Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Did "Christian" Become a Dirty Word?

It came as a bit of a shock when I read that Dr. Sallee, president of William Jewell College (WJC), said that WJC is no longer advertising itself as a Christian college. The Hilltop Monitor, the student newspaper, included that information in an article published in its September 24 edition. Dr. Sallee is quoted as saying that the expression “Christian college” has taken on a different meaning than it used to have.
He made no reference to it, but Dr. Sallee’s point is forcefully made in the title of a new book, Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites—and Other Lies You’ve been Told. The author is Bradley R. Entner Wright, a sociologist. Although Dr. Wright seeks to show that there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that the majority of Christians are, in fact, “hate-filled hypocrites,” it is nonetheless true that there are many people who do think that.
June and I transferred to WJC in August after we were married, following our graduation from Southwest Baptist College, which was then a junior college. In the years since, all four of our children graduated from WJC, each after having attended four years there. And I have taught several courses there through the years, the first in 1976 and the last in 2009.
June and I chose to attend WJC because it was a Christian college, and that was one of the main reasons that our children went there and that I have taught there from time to time. So, we naturally find it sad that WJC has concluded that it can no longer identify itself as a Christian college. When did Christian become a dirty word?
The change at WJC, and in the larger society, is largely linked to the move toward fundamentalism in this country and in the Southern Baptist Convention in particular. That was one of my main reasons for writing Fed Up with Fundamentalism (FuF). With the steady move to the right over the past thirty years, Southern Baptists and many other “evangelical” groups have come increasingly to be seen as obscurantists (as I wrote about in FuF), and, as another example, the anti-gay rhetoric of not only Fred Phelps but others who are much more "mainstream" has caused many people to think negatively about anything labeled Christian.
In his challenging new book, The Myth of a Christian Religion (2009), Gregory A. Boyd says that Jesus “was known for the scandalous way he loved.” By contrast, “instead of being known as outrageous lovers, Christians [today] are largely viewed as self-righteous judgers” (pp. 64-65).
[The last two paragraphs of the original posting have been removed.]


  1. The specifics of the William Jewell question is worth a private conversation sometime, Leroy, if you're interested. More generally, though, I can only think of the analogue to the many Muslims (and probably Jews) who've wondered for centuries how their respective monikers have become so vile to Christians. W. S. Green uses a concept he calls "exclusion by othering," a move that is less interested in the other and more interested in advancing one's own place of privilege. Still speaking generally, something like that happened, not at Jewell, but to Jewell. The term Christian took on significances promoted by other Christians that Jewell could not embrace while maintaining integrity with its mission of education.

  2. Sad to hear that "Christians" despise Christendom rather than seek to make a positive statement and change. A similar track to the former Presbyterian colleges across the country. One could note the breadth of variance within Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. Splits seem human nature.

    So much good still goes on in the name of Christ. Yet to excommunicate oneself because of a narrow perception of Christ and his diverse Church is stunning. But there has always been a cost to associating with Christ, and as he said, no one can serve two masters.

    Maybe this is not really surprising in a post-Christian culture where other organizations have also chosen to change their foundation and mission (eg. the "Y").

    I look forward to teaching a class on the diverse Church still unified in Christ at church next month. I'm sure it will be a stretch for them as well.

    I am thankful for those leaders who pursue the unity of the Spirit while still being able to hold to their nuance and tradition.
    As we are crucified with Christ, may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

  3. This discussion echoes the September 5 review of who is a Christian. Essentially, the term "Christian" has been politicized. In politics this is part of "framing the question." A fierce effort has been made by certain groups to confine "Christian" to a rightwing fundamentalist understanding of the term. Non-fundamentalists have a choice, fighting for a broader definition, or moving on to another term. Colleges are not in the business of fighting for descriptive terms. If they see a term losing meaning, they may abandon it, even the term "Christian."

    This movement goes in two ways. One of the interesting subplots of this story was the consideration given a few years ago by the SBC to dropping Baptist from their name. Apparently some people associate the term with separation of church and state, religious freedom, and priesthood of the believer. The SBC, focused on pastoral authority and dogmatic purity was becoming skeptical of its own name. Not to mention, The Phone Company was also named SBC. Then they bought AT&T, and there was only one SBC left in town.

