This post originally ran on June 6, 2011, and is being reprinted as part of S&R’s ReligionWeek series.
Well, Tim Tebow’s new memoir is out, and it’s being joyously welcomed by those who think that sanctimonious 23 year-old jocks have something important to say about life. I got to hear some deep thoughts on the book and on the admirable life of young Tebow from the crew of The Stupid Show as I drove around yesterday afternoon, and while I’m fine with people believing what they feel led to believe, I have finally had about enough of what’s being done to the word faith.
Everywhere we turn here in this most evangelical of cultures, we hear that word. Faith. We revere those who “have great faith,” even when they’re not entirely rational about it. This a comparatively recent phenomenon, too. When I was a devoted Southern Baptist boy (as recently as the early ’80s) we talked about faith, sure, but it wasn’t the ubiquitous code word that it has become.
Let’s be clear about something. I’m not carping about what people believe. To be sure, I have done so and will again, especially when those beliefs shape policy that threatens the culture’s well-being, but that’s not what this complaint is about. No, this is more about the appropriation of a word, the sinister re-engineering of its DNA, its encoding as a dog-whistle that ultimately connotes something that’s a bit hypocritical.
Here’s the issue. Think about the contexts in which you hear formulations like “people of faith.” Or, if you’re into sports marketing, “faith nights/days” at the ballpark. Or with Tebow, a “book about faith.” You’ve heard it and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Now, think hard. Who are the people who use this language? Who do they use this language about?
- Are the speakers talking about Muslims? Are they referring to the most radically faithful fundamentalist elements of Islam?
- Are they talking about Jews?
- Are the speakers themselves Islamic or Jewish?
- Have you ever heard the “faith” meme used to praise a Hindu? A Buddhist? A Pagan?
- How about this. Every once in awhile you’ll hear a religious person make the argument that for some people, science is a faith. Or humanism. Or atheism. I’ve heard the argument made about all three. But, have you ever heard these speakers laud the pro-science, humanist or atheism faithful?
Hmmm. You may be able to answer yes to one or more of these questions, but if so you’re the rarest of exceptions, and even then you’ll have to acknowledge that the instance you recall was a one-in-several-thousand exception to the rule.
Why is this? Simple: the “faith” meme is code for Christian. Specifically, evangelical Christian.
So what, you wonder? What’s the big deal? Nothing wrong with Christians. Most all Americans are Christians. True enough. But the big deal is that the word, used properly, isn’t a Christian word, it’s a general word. Strictly understood, it might apply equally to members of any religion (so long as that religion relies on beliefs that are non-rational). For that matter, you might even use faith to describe non-religious institutions and ideologies, but for the moment I’ll save insulting members of various political parties for another day.
When the word is appropriated and made into an expressly Christian word, though, it becomes a weapon of exclusion. If the tactic goes unchecked, before long only evangelicals have faith. Which shoves non-evangelicals a bit further over into the going-to-hell category. Which is demeaning, denigrating, insulting and dehumanizing. It’s a corrosive, hateful religious othering/outgrouping game that linguistically reinforces one person’s place on the side of the angels and the other person’s allegiance to the forces of evil.
We’ve seen this dynamic before. Once upon a time “patriot” referred to a wide swath of people who loved America. These days you don’t hear the word used to describe anybody but proper conservatives very often, and the intimation is that liberals are anti-American. I vividly recall a time a few years back when a raving moron yelled in my face that there were two kinds of people in the US: Americans and Democrats. He was deluded about a lot of things, obviously, beginning with his erroneous presumption that I was a Democrat. But the message was clear, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding 100 million people in the country who sympathize with the sentiment at some level.
I’m not religious in a sense that most conventional types would recognize, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a stake in it when cynical religio-political groups attempt to turn my language against me and to deposition those with as much claim to spiritual validity as they do (more, in most cases). I’m one guy and I can’t shape the course of linguistic evolution by myself, but I can call people out on their subtle hate-enabling games.
You can, too. And you should.