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NYT Mislabels “Christians”

I’ve been monitoring the New York Times on the who’s-a-Christian question. An April 4 Page One story about the new anti-abortion film October Baby made initial reference to the film’s genre (and market niche) as “socially-conservative religious fare,” which is accurate. But subsequently the story made reference to "Christian-oriented movies," to the filmmakers’ “Christian household,” to “a Christian values group,” and to “Christian music stars like Amy Grant.” An April 12 story about Christian conservatives making their peace with Mitt Romney did somewhat better. Several initial references were made to “Christian conservatives,” but later the writer used the shorthand “Christian,” as in “Christian advocacy,” “Christian leaders,” and “Christian legal group.”

This latter usage is inaccurate and propagandistic. 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 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 Times would seem to have a policy requiring that the first reference make clear that such self-identified “Christians” are in fact Christian conservatives. Subsequent references, however may call them simply, “Christian.” Probably that’s because “Christian conservative” is a mouthful. “Christian right” is much better in that regard, but Christian conservatives don’t like being called that, presumably because “right” sounds more extremist than “conservative” (just as “left” sounds more extremist than “liberal” or “progressive”). But Christian conservatives are more extremist than plain-vanilla conservatives. That’s why they have to struggle a bit to make their peace with Mitt Romney, a mere conservative. Today’s Times piece therefore explains, inadvertently, why “Christian right” would be a much better way than “Christian” for the Times to describe Christian conservatives. Henceforth it should follow its own advice.