It depends on what the meaning of ‘Christian’ is…

I'm using this photo from Scott Walker's website not because it particularly goes with this post, but to be helpful: If I were to write a post headlined, "Top Five GOP Presidential Candidates I'd Have Trouble Picking Out of a Police Lineup," he'd make the list.

I’m using this photo from Scott Walker’s website not because it particularly goes with this post, but to help y’all get used to seeing him: If I were to write a post headlined, “Top Five GOP Presidential Candidates I’d Have Trouble Picking Out of a Police Lineup,” he’d make the list. And it occurs to me that maybe some of y’all would have the same problem. Or maybe not. Other people watch more TV than I do…

Scott Walker is in hot water again — with Democrats, anyway, which probably isn’t keeping him up nights — for expressing something short of 100 percent certainty on whether POTUS is a Christian:

“You’re not going to get a different answer than I said before,” the Wisconsin governor said. “I don’t know. I presume he is. … But I’ve never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don’t presume to know someone’s beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I’ve actually talked with them.”…

Walker wrapped up his answer by saying, “He’s said he is, and I take him at his word.”…

OK, yeah, I get it. Obama is a special case. Expressing anything short of total acceptance of his avowed Christianity hints at birtherism. Dog whistles and all that.

But… suppose for a moment that Walker said that about any one of the other 7 billion and something people on the planet. In those cases, I would say his caution was entirely defensible.

This interests me for reasons totally unrelated to Barack Obama and the paranoid fantasies about him to which some fringe folk subscribe. It has to do with the proper use of the word “Christian.”

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable myself answering the question, “Are you a Christian?” Not because of the denotative meaning of the word — one who professes belief in Jesus Christ and his teachings — but because of the connotations that attach to it.

Once, it was used among English speakers to mean something like “normal,” or civilized. For instance, the historical novelist Patrick O’Brian would put it in the mouths of his Regency Period characters when they were talking about the normal, proper way of doing a thing. The physician Stephen Maturin, despite years at sea, remains such a landsman that he can’t climb the rigging the way seamen do and must ascend to the top through the “lubber’s hole.” So his friend Jack Aubrey might speak of his inability to get up there “like a Christian.” Aubrey, who is just as incompetent on land as his friend is at sea, is a terrible gardener, so his rose bushes do not resemble “anything planted by a Christian for his pleasure.”

That sense has gone out of favor. Most people would find it confusing today, and like as not take offense at it.

Nevertheless, many English speakers today seem to use the word as a sort of honorific, as something describing a person who has arrived spiritually. This is most common among those who are in the habit of describing Christians as people who are “saved,” as opposed to people who are merely striving to follow the teachings of the carpenter/rabbi from Nazareth.

If I was sure everyone understood it in that striving sense — as describing someone who believes, and wants to live up to the standards set by the teachings of Jesus, and tries to do so — then I’d be perfectly comfortable telling one and all that I am a Christian. Or at least, attempting to be. (After all, I must ask myself always, am I even a Christian in the sense of striving? Am I really trying hard enough to qualify?)

But I fear they may take it the other way, as some sort of self-congratulation on my part — which to me would be contradictory to the whole belief system. In other words, if I said “yes” without mixed feelings, would I be disqualifying myself?

Anyway, if Scott Walker or anyone else says he can’t know whether I am truly a Christian, I’ll congratulate him on his humility in admitting he doesn’t know something he lacks the power to truly know, since it’s a point upon which I can even confuse myself.

But then, I’m not Barack Obama.

40 thoughts on “It depends on what the meaning of ‘Christian’ is…

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I think it’s mighty white of folks to stop using Christian to mean “ordinary, decent”…..

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ain’t it, though?

      Speaking of expressions such as that one…

      I sort of cringed the other day when, in a story about Dylann Roof, my longtime friend colleague John Monk wrote, “Roof, who is 21, white and from the Columbia area.”

      Just substitute “free” for “from the Columbia area,” reverse the order of the statements, and you have a mercifully extinct formula for Roof having the license to do whatever he pleased…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        I don’t have a problem with John’s specifying race when, as in this case, it’s relevant. How many times do we identify someone as black, Hispanic or Asian when we would not identify a white person’s race.

        I did have an email exchange with John about his pieces on the architects’ suit against Columbia–I did not understand at all how Steve Benjamin’s involvement or lack thereof was relevant to whether the city had an enforceable contract or not.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, I was really puzzled by that. I’m glad I wasn’t alone.

          What did John say?

          Meanwhile, I’m staying out of commenting on the case itself, as a client firm of ours was, and is, representing the city.

