Lost in the shorthand

A recent New York Times Magazine article about the Texas State Board of Education said it was driven by a bloc determined to “advance a Christian agenda.”

The board’s “Christian faction,” the article said, was dominated by Don McLeroy, a creationist convinced that separation of church and state is a myth perpetrated by secular liberals. He and his allies believe the founding fathers meant for the United States to be a “Christian nation,” though many historians, including conservatives, dispute that.

Benjamin Campbell, an Episcopal priest from Richmond, Va., wrote to say that The Times was helping “a politicized minority of American Christians” hijack the generic name of the religion. “A Christian agenda? Whose Christian agenda?” he asked. “Christianity, like the other major world religions, is so old and so diverse that these various political and theological positions cannot properly be attributed to the religion itself.” He thought the McLeroy crowd should be called “Christianists,” a term that has come to connote extremism on the religious right.

Welcome to the unending battle over political and ideological labels: Christian, conservative, liberal, libertarian, populist, progressive, neoconservative, moderate. Times writers intend such labels as shorthand to give readers a fast sense of where players in public life are coming from. But sometimes the words can be so simplistic as to be almost meaningless: Can someone in the Tea Party movement who favors letting states nullify federal laws really be called a conservative? Or they can be too vague: What is a “liberal-centrist?” Occasionally a label seems flat wrong: Al Franken a “moderate”? And sometimes, readers see not-so-subtle signs of bias in them: Why is the American Enterprise Institute almost always called “conservative” in The Times, while the Brookings Institution seldom gets a label, although it has been described as a Democratic government in exile during Republican regimes?

Russell Shorto, who wrote the magazine article on the Texas school board and has covered the religious right for years, said he has struggled over what to call people like McLeroy. “Conservative Christian activists” is the phrase he has come up with, he said, but he can’t use those words in every single sentence. He said he hoped that, by the time he used terms like “Christian agenda” with no other qualifier, he had established in the article just what specific brand of agenda it was.

But to make matters more complicated, Campbell and readers like Simon Rosenthal of Sarasota, Fla., argue that what the McLeroy faction favors is not even conservative. “Separation of church and state is conservative,” Rosenthal wrote. “The Times should not use that word to describe them.”

Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the magazine, said that putting a fair label on Christian activists on the right has long been a problem. First, they were evangelicals, he said, “but a lot of evangelicals like Jimmy Carter are liberal, so that had to be corrected.” Christian conservative became the shorthand. It may not always fit perfectly, but it seems to be widely understood. “Christianist” is too loaded; the late William Safire called it an “attack word.” Still, I understand Campbell’s frustration and wish there were a more precise, nonjudgmental label.

Sometimes such shorthand gets so short it seems clearly wrong. I heard from readers last summer after an article about legislation to control greenhouse gases referred to 10 Democratic senators, including Franken, Russ Feingold, Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller, as “moderate.” Victor Thuronyi of Takoma Park, Md., said most people would call them liberals and wondered whether it was time to get rid of most labels. Just calling them Democrats would have been fine, he said.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on March 14, 2010.

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