Timothy Noah

Language Cop: "Christian"

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In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America's first multiplatform gaffe. 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. (The worldly Cold War liberal Reinhold Niebuhr called himself an evangelical Protestant.) What conservative Christians really like to be called is “Christians.” Hence “Christian rock” and “Christian college” and now “Christian film.” This strikes me as terribly presumptuous. Bruce Springsteen was raised Catholic but he doesn't perform anything these folks would accept as Christian rock. Wesleyan was founded by Methodists and named after John Wesley but evangelicals would never call it a Christian university. “Christian” has become a euphemism for “acceptable to the type of Christian (in most instances Protestant) who frowns on homosexuality and wishes Saul Alinsky had minded his own business.”         

According to Pew, only about one-third of Christians call themselves “evangelicals.” That's about 26 percent of all Americans. The other two-thirds  self-identify as Catholics (23 percent) and with either mainline (18 percent) or historically black (7 percent) Protestantism. (A smattering of Mormons, Orthodox Christians, and other tiny subgroups make up the remaining 4 percent.) To suggest that conservative Christians are the only Christians is like saying Hasidic Jews are the only Jews. It's a cartoonish misconception that the Christian right has managed to sell to a largely secular news media that's too sensitive to accusations of anti-religious bias. 

It's also a considerable disservice to an entirely different strain of Christianity. The writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben spoke for it in a 2005 essay for Harper's (“The Christian Paradox: How A Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong”):

A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me. Few plainer words have been spoken. And yet, for some reason, the Christian Coalition of Americafounded in 1989 in order to “preserve, protect and defend the Judeo-Christian values that made this the greatest country in history”proclaimed last year that its top legislative priority would be “making permanent President Bush's 2001 federal tax cuts.”

McKibben is a political liberal, but in times past not even conservatives necessarily thought that Christianity was principally about sexual abstinence, smaller government, and preparing for the End Times. Frank Capra, whose films express Christian themes of solidarity with working people and contempt for the pampered, indifferent rich, was a lifelong Republican. The small-c word “christian” meant “charitable” or “compassionate.” It has now fallen into such disuse that one Web site defines it, disapprovingly, as “someone who leads an outwardly Christian life, but does not acknowledge Christ as savior”in other words, a lousy hypocrite. 

Plenty of Christian films have been made in the past, but a lot would be unacceptable to today's “Christian” market. Just about every film that Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese ever directed comes heavily weighted with Christian themes, but these are typically expressed in the context of violence, cruelty, and psychological disorder, and often have scenes featuring nudity, sexual intercourse and/or (especially in Scorsese's films) foul language. John Ford's film adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath is, like the novel, remembered mainly as a rabble-rousing depiction of the hard life of farmers driven off their Oklahoma land to the false Eden of California. I wouldn't guess that Focus On The Family would approve. But The Grapes of Wrath is steeped in Christian imagery. (One of the characters, for instance, is named “Rose Of Sharon.”)

I could go on. Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough. So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls “Christian” seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let's call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that's what they are. Evangelicals shouldn't get to claim one of the world's great religions as their exclusive property.

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