Why Can’t We Just Call Ourselves “Christians?”
Whenever I ask my students, most of them in their twenties, what they think of the label “evangelical”—which I still wear but with some embarrassment—many of them say “Why can’t we just call ourselves ‘Christians’?” This seems to be the consensus among non-fundamentalist, relatively conservative, youngish Americans: “Let’s do away with all labels except ‘Christian’.”
That’s so attractive to me, too. I wish it could be so. But I tell them it’s too late for that because in Europe and North America “Christian” is also an essentially contested label. I ask them to imagine being on a bus or airplane and a stranger sees them reading the Bible or a book of theology. The stranger asks “What do you do?” The student says “I’m a seminary student.” “Oh,” the stranger replies, “What religion are you?” “I’m a Christian,” the student responds. So what naturally follows from the stranger? Ah, of course: “What kind of Christian are you?”
Most of my students are Baptists. My question to them is “Is ‘I’m a Baptist Christian’ really better than ‘I’m an evangelical’ Christian?”—if you want to avoid the interlocutor getting a wrong impression?
While the media has sullied the label “evangelical” almost beyond rescue, identifying it as a political type as well as a religious type, outside of certain places in the South most Americans have very negative images of “Baptist.” (Thank you very much, Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas! And the media for portraying them as typical of all Baptist.) When I became Baptist—many years ago—most of my relatives and many of my friends immediately assumed I had become one of those anti-Pentecostal, cessationist fundamentalists who believe speaking in tongues is “of the devil.” Here’s the really strange part of that. When I explained to them what kind of Baptist I was becoming, namely evangelical, pietist, non-fundamentalist, they knew about those kind of Baptists. So why did they automatically assume the worst? Because that’s what people do—they tend to focus on the loudest, most obnoxious, most offensive churches and people of a certain tribe or type and forget there are others—until they’re reminded.
I think a lot of American Christians, especially those who have lived most of their lives in a religious ecology dominated by one group of Christians (think deep South) simply do not realize how many radically different groups of people in America call themselves “Christians.” As editor of the next edition of the Handbook of Denominations I am discovering the proliferation and plethora of such groups. While I have to consider them all “Christian” for the purposes of the Handbook, I cannot bring myself really to consider them all truly Christian. And, if I happen to need to know what religious affiliation an individual or group enjoys and they say “I’m just a Christian and that’s all” I’m not likely to believe it—knowing the “blooming, buzzing confusion” that “Christianity” is in America.
So what should an evangelical or Baptist who is somewhat embarrassed about those labels say when asked “What kind of Christian are you?” I would respond with “How long do you have to listen? I need at least five minutes of your time to explain the answer to that” and then breathe a prayer to God to fulfill his promise in Luke 12:11-12.