religions. The question is whether Christian has become a buzzword for a particular group of Christians who share a particular set of values or whether it is inclusive of all people who self-label as Christian. Seems like context defines the word.

  • Bill


    The abolitionists wanted to abolish slavery, which of necessity would eliminate the legal right of slave owners to own property they legally possessed. But the abolitionists had no desire to attack property rights, per se. Slavery was abolished because the idea of one human being possessing another became unacceptable. Slaves were freed because the right of human beings to be free trumped the property rights of slave owners.

    The abortion debate is a struggle between the primacy of a woman’s right to abort a baby growing in her womb or the right of that baby not to be aborted. The focal point for one side is the woman; for the other it’s the baby. For the most part, the media has come down squarely on one side.

  • sari

    The problem with the pro-life moniker is that it’s not it’s not all inclusive. Pro-life suggests concern for all life, yet many people who are staunchly pro-life are also staunchly pro-death penalty. The State of Texas is a good example. Heavily conservative in both the religious and political sense, Texans overwhelmingly support the death penalty -and- the criminalization of abortion. Likewise, your example of substituting opponents of property rights for abolitionists doesn’t hold, because property encompassed a lot of things at the time, including human beings.

    Perhaps reporters should frame the entire issue in terms of polar opposites.
    Opponents of abortion rights correctly states the position of those who’d like to eliminate women’s access to abortion. Pro-choice should be more correctly labeled Supporters of abortion rights. In each case, the group’s primary purpose is clearly stated–no ambiguity, no value judgement.

  • Bill


    The connection between abortion and execution is often made in the press. Yet there is a critical difference. The baby in the womb has done nothing to warrant death; the condemned prisoner has. Yes, there might well be problems with how convictions are obtained, how the penalty is applied, and what, if any crimes deserve the death penalty. And the tailgate parties at Ted Bundy’s execution were disgusting. But it is not inconsistent to oppose abortion and not oppose capital punishment. FWIW, I don’t like the death penalty because humans are fallible and corrupt and innocents have been put to death. Imprison someone falsely and you can try to make amends with monetary settlements. Tough to do when the guy has been executed. It might be wise to choose not to execute because of caution or mercy, but some crimes are so serious that they merit the death penalty.

  • Jeff

    Here we go again: it’s all about Sari and those eevil, eevil Texans.

  • Randy McDonald


    Only the one identified difference between the fetus and the prisoner?

  • Alejo

    I have found that the term “Christian” in the US is synonomous with “Evangelical Protestant”. Almost in every usage this is what is really meant. If you look up Christian radio or Christian music what you will get is almost always Evangelical Protestant worship music. You won’t get the Monks of Silos or Orthodox chant. This may be changing a bit but it is what I have experienced most of the time, as a Catholic this can be really frustrating. Almost as annoying is the term “Bible-believing” Christian.