What’s in a name? Ask the (pick one) religious right / conservative evangelicals / fundamentalist [insert faith group]

by on February 18, 2009  •  In Religion

Whoever they are, they don't want people to think they're – gasp – intolerant! From Christianity Today, with a HT to Alex at Bilerico:

The term "Religious Right" pops up every election cycle, but leaders often identified with the political movement say that while their constituencies remain strong, the catchphrase deserves a proper burial. However, several politically conservative evangelicals said in interviews that they do not want to be identified with the "Religious Right," "Christian Right," "Moral Majority," or other phrases still common  in journalism and academia.

Jerry Falwell, cofounder of the Moral Majority, self-applied the Religious Right label until it started taking a more negative connotation, according to John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Terminology is fraught with peril," Green said. "People associated it with a hard-edge politics and intolerance. Very few people to whom that term now would apply would use that term."

Gary Schneeberger, vice president of media and public relations for Focus on the Family, said that when writers include terms like "Religious Right" and "fundamentalist," they can create negative impressions. "Terms like 'Religious Right' have been traditionally used in a pejorative way to suggest extremism," Schneeberger said. "The phrase 'socially conservative evangelicals' is not very exciting, but that's certainly the way to do it."

What muddies the waters even more is when writers use the terms "evangelical" and "Religious Right" interchangeably. Individuals like megachurch pastor Rick Warren would resist being categorized as part of the Religious Right, even though the policies he supports may be politically conservative, said Randall Balmer, author of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. "I don't know if there are any labels for these folk," he said. "They do defy political labeling."

Like Warren, many groups would rather distance themselves from the Religious Right, even though they may agree on several political issues. Richard Land said he corrects numerous reporters who call him a leader of the Religious Right, explaining that he represents a group of Southern Baptists who would probably consider themselves conservative evangelicals.

"When the so-called 'Religious Right' agrees with us, we applaud their good taste and good judgment," said Land, who is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Some phrases need to be eliminated from journalists' vocabulary entirely, he said. "Until Tony Perkins or Jim Dobson puts a pistol on the table and threatens to kill someone, they shouldn't be called ayatollah of the Right or the Jihadists of the Right."

On the other side of the political spectrum, founder of Sojourners Jim Wallis is often associated with the "Religious Left" but would rather be called a progressive. He also dislikes the use of "Religious Right." "I would not be happy with labeling anyone just right-wing. That's simplistic and reductionist," Wallis said. "Labels are shorthand, sloppy ways to describe someone."

Organizational leaders like Tony Perkins of Family Research Council want a term that includes other religious groups like Catholics, Jews, and Mormons so that they can see themselves as fighting for the same cause. "It's not accurate to say that the Christian Right or the Religious Right is simply a narrow slice of evangelicals," Perkins said. "Will everyone identify themselves as part of the Religious Right? No, but they do share a portion of values."


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