  2. Karen Pearson

    I tend to want to go with CS Lewis’ definition. A Christian is a person who has been undergone Christian baptism. It doesn’t mean she/he’s good or bad or that s/he worships a particular way. And that’s why it’s a good definition. There are some self proclaimed “good Christians” who leave me thinking maybe I should reconsider druidism. Or frog worship. There are others who are atheists who seem to me to be showing others the mercy Jesus showed people. It gets us out of those comparisons, and arguments about whether various theological, political, or personal positions are or are not moral.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I dunno–I was baptized as an infant, but are all those little Baptist kids who haven’t gotten baptized yet not Christians? I think a Christian is someone who believes that “Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins” as said Baptist kids used to formulate it–or perhaps, as I am more inclined to define it: someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God.
      I wish Christian meant someone who follows Christ’s teachings to the best of his/her ability and understanding.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          You mean my last statement. the best of your ability is not equal to the best you can imagine, or the best of your ability on a really good day–just the best you can muster at the time.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Speaking of being free, white and WELL over 21… I’m laughing at myself because one of my header images from the Thailand trip just randomly appeared at the top of the blog. It’s the one in which I’m posing in a line with my wife and daughter and all the ladies from the local government office of my daughter’s rural district (a very rough equivalent of a county government office).

        There are all those nice ladies, and one tall, looming (yet by common agreement among the ladies of Thailand quite handsome) white man in a tropical shirt and khaki safari vest.

        I look like I’m about to go out and illegally shoot a tiger…

      2. Pat

        When you say baptized, do you mean a literal baptism with water? I’m a member of a Baptist church and, ironically, Baptists don’t believe being physically baptized with water makes one a Christian. Baptism is an outward symbol of what has already happened in the heart. So one could be a Christian without being immersed (or sprinkled) with water. Outward evidence of a Christian, to me, is love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
        I guess in the cultural sense the term Christian just means one aligns oneself with a Christian church or group by membership and/or heritage. But in the spiritual sense a Christian is so much more.

        1. Mark Stewart

          Lots of Buddists, Jews, Muslims, athiests et al would agree with those characterizations, BTW. People all across the globe have a capacity for goodness – Christian or not.

          I favor humility. It works well on people.

          1. Pat

            I agree, Mark. Humility does work well on people. Not much of that in politics, I’m afraid.

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              Well, humble people don’t tend to run. You need a big ego to feed to put up with the, um, stuff involved.

              1. Bryan Caskey

                Just between you and me, we Republicans think the same thing.

                Republican politicians stink. This is because real Republicans don’t go into politics. We have a life. We have families, jobs, responsibilities, and it takes all our time and energy to avoid them and go play golf. We leave politics to our halt, our lame, and our feeble-minded. Republican candidacies are sinecures for members of the GOP who are otherwise useless and/or retired.

                -P.J. O’Rourke, in his most recent column

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            I had a dream last night that I was a Buddhist. Or that I was in a situation in which I was posing as a Buddhist. In any case, I remember thinking I’d best start reading up on Buddhism to make sure I was doing it right.

            I don’t think I actually got around to it in the dream…

        2. Karen Pearson

          Pat, all those adjectives would also apply to Buddists, Hindus, and Muslims, as well as a lot of atheists. That’s part of what causes the problem.

      3. Karen Pearson

        Those little heathens are considered “Christian” by virtue of their parents faith, until they are old enough to decide for themselves. After that they’re on their own.

      4. Brad Warthen

        The one good thing about Baptism as the definition is that it’s objective. You were baptized or you weren’t. You get a certificate and everything.

        Other things may be more meaningful, but they involve value judgments. A lot more room for argument…

  3. Bryan Caskey

    “He’s said he is, and I take him at his word.”

    This is the correct answer. I’m pretty sure Hillary said the exact same thing in 2008.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    One can go too far with the Aubrey-Maturin examples. I can think of one instance in particular…

    Sometime during one of my last years at the paper, one of the people in my department came to me with a complaint, and it was somehow related to our cutbacks dictated by the paper’s financial challenges. To help her feel like she wasn’t alone in being distressed by these changes, I started talking about Patrick O’Brian.

    There’s a certain situation that all fans of his books would recognize: When our hero’s ship is being chased (as happened with the Sophie in the first book) by a far more powerful French vessel, a situation in which discretion is definitely the better part of valor. So the captain tries every trick he knows to get every bit of speed and maneuverability from his ship (or in the case of the Sophie, his sloop). If the larger enemy ship keeps gaining, he starts to lighten ship, throwing overboard anything that’s unnecessary. Eventually, he pumps all his water overboard. Finally, as the act of supreme desperation, he throws his guns overboard.

    As a reader, I felt sick when that happened. It’s sort of a case of committing suicide to keep from getting killed. In order to save your vessel and your men, you are rendering them useless and helpless, and therefore only marginally worth saving in terms of the calculations of war. To the captain who orders that last, desperate act, it’s like he’s cutting his own heart out — or perhaps a Freudian would say he’s emasculating himself. The captain feels sick about it, and I as the reader do — “NO! Not the guns!”