    The symbolic imperialism has unfolded in several areas, as attempts to associate the American flag and the very name "American" with one political party have shown. Right now we live in a political climate where angry Republicans want fiercely to win the election, and contemptuous Democrats want a divorce. Face it, Democrats are not really "apathetic." That is a term Republicans use, trying to spin, and to an extent understand, the odd Democratic behavior. However, Democrats are staring into the abyss of a national insanity that has rather left them speechless, at the moment.

    Now why drag Republicans and Democrats into this, especially just before an election? Well, as Ronald Reagan said to the SBC, "You can't endorse me, but I endorse you!" The overlap between Republican politics and Christian Fundamentalism in America since 1980 has been almost total. And the discussion about who is a Christian and what is a Christian college is unintelligible without this backdrop. The word "Christian" has not just been politicized, it has been weaponized. Wielded like a club against all enemies, real and imagined, it has left little room for other Christians who want to stay out of the deep political fray. Think about the merchants harassed for saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Think of the obnoxious propaganda that claims "American was created a Christian nation." No wonder jewell wants a new title.

  4. I appreciate the following words sent earlier today in an e-mail from an esteemed friend:

    "It is sad that the word 'Christian' has been besmirched by some who think they help it by making it the equivalent of narrow-mindedness. Those of us who have tried truly to embody the life and teachings of Christianity's founder must feel deeply saddened. . . . I know from having taught Jewell grads that it is an excellent Liberal Arts school and has held the name 'Christian' high."

  5. I have been thinking more about Craig Dempsey's thoughts on Christian polarity, especially the Baptists (but obviously just about every Christian denomination - they all like to split - Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, etc.).
    I look with reverence and disgust at the polarity of Christians, having worshiped and worked with both sides, both of whom seek to serve Christ faithfully according to Scripture and their culture/tradition - and many do it faithfully and well. Both have leadership wings which faithfully condamn the other. Yet as St. Paul once said to the faithful of the Church in Phillipi, the gospel is at least being preached even if for the wrong reason.

    Within each group you find THE Church. But you also find definitions which endorse the Republican Baptist Convention and the Democrat Baptist Convention (a phrase I heard from an American Baptist pastor friend). Or as a Catholic priest friend stated, 90% of any church/parish still do not know Christ, and must be evangelized.

    Hopefully, St. Paul was right, and all sides will continue to share the good news of Christ, even if for the wrong reason.
    And hopefully the day will come when all (especially the polarity) repent.

  6. Dr. Thomas Howell, professor at William Jewell College, made the following significant comments in a much longer e-mail received on Oct. 20.

    "I have to agree with the comment . . . that what has happened happened not at Jewell but to Jewell. In my opinion, the decision was forced on Jewell—forced on David Sallee—by those narrow-minded, 'self-righteous judgers' who claim to know exactly what a Christian is and is not and can and do immediately produce an extensive check-list. If we say that Jewell is a Christian college and attract students with that, a great many will soon go away or be taken away by their parents claiming that they have been deceived by, at best, misguided, at worst, evil liberals, blasphemers, followers of the anti-Christ, etc. On the other hand, students that we would like to have will decline to come not wanting to fall into the clutches of doctrinaire 'education' and atmosphere."

  7. Another esteemed friend, who knows the situation at William Jewell College well, wrote, "It is sad that 'Christian' has become a pejorative term. I think we in the so-called mainstream let the extremists capture our identity."

  8. If I may be indulged for a second post, I just read an amazing post on ETHICSDAILY.COM concerning novelist Ann Rice's recent statement:

    "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being a part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

    You may read more at: This link goes to an article by Keith Herron, senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

  9. Once again I have enjoyed reading the blog.... I feel that the modern church has forgotten the Radical Jesus.... He was radical in the way he loved and lived.. This is missing in the way churches present his life... We some how have changed Jesus into a more socially acceptable version of himself.. I like to call this the "Precious Moments Christ".....We like to see him in cartoon fashion... I get what Ann Rice is saying yet it still strikes me as tragic... Leslie Taylor Tomichek