The Day the Christian Right Redefined the Meaning of "Christian"

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

Over the past thirty years a redefinition of the meaning of the historical term "Christian" began. This change came about because of the influence of the Christian Right politically and culturally. I can still recall, as a young pastor, getting my first voter’s guides delivered to my church so that I could help my congregation learn how they should vote with regard to the correct social and international issues. There was a list of twelve issues and how candidates stood on them. The point was that their answers revealed how close they were to the "Christian" position. While no candidates were endorsed it quickly became clear who was and who was not on the correct side with this list in hand. Some of the issues on that list, like abortion, were genuinely moral ones. Others, like a particular approach to national defense, were far more complicated and clearly had little or no biblical support. These kinds of issues were simply not black and white Christian issues, at least in terms of biblical and historical ethics. I refused to give out these guides and have watched with alarm as this approach has gone more and more mainstream in very conservative places of ecclesial power in America.

Look, readers of this blog know that I am a conservative politically, at least in the broad sense of the term. When it is used to refers to issues like abortion, marriage, family, the free market, a strong defense and tax-cuts I remain a conservative who desires to see a more limited government that favors the freedoms of people. But I have never been an active participant in the formal and political expressions of the Christian Right and I am even more deeply troubled by this movement today than I have ever been. I now find myself opposing it even though I remain a  conservative on most issues. It has too much power, far too many people sure that God is on their side, and draws too much attention away from the real work of the church itself.   

One of the reasons why I find myself in an odd position came about last week when Dr. James Dobson proclaimed that former-senator Fred Thompson was "not a Christian." The news report cited this as a "devastating blow" to Thomson’s chances should he seek the Republican nomination. Dobson, in a phone call to the senior editor of U. S. News & World Report, said, "Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for, but I don’t think he’s a Christian. At least that’s my impression."

Dobson knows very well that his making such a public statement could kill Thompson’s potential chance for the Republican nomination with several million people who love James Dobson and listen to him faithfully. It seems that he has learned the political power game very well over the past twenty-five years. Now he is using his influence to impact a potential nominee of the Republican Party for reasons that may be only fully known to him.

A Thompson spokesman responded by saying "Fred Thompson is indeed a Christian. He was baptized into the Church of Christ." A Focus on the Family spokesmen responded, in an attempt to clarify Dobson’s position, by saying "Dobson didn’t believe Thompson belonged to a non-Christian faith, [but he] has never known Thomson to be a committed Christian—someone who openly talks about his faith."

Well, there you have it. A new, non-biblical, culturally conservative definition of what makes a person who professes faith in Christ to be real or not. If they openly talk about faith they are in and if they don’t they are not.

I am sorry to say this but such a redefining of the historic term "Christian" is nuts! It raises several troubling questions.

First, when did Dobson become the person who helps Christians, and the general public, know who is and is not a Christian?

Second, many people who "openly talk about faith" are not real Christians and many people who are more silent (verbally) are some of the best Christians I know. This criteria is, as I said, "Nuts."

Third, where does a Christian psychologist get this kind of power and influence? The real leaders of the church of Jesus Christ should be its bishops, pastors, elders, and deacons; i.e., those who lead congregations and who answer to some church authority. Dobson is none of these. He is a psychologist with a powerful following.

Fourth, why does a person with no theological training, no ministerial ordination, and no particular church accountability to anyone within the church, become the person who now defines for millions what a Christian is or is not? The answer, sadly, is that evangelicalism has become more of a conservative social movement than a theological and missional movement and Dobson’s popularity is symptomatic of this very problem. He may be a wonderful man, that is not the issue I am addressing. The issue is that he should not be a spokesman for how we understand meaning of the term "Christian." This is why we have creeds, sacraments and churches. This kind of evangelicalism, which Dobson so powerfully represents, is built on a perverted expression of sola Scriptura, one reduced to its worst form. It is, in actuality, a deadly virus that plagues our movement with individuals who pretend to determine who is and is not a Christian and then tell the world on radio or through their books. 

Fifth, Dobson seems to clearly have a favorite candidate for the White House, former-speaker Newt Gingrich. Recently, Dobson interviewed Gingrich on his radio program. On the second program he got into Gingrich’s messy previous moral lapses by lobbing him a few "softball" type questions about his sorrow over these sins. I listened to the two programs on the Internet very carefully. I happen to respect Newt Gingrich’s political views on numerous issues but I found Dobson’s interview, both the manner and the timing, overtly political. It was an odd way, and time, for Speaker Gingrich to announce his repentance, assuming his confession is real. (I should only assume the best if I follow Christ but I can’t shake the issue of timing and place.)

I think Dr. Dobson has helped a load of people with their family and personal issues. I happen to like his psychological counsel on most issues and find him a rather sane voice when he sticks to his area of professional training. The problem is that he has inserted himself overtly into the political arena and now seems to feel that he is empowered by some people (and maybe God) to tell us who is and is not a Christian by his own "new" definition.

I do not believe this type of thing will stop until many conservative Christians begin to say "Enough is enough." We should not be a special interest group politically, even if it is conservative movement. (Maybe I should say, especially if it is conservative group given the nature of how power corrupts us so easily.) And we should not be so strongly influenced by radio personalities in terms of how we approach issues, people and their personal claims to being Christians. It seems to me that we should also let Dr. Dobson know this in some appropriate manner. I want him to use his gifts and powerful influence for the good of Christians but I ask him to avoid redefining important Christian terms for the sake of the political process and his own partisan views. His desire to help improve the moral condition in America is admirable but his methods are deplorable.