Is it appropriate for the media to use the term "Christian" to describe conservative Christians? An article by The New Republic's Timothy Noah complaining about National Public Radio's (NPR) coverage of the film, "October Baby," sparked a debate on this question.
Noah took exception to NPR describing the film as "Christian," because, he argued, it would more accurately be described as a "conservative Christian" or "Christian right" film.
"October Baby," a film produced and directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, portrays a young woman who survived a botched abortion attempting to find her birth mother. Ten percent of the movie's profits will go to organizations that help women with a crisis pregnancy choose to not have an abortion.
"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," Noah wrote last week.
Noah went on to argue that lots of films have Christian themes, such as those by Ingmar Bergman, Frank Capra or Martin Scorsese, in part because our culture is so steeped in the influences of Christianity. So, Noah believes, these other films could also be appropriately described as "Christian" films.
"Broadly speaking, of course, nearly all of contemporary western culture is rooted in Christianity and the Bible one way or the other, if you trace it back far enough," Noah concludes. "So the idea that Hollywood needs to create small subsidiaries to attend to some niche it calls 'Christian' seems absurd. What Hollywood is really doing is creating small subsidiaries to attend to Christian conservatives. And why not? Conservatives like movies, too, and maybe some of these will be good. But let's call them Christian conservative films, because everyone knows that's what they are. Evangelicals shouldn't get to claim one of the world's great religions as their exclusive property."
Edward Schumacher-Matos, ombudsman for NPR, responded to Noah's critique, along with similar points made by NPR listeners, in a Friday blog post, titled "Christian Is Not Synonymous With Conservative."
David Greene, the NPR host who narrated the "October Baby" coverage, defended his decision to label the film "Christian" in a response to Schumacher-Matos.
"'Christian' is a well-established modifier when describing a genre in filmmaking, as well as a genre in music," Greene said. "There's an award for Christian music at the Grammys, for example. Amazon and other retailers classify Christian movies as a category for sales.
"We absolutely accept the point that 'October Baby,' with its message on abortion, could have been classified in other ways – perhaps as a socially conservative film, for example. But this was a piece about a very broad genre."
Schumacher-Matos believes though that NPR, and the nation as a whole, should rethink how the word "Christian" is used and consider what it means to be Christian.
"What we have, then, is a question that goes beyond NPR to what should be a national debate over how to use the word 'Christian.' A truly useful debate would extend even further, to what it means to be Christian, given that nearly 80 percent of Americans claim to be one."
Using data from Pew Forum, Schumacher-Matos notes that the over three-quarters of Americans who identify themselves as Christian are a politically diverse lot. A third of white evangelicals and half of Catholics believe, for instance, that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Terry Mattingly also agreed with Noah's main point in a post for GetReligion.org, a blog about media coverage of religion, saying, "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."
While acknowledging that most NPR listeners understood what Green meant when he called "October Baby" a "Christian" film, Mattingly concluded that "vague labels cannot take the place of accurate, balanced journalism."