Labeling Christians

February 20, 2009

Putting labels on people is always a loaded thing, and putting labels on Christians is no exception. What exactly does "evangelical" mean, for example, and who gets to decide? Are mainline Protestants
those with a particular set of left-leaning beliefs, those who belong
to denominations in the National Council of Churches or simply those who
aren't evangelicals? While we know what "the Orthodox Church" is, we
certainly don't have a consensus definition of "the orthodox church."
And so on.

Navigating the conservative-to-liberal terrain is
particularly treacherous because some labels are now used mostly as
pejoratives. Writing on Call & Response—the blog of Duke Divinity's
new Leadership Education project—Mark Chaves observes that while theological liberalism continues to be a "potent cultural presence," many liberals "dare not speak its name."

Jason Byassee—Call & Response's editor and a Century
contributing editor—notes in the comments that he prefers "liberal" to
"progressive," a term that many theological liberals have adopted. I
agree with Jason—while self-identified political progressives might argue convincingly that the word carries a distinct nuance, theological progressives seem to be using the word simply as a euphemism for "liberal."

Meanwhile, Sarah Pulliam reports that conservative evangelical leaders are trying to bury the label "religious right." Randall Balmer defends
the term—but his argument emphasizes his inclination to use it
pejoratively, which is exactly the problem with the label, according to
Gary Bauer and other conservative evangelicals.

What's the
answer? Should we take an identity-politics approach, labeling people
only if they've chosen the label themselves? This can be confusing. The
church I grew up in is solidly conservative evangelical by any outside
standard but rarely calls itself conservative or evangelical (or, for
that matter, "religious right"). Should we stick with "Christian,"
declining to qualify or classify ourselves further? We mainliners know
from experience that if we do this, people will make a lot of inaccurate
assumptions about us.

What's a better solution?