By Paul M. Walsh [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last week, a friend sent me a link to the blog Stuff Christian Culture Likes. Not to be confused with the evangelical site, Stuff Christians Like, Stuff Christian Culture Likes zeroes in on the strangeness of US evangelicalism with a more jaded perspective.
The blog raises an issue that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently—that is, that evangelicalism has its own weird language, with its smattering of words that take on a completely different meaning in evangelical culture. It even coins words and phrases of its own. In another post, I outlined some of the terms related to Christian patriarchy that I think you should know. Here, I offer another list of problematic entries (in no particular order), each paired with a corresponding Christian Contemporary Music track that you can find on YouTube.
- People Groups: Christians* like to travel to foreign countries to share their faith, build latrines, and take pictures of themselves with poor children. When raising money for these “missions trips,” they often refer to the people of color they will be ministering to as “people groups.” When Africa and the Middle East are involved, they like to define “people groups” as “tribal” kinship groups. They reserve the term, “unreached people group,” for very rural populations that have allegedly never heard of Christianity, as in “the unreached people groups among the tribes of Papua New Guinea.” Christians probably do not intend this as a racist and offensive term, but they are the only people you will ever hear use it. “Kiss His Glory” is the sort of easy-to-translate song that a missionary would teach to a people group.
- Secular Humanism: Christians do not understand this phrase in the way that most people do. Thanks in part to the extremism of the late Francis Schaeffer, Christians believe that secular humanism is an evil and anti-Christian philosophical and epistemological approach. It is usually cast as the opposite of a “Christian worldview.” Christians believe that many of the evils of contemporary Western society arise from the evils of secular humanism. Example: “I homeschool my children to protect them from secular humanist indoctrination.” Secular humanism is decried in songs like rapper Spittin’ 4 Jesus’ “Only You.”
- Abortionist: A doctor who provides abortion services. This is a derogatory term, usually uttered with deep contempt and disapproval. It is only used by members of the Christian Right. Example: “I don’t believe in killing, but I’m not saddened by the death of that abortionist, George Tiller.” Among the anti-abortion crowd, songs told from the perspective of the fetus are popular.
- God is Not a Democrat or a Republican: This is a catchphrase taken from the sentiment behind professional Christian Jim Wallis’ 2005 book, God’s Politics. It’s often uttered by the kind of conservative evangelical who believes that he (often “he”) is somehow cutting edge. It literally means that God is more concerned with economic inequality than the Republicans, but that He (God is always an upper-case “He.”) is also against abortion rights and “homosexual behavior.” This sort of evangelical is often into hipster-y Christian music like The Psalters, Christian Contemporary Music’s response to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.**
- Father God: In many mainstream Christian denominations, God is understood as “God the Father.” But evangelicals like to switch the words around in order to show familiarity during emotive, audible prayer. It also reasserts the masculine identity of God. Example: “Oh, Father God, I just come before you today in awe and wonder, Lord.” It is often used in very bland contemporary songs like “Father God, I Wonder” or “Father God, Fill this Place.”
- Mom of Many: Women who use this phrase as a badge of honor are usually members of the Quiverfull movement, which shuns birth control and family planning so that women can have “as many children as God desires.” They see family planning as a sort of “slippery slope” leading to abortion. The phrase is never used by women who just happen to have a large number of children. Example: “I’m a homeschooling mom of many seeking like-minded women for fellowship and Bible study.” Moms of many very often prefer instrumental hymns and soft music from Quiverfull luminaries like Rebekah (Pearl) Anast.
- In Rebellion: This does not refer to popular uprising against tyranny. Young adult evangelicals—particularly those from the homeschooling movement who still live at home—are said to be “in rebellion against God-given authorities” when they go against the wishes of their parents. This sometimes denotes drug use, but it usually refers to the fact that a young person has entered into a romantic relationship—and posibly a sexual relationship—of which the parents do not approve. This is often equated with the behavior of Satan, whose real crime was rebellion against God. Example: “Please pray for our eldest, as he is currently in rebellion.” One way that parents try to guard against this is by teaching children songs like “I Will Obey” when they are very young.
- Woman’s Highest Calling: When Christians use this phrase, they are referring to the “calling” of being a wife and mother. If a skeptic asks a Quiverfull parent why she will not allow her daughters to attend college, she might say, “We believe a woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother.” This implies that a woman does not need a higher education because she is not expected to work outside the home anyway. People who use this phrase are generally proponents of “Biblical submission” and homeschooling.
What I hope is clear from this short post is that evangelicalism is a completely different language, one that we should all learn because of its growing role in shaping political discourse. Members of the Christian Right speak in a language that is not always transparent to those of us on the outside. They don’t mean what we might think they mean, or what we would mean if we used the same words. This is partly why conversations with these folks can be so difficult. But I think we have to know the basics in order to offer logical critiques that make folks question their ideology. What are some other words or phrases that you have heard?
*From this point on, “Christians” denotes North American evangelical Protestant Christians, not all Christians.
**Evangelicals often try to imitate things considered “hip” in secular culture, though often not with very much success.