Conservatives like to chortle about the ever-changing nomenclature for hypersensitive groups within the Democratic coalition. It’s not Negro, it’s black. No, it’s not black, it’s Black. No, it’s not Black, it’s African-American. It’s not crippled, it’s handicapped. No, it’s not handicapped, it’s physically challenged. It’s not Hispanic, it’s Latino. And so on. Those politically correct left-liberals! They’re so busy thinking up new names for themselves that they don’t have time to win elections!
But on Election Night last week, I discovered that sometime when I wasn’t paying attention it had become an insult to call somebody a member of “the Christian right.” Early that evening, White House correspondent Terry Moran killed some time during the wait for election results by briefing ABC News anchor Peter Jennings about Karl Rove’s strategy of corralling “evangelical Christians.” When Moran was finished, Jennings explained why Moran used that term:
I just want to make one observation about terminology. I’m not sure that you’re gonna hear a lot of new terminology this year you haven’t heard before, but “evangelical Christian” is what people used to call, unfortunately, the Christian right. Some people call them conservative Christians. But they are those from those churches in America which take the Bible literally.
Unfortunately? What’s wrong with calling the Christian right the Christian right? It’s unquestionably Christian and invariably conservative. I smelled a gripe session with a disgruntled minister over stale deli sandwiches around a conference table at ABC headquarters in New York.
ABC News did not, at first, appear eager to discuss this. Jennings did not return a phone call I placed to him, and political director Mark Halperin had an assistant call to say he would not comment. Finally, Julie Summersgill, an ABC News spokeswoman, told me that Jennings’ comment did not constitute an “editorial statement.” (Bafflingly, she also said that in her transcript, the word “unfortunately” did not appear. I had a Slate colleague look it up again, and “unfortunately” was there.)
I’m willing to grant that it is not yet official policy at ABC News to avoid the phrase “Christian right.” But, according to Nexis, ABC’s World News Tonight hasn’t used the phrase “Christian right” since Jennings expressed his disapproval this past Tuesday while World News Tonight has used the phrase “evangelical Christian” or “evangelical” at least three times to describe this voting bloc. (The latter calculation is based on a Nexis search using the search terms “ABC News,” “evangelical,” and “Bush.”)
John Green, a political scientist and director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, examined the views of evangelical Christians, along with those of mainline Protestants and Catholics, in a survey for the Pew Forum titled “The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004.” He assured me that the term “Christian right” has, indeed, been shed by the group it’s meant to describe. Why? Partly because liberals, after years of hard work, have finally managed to attach extremist associations to the phrase “the right,” in much the same way that conservatives many decades ago established that anything “left” was beyond the pale.
But that isn’t the whole answer, he said. It turns out that the Christian right has been renaming itself with a frequency that would make Jesse Jackson blush. In the late 1970s, it was the “religious right.” Jerry Falwell favored that term, and the media picked it up. Pretty soon, though, members of the movement perceived that the label had, for some mysterious reason, become pejorative, so the “religious right” was renamed the “Christian right.” Now the movement is shedding “Christian right,” because that term, mysteriously, has become pejorative, too. The new favored term is “the pro-family movement,” but that’s so overtly propagandistic—secularists are anti-family?—that it hasn’t gotten much pickup. Hence “conservative Christian” or “evangelical Christian.”
The trouble with “conservative Christian” is that it confuses the question of whether an individual is conservative in his religious practice with the question of whether that person is conservative politically. (Much of the black church, for example, is conservative in the religious but not the political sense.) Similarly, there are politically liberal “evangelical Christians,” and there used to be quite a lot more of them. (In Elisabeth Sifton’s book The Serenity Prayer, a memoir of her father, the politically liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Sifton points out that Niebuhr was an evangelical Protestant.) Even fundamentalists (an evangelical subgroup whom Jennings, incidentally, conflated with the broader Christian right) have some political liberals among them. In ditching the term “Christian right,” Green summed up, the Christian right chose to associate itself with the pool of Christians from which it hopes to draw, not the folks who already belong.
That’s the good news for liberals. The bad news is that according to exit polls, the large pool of “evangelical/born-again,” which represents 23 percent of those who voted for president, went 78 percent for Bush. So maybe these distinctions are starting to break down. Even if they do, I don’t see why we can’t call these folks “the Christian right.”
[Update, Nov. 9, 2004: Jennings phoned today and said, “It is not editorial policy” at World News Tonight to avoid the phrase “Christian right.” He said that in covering religion for ABC News, he’d found that evangelicals “are offended” by the term “Christian right” because “it has become something of a slur.” He said he was merely following the routine practice of identifying a group the way it wants to be identified. (Though, when pressed, he conceded that if the Christian right wanted to rechristen itself “the great guys,” it wouldn’t get its wish.) Jennings emphasized that this was not something he was imposing on others at ABC News. “It’s just me,” he said. “The one word I wish I hadn’t used was ‘unfortunately,’ ” he said, presumably because he doesn’t want to stand in judgment of those who continue to use the phrase “Christian right.” (I didn’t ask him to clarify because I was in a doctor’s office on a bad cell phone connection.)
I have no difficultly believing anything Jennings said. But I’m also skeptical that we’ll hear any reporter use the term, “Christian right” on World News Tonight anytime soon, except to explain that the phrase is no longer acceptable.]