    I said all that to say that that was the way I felt about the cutbacks we were facing. We’d gone far beyond trying to get maximum speed and efficiency from the ship. All our water was gone. And now we were eliminating our chief reason for being, stripping away our ability to do good journalism. We had started throwing the guns overboard, and I felt it deeply. But what could we do? The situation dictated this action. (Not long after, I would be one of the guns to go over the side.)

    Later, I learned that she went to someone else in my division and said something like, “I go to him with a problem I’m having, and he goes off on this bizarre, irrelevant rant about ships and guns 200 years ago, or something….” She felt I’d let her down, blowing off her concerns by changing the subject.

    Not one of my finer leadership moments. But I had thought the analogy was PERFECT, and it was something that kept occurring to me at that time… there go the guns…

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Um, yes, Brad, you do that.
      Or some other obscure reference.

      At least when Bryan does, it’s not so obscure, usually….

    2. Karen Pearson

      It doesn’t do much good to have all the guns in perfect condition if all the soldiers have died of thirst.

      1. Mark Stewart

        We often make the conscious decision to choose a worst “might happen” possibility vs. accepting a certain negative inevitability. We roll the dice every day. That’s living!

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      It just took too long to explain. If only she’d read the books, she have smoked what I was on about right away. I’d have said “We’ve reached the point that we’re throwing our guns overboard,” and she’d have said “absolutely,” and shuddered at the thought.

      Mike Fitts would have understood. But then, he’s the guy who got me to start reading those books…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Yes, cultural references are vastly more helpful when the recipient has knowledge of the work being referenced. Funny how that works…

  5. Mark Stewart

    “As someone who is a believer myself, I don’t presume to know someone’s beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I’ve actually talked with them.”

    …unless I’ve actually talked to them! That’s pretty funny stuff right there. As if one can speak with someone and then KNOW whether they are a “Christian”. No, what the person who uses code words and phrases could determine is whether they believe in the same stuff. So Scott Walker may be able to sniff out the evangelical – but he clearly has no insight into the reality that while “goodness” may have a spiritual component it is not limited to a particular sect or belief. Lot’s of people are Christian in very different senses; and would not give off the scent that stimulates Scott Walker. Did I just write that? Yuck.

    Scott Walker wasn’t even trying to be accepting. Or understanding. Or thoughtful. Or really anything other than myopically snide.

    1. Karen Pearson

      Of course, all you have to do is talk to them. After all “Paris is worth a mass.”

  6. Norm Ivey

    When reporters ask that question what they are really asking is, “Do you think the president is a secret Muslim?” In the past presidents have expressed their faith without much attention being paid to it. It’s an irrelevant question and serves no purpose.

  7. Juan Caruso

    Gee, if only some of us were as inteligent as you, who declare your smarts as faith in the superior wisdom of the parasitic American Bar Association. Wow, give us a break!

  8. Harry Harris

    These questions, asked in a political context, show the danger of politics manipulating religion and vice versa. Walker is nuancing his way around ticking off the right wing religionists he hopes will support him. Many would be turned off by a straightforward “yes.” If he expressed a stronger doubt (as many of that crowd would favor), the media and press would grill him about it, though it makes little more difference than most any box you would want to put a politician into. Being nominally a Christian seems to be a required check box for seeking many offices these days. Being a “Christ Follower” could probably get you disqualified as well in many contexts. Pope Francis certainly couldn’t get far toward the Republican nomination these days. I want my President’s religion to influence his political and private values and personal behavior . I don’t want it determining public policy.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I’m so tired of the press asking stupid questions. Asking anyone to affirm someone else’s faith seems like the height of stupidity. If I were a candidate for something and were asked to affirm someone else’s faith, I would be disdainful of the question (and the questioner).

      There’s a scene near the end of A Few Good Men, where Tom Cruise has Nicholson on the witness stand before the real famous exchange. Cruise asks Nicholson why the deceased Marine hadn’t packed or called anyone if he was scheduled to be transferred off the base. Nicholson responds:

      “My answer is I don’t have the first damn clue. Maybe he was an early riser and liked to pack in the morning. And maybe he didn’t have any friends. I’m an educated man, but I’m afraid I can’t speak intelligently about the travel habits of William Santiago. What I do know is that he was set to leave the base at 0600. Now, are these the questions I was really called here to answer? Phone calls and foot lockers? Please tell me that you have something more, Lieutenant. These two Marines are on trial for their lives. Please tell me their lawyer hasn’t pinned their hopes to a phone bill.”

  9. Barry

    Walker said it correctly. I’d say the same about anyone.

    I can’t answer for someone else, but generally if they proclaim to be, I will accept their word for it, especially if they can describe the moment or reasons they profess to be a Christian.

    After all, it’s not me that they should be concerned about believing them.

    good answer Gov. Walker.

Comments are closed.