Concerning the word “Christian”

When the Republican ayatollahs use the word “Christian,” they mean strictly their brand of evangelical Protestantism. Reporters should make that clear.

The mass media have been deeply complicit in the attempt by evangelical Protestants to appropriate the word “Christian” for themselves. (Don’t look for Byrd motets or the Bach Mass in B-Minor in listings of “Christian” music, or St. Thomas Aquinasa’s Summas in “Christian” bookstores.) And political reporters have been only too willing to use terms like “Christian right.”

It made news when James Dobson said of Fred Thompson, a baptized member of the Church of Christ, that “I don’t think he’s a Christian.” But his spokesman explains Dobson’s point: “We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians.” So it’s not just Catholics and Mormons: now all of mainstream Protestantism is “non-Christian” in the view of the Republican ayatollahs. It would be nice if political reporters made that clear to their readers.

But of course it would be nice if political reporters knew anything about religion. Everyone agrees, now, that it’s important to know a Shi’a from a Sunni. But my guess is that not one political reporter or blogger in ten could explain the difference between fundamentalism and Pentacostalism, or explain the contrast between the mega-churches and the Southern Baptist Convention. This stuff matters to people, and therefore it matters to the world. Being proud of the fact that it doesn’t matter to you is no excuse for not understanding it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: