Anyone who read GetReligion for more than a week or two knows that we are not big fans of religious labels. What does "devout Catholic" mean? Beats me.
What does it mean when American diplomats (or journalists) to call someone a "moderate" Mulim, other than the fact this is a Muslim who is acceptable to the interests of the speaker?
Who are what is an "emerging" evangelical? Come to think of it, what does "evangelical" mean (as opposed to a word like "fundamentalist," which has a precise meaning that many journalists seem to have forgotten)?
I could go on and on -- obviously.
The journalistic goal -- whenever time and space allows in hard-news coverage -- is for reporters and editors to offer readers precise information, rather than vague labels. Labels are great for commentary, but rarely much help when doing straightforward news.
With that in mind, check out this "language cop" piece in The New Republic by Timothy Noah. This is not a news piece, but it is closely related to the journalistic terrain covered by this blog.
The key to his piece is that Noah is sick and tired of how many journalists are using the word "Christian." I assume that this is, almost certainly, related to the whole messy "Barack Obama is not a Christian" scene. Thus, Noah proclaims:
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.
There is much that can be said about this, including the fact that the term "Christian conservatives" is usually served up as a term describing political stances that may or may not be linked to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and tradition. Whenever I hear people -- some of my students, for example -- use the term "conservative" or "liberal" to describe themselves, I quickly ask them to tell me the issue that they have in mind when they use this or that term. They are a conservative or a liberal when it comes to WHAT question, with what doctrine? Without an answer to that question, the whole discussion is meaningless.
Now, Noah proceeds to offer a wide variety of snarky and at times questionable commentary about the beliefs of evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, which he has every right to do. It's his commentary, after all. He is upset because NPR used a term that gave comfort to his political and moral enemies. I get that.
However, my goal here is to note the fact that the journalistic point hidden in his angry blog post is solid. The word "Christian" is way, way too broad to describe the niche-market products associated with one chunk of the wide spectrum of believers in this land who can -- in one way or another -- describe themselves as Christians.
A long, long time ago a young man named Bono told me that he was totally opposed to his band's music being called "Christian music." He was not ashamed of the word "Christian," he stressed. He simply thought it was sinfully presumptive to use the word "Christian" as a mere marketing term for the music of someone as sinful as himself. He had a valid point back then and it remains valid today.
And so does Noah.
Now, truth be told, I would assume that most of NPR's listeners knew what the word "Christian" meant in the context of this particular news report. It was used by NPR to describe a small market for niche entertainment. "October Baby" may or may not deserve being stuck in that niche. However, Noah is right that listeners could have used a bit more information in order to understand the artists and interests behind this film (which looks rather mainstream to me and I hope to see it).
Vague labels cannot take the place of accurate, balanced journalism. It also helps to allow believers to describe their beliefs in their own words. Might that have been possible in this case?