De-legitimizing Christians outside the evangelical tribe

De-legitimizing Christians outside the evangelical tribe April 16, 2012

Timothy Noah again expresses his frustration with how the “New York Times Mislabels ‘Christians’” — using the word to apply exclusively to Republican members of the evangelical tribe:

A 78-percent majority of Americans is Christian. Only about a third of them self-identify as evangelical, which is a very rough proxy for the Christian conservative minority that increasingly insists on being called, simply, “Christian.” Such totum pro parte synecdoche de-legitimizes mainline Protestantism, historically black Protestantism, and Catholicism, which account, combined, for most of the other two-thirds of all [American] Christians. The de-legitimization is why Christian conservatives favor it. Mainstream news organizations like the New York Times, ever-fearful of being branded anti-religious, have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the Christian right’s implicit suggestion that the only true Christian is a Christian conservative member of an evangelical or fundamentalist congregation.

The sentence I’ve bolded there is the key to why tribal Republican evangelicals have bullied reporters and editors into allowing them the exclusive rights to words like “Christian” or “evangelical.”

This is a deliberate, intentional attempt by a politicized faction of American evangelicals to do two things: 1) redefine “Christian” to mean “white evangelical Protestant,” and 2) redefine “evangelical Protestant” to mean “conservative Republican.”

This is inaccurate. And uncivil.

It’s deliberately insulting to every Christian who is not a white evangelical Protestant and to every white evangelical Protestant who is not a conservative Republican. The latter group is not a small category. Millions of white evangelical Protestants voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Millions of them. Millions of us. More than the combined total populations of Alaska, Delaware, Montana, the Dakotas, Vermont, Wyoming, Rhode Island and West Virginia. But for the most part, the fundraisers and vote-herders of the religious right have succeeded in getting the media to play along with the weird idea that these millions of people do not exist.

The de-legitimization Noah describes is the attempt by the self-appointed bishops of the religious right to exclude those millions from Christianity — and to prevent the remaining majority of white evangelical Protestants from being able to imagine that voting for anyone other than who they’re told to vote for is even a possibility.

The power of these power-brokers depends on their being able to claim that they speak for all evangelicals — and for all “real” Christians. The very existence of Christians who are not white evangelical Protestants or of white evangelical Protestants who are not right-wing Republicans undermines their claim to speak as the voice of God and of all of God’s real people.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research illustrates — partly intentionally — the de-legitimization strategy in a post titled, “Our Leading Presidential Candidates: Self-Professed Christians Whom Many Christians Don’t Believe Actually Are Christians” (via):

Both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney profess to be Christians, but that profession is widely disbelieved. Romney is doubted primarily because he is a Mormon, while President Obama is doubted for a variety of reasons.

A “variety of reasons”? Tell me more, please, about this “variety of reasons”:

President Obama has a compelling testimony that would make an evangelical proud … yet his positions and policies have left many evangelicals questioning the sincerity of that belief.

Ah, OK, so the “variety of reasons” has to do with “his positions and policies” that are apparently “un-Christian.” And what would those be, exactly?

Stetzer doesn’t say. Stetzer doesn’t seem to think he even needs to say.

And for LifeWay Research’s epistemically captive audience, he doesn’t need to say anything more. They know. Obama is not part of the tribe. Obama is not a Republican, so therefore he is not a white evangelical Protestant. And Obama is not a white evangelical Protestant, so therefore he is not a real, true Christian. “For a variety of reasons.”

Here, again, is the opening paragraph of Jonathan Dudley’s Broken Words:

I learned a few things growing up as an evangelical Christian: that abortion is murder; homosexuality, sin; evolution, nonsense; and environmentalism, a farce. I learned to accept these ideas — the “big four” — as part of the package deal of Christianity. In some circles, I learned that my eternal salvation hinged on it. Those who denied them were outsiders, liberals, and legitimate targets for evangelism. If they didn’t change their minds after being “witnessed to,” they became legitimate targets for hell.

The belief that anyone who does not believe in “the big four” is an “outsider” and cannot be allowed to call themselves Christian is inaccurate. It is untrue — just as each component piece of the big four is untrue.

Embracing untruth as the very definition of one’s faith and the core of one’s identity is not a recipe for peace of mind.

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  • Worthless Beast

    ((Ee-yup, and along with that I usually see any non-religious ideology that Stalinism that caused harm dismissed as “really being a religion.” ))

    It is annoying. I don’t like to play the Stalin Card because I see it as being like the Hitler Card, though I will not reprimand anyone who plays it in response to someone starting out with the Inquistion Card or the Westboro Card. 

    I will award the point if the harmful non-religious ideology is “North Korea” because, from what I’ve heard, Kim Jong Ill really *did* set him up as a god or godlike mythic figure and demanded forms of worship essentially making it a weird kind of religion that I suspsect most North Koreans practiced out of being terrified.  

  •  I only play the “Stalin card” when someone starts making ignorant and inflammatory claims about religion being the cause of all the world’s ills, all wars and mass murders, etc. I regard bringing Stalinism up as an example of “what atheism” causes as just as dishonest and vile as doing the same with the Inquisition re: religion.

  • Tricksterson

    If by “religion” uou mean somthing that is followed out of blind faith then yeah, you can be a religious atheist.  Having been an Objectivist I can state that from personal experience.

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t even get involved in the “who’s a real pagan” arguments (yeah we hve them too) so I ain’t about to get involved in similar arguments for a religion that isn’t even mine.

