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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