A journalist and political historian, Robert Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. He writes a weekly political column for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. He is also the author of critically acclaimed political histories of the U.S. civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and American wartime dissent. One of his recent books, Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics, was named by the Washington Post as one of the best political books of 2011.
Have you noticed that political liberals have taken to calling themselves “progressives?” It’s not because their ideology has changed. It’s because the word “liberal” has become untenable, an obstacle in the minds of many voters.
This happened largely because conservative politicians and their friends in the media, especially at Fox News, bastardized and twisted the word. However, it was also accomplished after many on the left did a poor job defending their ideology. (And, political liberals like me must admit that our policies have not always been popular or successful.)
Whatever the reason, “liberal” has become, in the minds of many, a word that now means “radical” or “extremist.”
Simply put, the term has, for now, been ruined. Many liberals believe that to get a fair hearing among the public they must rebrand themselves as “progressive.”
I wonder sometimes if the same hasn’t happened to the term “Christian.”
Pat Robertson, Phil Robertson, Tony Perkins, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. Think about the image of Christianity that these people and organizations – and dozens more like them – portray to the world.
The un-churched who watch these people see Christianity as grim, unwelcoming, judgmental, joyless and self-righteous. Just what part of their hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons would be remotely attractive to a person tormented, for example, by alcoholism?
One of my favorite books is Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace. It’s a powerful reminder to the Christian church that our self-righteousness and our tendency to judge others is off-putting to the very people who often need the church the most.
Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.
Pope Francis is doing his part to rebrand Christianity. When asked about his attitude towards homosexuality, his response was, “Who am I to judge?”
And, yet, his church continues to do just that in so many ways. It excludes women from most leadership positions. When it comes to homosexuality, many of its leaders seem to be singing from the evangelical hymnal.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s time for reformist Christians to devise a new term to describe themselves. Should we admit that so many of Yancey’s “purported saints” have permanently ruined the term “Christian”? Is calling myself a Christian so off-putting to some non-Christians that the very moniker inhibits my ability to share God’s love with those who need it most?
If so, what might we call ourselves? Christ Followers? Disciples of Christ? Jesus Freaks? Believers? Jesusians? The Faithful?
In the end, nothing I can think of works better than “Christian.” It’s what we are, despite the awful image it evokes among many. We get our name from the Bible, after all. Acts 11:26: “It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.”
Instead of abandoning the term, it’s our duty to defend it and redefine it for a 21st Century world.
By that, I don’t mean we should produce TV ads proclaiming our belief in radical grace (although I wouldn’t be opposed to that).
But we should acknowledge the damage that’s been done to the term “Christian.”
Like a twelve-step program, we must begin by recognizing that the church has a problem. That problem is that some of the most tolerant and loving places of worship in this country have been tarnished by the label “Christian.”
We must collectively admit this and talk about ways to reclaim the true meaning of the word and what it means to be a follower of the Christ.
Of course, being a Christian means something different to each of us. But can we at least resolve that it should never conjure images of judgment, condemnation, rejection, alienation and self-righteousness?
In the end, I’m not sure the public really sees much difference in the terms “liberal” and “progressive.” Since liberals opted for “progressive,” there’s been no surge of voters to the left side of the political spectrum.
That’s because voters care more about what liberals do, what policies they enact, and how they actually express their ideology.
The same, I believe, applies to Christians.
An effective response to the damage done to the term “Christian” is not creating a new word. The public’s view of Christians will change when our Christ-inspired love for others overpowers and drowns out the hurtful words and actions of Robertson (Phil and Pat) and those like them.
Changing our name won’t rehabilitate the term.
Changing our actions will.