  •  but atheism is not based on blind faith, it’s based entirely on physical evidence

  • not “all’, just “most”

  • Erista

    Do you get a lot of people saying things on par with,  “Yes, that person did a bad thing and they SAY they are a pagan, but they aren’t a REAL pagan, so you shouldn’t say a pagan did it,” then? Because I’ve seen a lot of fighting over who is a real Wiccan and so forth, but it seems to be an argument over ideology rather than behavior (i.e. “REAL Wiccans don’t believe blah blah blah,” not “REAL Wiccans don’t do that kind of bad thing”).  But I wouldn’t be surprised if that kind of thing popped up in the pagan community.

  • Bladesmith818

    Call them what they are, Christian “Dominionists”, and lable them thusly.

  • Tricksterson

    But in Communism or Objectivism while they’re technically atheists they simply substitute something else for God.  In the case of Communism it’s “history”/”the will of the masses”.  In Objectivism it’s “the worship of Man qua Man” (that’s a direct quote btw).  Only of course like any religion they need human cult figures so communism has Marx and Lenin as the true prophets of history, with Stalin actually a more controversial figure.  Objectivism of course has Rand with Nathaniel Brandon as the fallen angel figure.  It’s all about having a crutch to lean on and even more importantly Someone or Something in who’s name you can kill opress and persecute others, although to be fair Objectivists, to this point at least have stuck to ridicule and…sarcasm (which is why eonard Peikhoff is being hunted by a giant hedgehog)

  • Sidney18511

    Definition of religious bigotry:
    Its not that they hate everyone who doesn’t look, think and act like them~it’s just that God does.

  • wildclover

    Problem is, the fringy evangelical wing is loud and noisy and had some high profile televangelist types that got invited for photo-ops and made it into the news. Pat Robertson making crazy statements about gays and feminists causing 9/11, or Jerry Falwell accusing Tinky Winky of being gay makes for colorful news. The media is used to these nutjobs and reporting on them. Having a TV show or a million dollar church makes you automatically more news worthy than the minister who just does an excellent job of ministering. We get letters and petitions of moderate/liberal religious leaders on whatever topic, and we might read about it on page 5. Get Pat Robertson to say Obama is the anti-Christ, and you will see page one headlines. Reasonable people are boring. Unreasonable people say things that get folks riled up and reading the paper/watching the news. 
    All the Baptists have disavowed WBC, and at least here, they were outnumbered about 10-20 to 1 when they came and showed their butts here. The church being protested requested no counter protest, but their downtown protest ended about 20 minutes early. 
    There is a large number of evangelicals who are active in “liberal” causes, like feeding the poor, protecting the environment, etc. Stuff the Jesus of the Bible laid upon His followers. But they aren’t headlines because they are not newsworthy. A paragraph in the Sunday local news section. A crazy person burning Korans? News. 
    A push back has begun. I see more religious leaders standing up for _their_ freedom of religion. But they got shoved out of the mainstream “news” dialogue for so long, that they don’t make the headway. The fundie propagandists got to the language and the media first by being newsworthy, and now our media is well trained to look to them for “news”.
    I always resented the “values voter” exit polls that were assumed to be the conservative voters. I vote MY values. I’m very family values. But like the “pro-lifers” who don’t give a fig for the life of the born, or the mother, “family values” means solely a subset of what family values should include. They don’t value the families headed by two parents of the same gender, or single mom, or even adoptive parents. And a lot of otherwise good hearted people just hear the words and assume they agree, because they lack the time, or the education, or the access to facts that would show them that the “family values” in the news is not what they value.

  • Lawrence

    The reason why this matters is what Nicole said below but also the damage teh evangelical set has done to the “brand” of Christianity particularly among young people.  Young people, all the way up to 40, view the religion as a hateful sect of political zealots who care about politics first and the love of Christ, oh, about 200th.  Which is a sad, sad thing. 

  • I find it particularly obnoxious how such fundamentalists with all the microphones at their disposal insist on forcing moderate Muslims to ‘own their extremists’ even as they take great pains to portray themselves as the only ones with a direct phone line to God and the rest of those wishy-washy mainline Christian groups can all just sod off.

    I suspect such fundies would be highly insulted if any mainline Christian group intended to ‘own their own extremists’.

  • herzliebster

    Thank you for this.  NPR does the same thing and I have called them on it many a time to no avail.  Keep up the struggle.

  • jkarov

    The premise of atheism for some of us is that we don’t care about religions, mythology, or spirituality except perhaps in an academic  sense.

    Myths, and associated tenets and beliefs of various  religions are not relevant to us.

    Many accuse atheism of being a religion of it’s own, with fervent followers, activists, and “evangelicals” preaching about it’s virtues.

    I consider myself more of a non-theist, and for good reason.   My analogy is this:
    atheism is a religion, like OFF is a TV channel

  • jkarov

    Please remember that for many reading your post, the 66 books of ancient writings you are quoting from are not accepted as an authoritative source.

  • biomuse

    I think this misses the point. Fred doesn’t attempt here to resolve any paradoxes about who “real Christians” might actually be, as that is oblique to the subject being treated, which is why large media outlets might allow themselves to be cowed into a *particular* narrow working definition of “Christian,” and to whose benefit that odd behavior might redound.

  • Raben2

    Loved everything about what you said, especially the last line about faux-Christianity. Thanks very, very much. You aired many of the things I’ve been thinking, in a depressive state, for the last week after hearing a “Christian” radio station denounce the President as non-Christian.