“Christian” as a niche demographic

Timothy Noah at The New Republic laments the use of the term “Christian” to refer exclusively to conservative, evangelical Protestants (and the cultural products that cater to them):

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 womanwho 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.”

When you consider Christianity’s foundational position in Western art and culture, it’s somewhat ironic that “Christian” used in this sense is an almost-infallible indicator of sub-par schlock that’s not worth your time.

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3 thoughts on ““Christian” as a niche demographic”

  1. One of those things where it’s a pity they can’t both lose (the right to use the word as they mean it), I guess. But considering the state of popular culture, I tend to be more sympathetic to the Christian right’s use of the term. At least they have some magnetism left in their moral compass (as compared to the total “self-identified” 78%), though it has been weakened.

    What do you think of this assertion that Christians are dominant in our culture? I guess that’s not the same thing as saying Christianity is dominant.

  2. Sure, there are no doubt lots of “nominal” Christians among the 78 percent. (Of course, distinguishing between a nominal and non-nomial Christian isn’t easy!)

    But there are also lots of sincere, committed Christians who just don’t agree with the theology and/or politics fo the Christian Right.

    Folks are perfectly within their rights to claim that only they are the real Christians, but Noah’s compalint is more with the news media going along with this.

  3. Oh, and on the question of whether Christianity is dominant in our culture–I think it’s clear that there is a lot of public lip service paid to it, not least by politicians. But whether that translates into, say, Christian values actually holding effective sway over most people is quite a different matter.

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