ReligionWeek: The problem with "faith"

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?

For instance:

  • 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.

6 replies »

  1. Oh, good grief. I’m a non-Christian. I’m fine with Christians monopolizing the word “faith”. Why? Because most religions in the world are not primarily faith-based. MOST religions are about practice. Jews (my religious background) are OBSERVANT — that means, they DO what their religion requires. Buddhists (my current religion) PRACTICE as the Buddha taught us. I can’t speak for Muslims and Hindus, but I will point out that four of the Five Pillars of Islam are things one DOES. The idea that the primary characteristic of religion is faith only makes sense to Christians and ex-Christians (and maybe people from majority Christian societies who are woefully ignorant of other traditions.)

    If Evangelicals want to claim that only they have faith, why should the rest of us — at least, those of us who are not Christians — even care?

  2. How about because it’s wrong? Last week I walked under a Calder statue in Chicago that weighs fifty tons (Flamingo.) I put a lot of faith in the welders who put that thing together. We all have faith–faith in science (evolution,) faith in economics (invisible hand,) faith in aircraft engineers, etc, etc. Faith is a human attribute. It’s simply incorrect for it to be appropriated by one segment and redefined. Although to be fair, evangelical Christians are prone to redefine words-“patriotism” now means unbridled military aggressiveness, etc.

    How about because any article about Tebow simply drives the ignorati crazy? Yeah, rattling a stick along the bars of the cage is childish, but it’s fun to see the gorilla jump around.

    • The use of “faith” in a specifically Christian context goes back centuries (and multiple languages). “Credo” is a defining characteristic of that religion. Arguing that it has other, non-religious meanings is really beside the point. Should I object to the designation of some NFL employees as “players” because I like a friendly game of poker now and again? I’d say no. Being a player is a part of their identity in a way it is not part of mine.

      My objection to the post is that the author seems to think that adherents of non-Christian religions (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans were specifically mentioned) should be included as members of a “faith” or as “faithful” people. But as I tried to express above, that’s nonsense. It goes along with the usual Christian view that other religions are “just like us” (only not quite as wonderful). And unfortunately, since most atheists are former Christians or were at least raised in majority-Christian society, that same misunderstanding has made its way into atheism. Christianity is a faith. Other major religions (and most of the minor ones) are not, properly speaking, faiths.

      So, let me be as clear as I can. If Christians want a special day/night when the stands are to be full of Christians, well, I might feel that is discrimination, especially if people get money off their tickets by showing a church bulletin or something. But the problem isn’t with a misuse of the word “faith”; if it’s called a “faith day/night” I know perfectly well who is expected to come.

      • The bottom line is that you’re actively refusing to understand the point, which is about the socio-political power of vocabulary. Instead of focusing on the surface examples, like faith nights, please pay attention to linguistic implications, which are the issue here.

        • I am not actively refusing, sir. You have not, to my mind, made a case for why I, a non-Christian, should care in the least that “faith” is a word for Christianity. Why would I WISH to be included in events for “people of faith”? Why would any non-Christian?

          I think your point about the term “patriot” is better taken. I, too, remember when Americans of various opinions considered each other patriots. I also remember when that began to fall apart (and judging by your picture, you probably remember it, too) — it fell apart, not to put too fine a point on it, when African Americans and young people who didn’t want to be drafted to fight a pointless war became overtly and successfully political.

          I still maintain the two cases are different.

        • I believe the two cases look different to you because the one (along with its resulting implications) is well established, while the other is what we might call “trending.” I suspect in ten years you’ll be able to look at the two side by side and see them as more or less the same thing.