What do you call someone who reads the Bible, attends church, prays daily, and believes in the existence of the soul, heaven, hell, and life after death? Sometimes you call them “atheists.”
A reporter on the crime beat has clear-cut criteria for distinguishing between criminals and police. Likewise political journalists can typically rely on their readers understanding what they mean when they describe someone as being a Republican or Democrat. But religion reporters have a more difficult task when it comes to using labels.
Religious labels are intended to be prescriptive, a form of shorthand that provides a general overview of a person’s beliefs. If I say that someone is a Presbyterian it not only tells you what denomination they belong to, but implies that a number of other labels could apply as well (Christian, theist, etc.).
How then do reporters decide how to use religious labels? I think there are two helpful rule of thumbs. The first is to rely on a person’s self-description: Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not. This may seems obvious, but it’s a principle that is all-too-frequently violated. For instance, earlier this week I noted that Jeff Chu, who attends a church in a mainline denomination, was described by the AP as an “evangelical,” even though he says, “I don’t think I’d claim that label” and the reporter never contacted him to find out what he believed.
The second rule is that when other members of a religious group would dispute the self-identification, quote a source that puts the controversy in perspective. For example, a current dispute in Christian mission circles is whether someone who coverts from Islam to Christianity can continue to self-identify as Muslim.
As a religious matter it may seem clear: Christianity does not recognize Muhammad as a prophet and Islam does not consider Jesus to be God. Ergo, the label Muslim does not apply to Christian converts. But in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, the term “Muslim” has broader cultural implications and not using it can be as controversial as converting to Christianity. A reporter should therefore allow a Christian covert to refer to themselves as Muslim but, for the sake of clarity, also quote a source that explains why others – both Christian and Muslim – might consider it inappropriate.
An excellent example of these principles in practice is Michelle Boorstein’s recent feature in the Washington Post on how “Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer.” Boorstein’s article begins by quoting a self-identified atheist who prays to an image of a 15-foot-tall goddess he named “Ms. X” after Malcolm X.