What Does “Christian” Mean Today?

JS TLBBy Joseph Stoutzenberger, PhD
Professor, Religious Studies

As a Religious-Studies professor, I ask my students to tell me about their religious background. I find it’s important to know given our subject matter. Lately I’m finding more students who identify themselves as “Christian.” Not Baptist or Methodist, simply Christian. Some even say they were raised Catholic but are now Christian.  

I have a general sense of what they mean. What’s most important is a personal relationship with Jesus, not belonging to a particular church. Former Catholics say they became “Christian” because they did not encounter Jesus in the Catholic Church. Their focus is the Bible, meaning the King James Version interpreted literally. I have never had a “Christian” student who believes in evolution since it runs counter to the literal creation story in Genesis. Finally, my Christian students attend services that are lively, with upbeat music, led by a charismatic pastor. 

My self-identified Christian students typically are a delight to have in class because they are interested in the topic. However, I have misgivings about applying the label “Christian” to only one expression of Christianity. I’m not alone in that concern. The April 22, 2019, New Yorker has an article about two millennials designing bible books using creative images. They say that: “The evangelical space is very much connected with Trump. We want to show there’s a wider spectrum of Christians.” (page 15) Sojourners, a left-leaning Evangelical magazine, also voices concern about identifying “Christian” with right-wing politics. The article “The Trump Prophecy,” talks about how many conservative Christians are comparing Donald Trump to Cyrus of Persia, “both ‘friendly’ to but not part of God’s people, both supposedly used by God—and Trump is lauded as the president of divine providence.” (May 2019, page 10)

To be fair, this associating Donald Trump as an instrument of God isn’t confined to white Evangelicals. In a recent interview on CNN, Steve Bannon, a Catholic, also said that he had no doubt that divine providence was at work in the election of Trump. Nonetheless, a large number of white voters who self-identified as Evangelical (81 percent is typically given for exit polling in the 2016 election) said they voted for Trump. That number is disputed, partially because the designation “Evangelical” is so loosely defined.

I wouldn’t presume to lump my “Christian” students into one homogenous group. From all that I can observe, their experience of Christ is life-giving and impels them to be kind and welcoming of others. However, I’m concerned about the narrow politicization of the word that I hear in the public square. For instance, is it “un-Christian” to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding? Should Christian parents seek “conversion therapy” to change the sexual orientation of their child? Are Muslim immigrants an assault on the Christian identity of the nation? Does God not hear the prayers of Jews? Add your own examples of what “Christian” means today in public discourse. Everyone, self-proclaimed Christians included, would do well to be humble enough to heed the words of Jesus himself: “Watch out for false prophets…. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 7:15, 21)