(Travelblog is an occasional series of posts by RNS Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom, who’s on the road in Boston, Honolulu, Jakarta and Banda Aceh with the 2014 Senior Journalists Seminar, sponsored by the East-West Center in conjunction with the U.S. State Department)

HONOLULU (RNS) “Are you a Christian?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked several times over the past week as I’ve traveled with a group of U.S. and foreign journalists. By my count, most of the foreign journalists are Muslims, and as they’ve tried to explain the Muslim world to me, I’ve been trying to explain Christian America to them.

Members of the 2014 Senior Journalists Seminar attended Sunday services at Boston's Park Street Church. Photo courtesy Jaweed Kaleem / Huffington Post.

Members of the 2014 Senior Journalists Seminar attended Sunday services at Boston’s Park Street Church. Photo courtesy Jaweed Kaleem / Huffington Post.

More often than not, my new foreign colleagues want to know where I’m coming from.

It’s an innocuous question, and there’s nothing more meant by it than inquiries about basic biography. But in the conversations, I’ve detected a little more — not just “Are you a Christian?”, but sometimes “What kind of Christian are you”?

At first, it caught me off guard. Maybe it shouldn’t — any veteran religion reporter can tell you it’s one of the hazards of this beat. As we probe the spiritual lives of people we interview, sometimes the same questions are directed back at us. There’s no consensus on how to respond — most religion reporters have their own ways of answering (or dodging) the question.

The Religion Newswriters Association offers this guidance:

Say, “I’m Christian” or “I’m Jewish” or “I’m Muslim,” but leave it at that and quickly begin the interview.

Or

Some reporters say, “The most important thing you need to know is that I will listen to you and that I am committed to representing your faith accurately and fairly. This interview is about your faith, not mine.”

But this week has caused me to rethink both the question and the answer.

I’ve answered them honestly — yes, I am a Christian, or to borrow from U2’s Bono, I am a Christian, but probably not a very good one. What I really want to say is “Yes, I’m a Christian, but not like the kind you’ve seen on TV.”

Pressed further, I’ll tell them that I was raised evangelical but am currently settled amongst the Episcopalians. When that word registers a blank stare, I tell them it’s the American branch of the Anglican Church. More blank stares lead to something along the lines of “The Church of England … where Prince William got married.” That usually does the trick.

I was talking with a fellow American reporter on the trip who’s Jewish. After our group attended Sunday services at Boston’s Park Street Church — a proud bastion of conservative evangelicalism is the heart of blue Boston — she asked what I thought of the service. It felt both familiar and foreign, I said. Familiar in the sense that I knew the hymns and what to expect; foreign in the sense that I couldn’t recall that this was ever the air that I once breathed.

I found myself explaining the intricacies of evangelical life to my new friends, but the theological minutiae seemed lost on them. When one of my colleagues asked the difference between Protestants and Catholics, I realized that such theological niceties really didn’t matter to them.

All of which brings me back to that initial question, “Are you a Christian?” and then my “what-kind-of-Christian?” interpretation. It dawned on me that it’s the same question we often ask of Muslims. Not, “Are you a Muslim?” but rather “What kind of Muslim are you?” Are you the kind of Muslim that subjugates women? Are you the kind of Muslim that endorses terrorism? Are you the kind of Muslim that hates America?”

Of course that’s not what we say, but I suspect it’s often what we mean. And just as my new Muslim friends don’t seem to care what kind of Christian I am, maybe it’s time that we stop putting qualifiers on the “Are you a Muslim?” question.

One of my new Muslim friends drinks alcohol, while another is more observant and joined in the Friday prayers we attended at a Washington mosque. Still another doesn’t go to mosque at all. I suppose their words and actions tell me what kind of Muslims they are, and that should be good enough. Where it gets uncomfortable is when the same standard applies to me — I don’t need to tell them I’m X kind of Christian; I suppose it’s just enough for me to show them. And, inshallah, hope that’s good enough.

The tagline of our three-week fellowship is “Bridging Gaps Between the United States and the Muslim World.” For us, that starts with our work as journalists. In order to bridge gaps, you first have to build trust. And trust starts with honesty.

The RNA resources offer this other piece of advice:

“Say what your faith is and where you worship. Some reporters say that they feel they need to be honest and open with sources because they are asking sources to be honest and open with them. It is a way to build trust.”

And all God’s people said Amen.

7 Comments

  1. Earold D. Gunter

    Although I feel that religion is a bad thing, I only do so because of the effect it has on humanity. I don’t feel it is mentally healthy for someone to believe in something that has no basis in reality. However if they do, and keep that belief to themselves and take no actions to force either the belief, or the tenets of the belief upon others, then it just harms them.

    Unfortunately this is usually not the case with religious people. The tenets of most religions is that it is a good thing, usually mandatory, to try and convert others to believe as you do, since they believe it is what the creator of all wants.

    They usually try to force others through various actions that range from non-violent acts like putting religious icons in public locations in America, to the subtly violent, like teaching uneducated third world peoples that condom use is bad, even though the country is being ravaged by disease spread through sexual contact, to outright obviously violent, like beheading non-believers of their faith, as is being done in Iraq.

    All religious do so with the intent of having everyone believe and behave in a manner that is according to their belief, because they have the arrogance to believe that their religion is the “true” religion, and the supreme ruler of all wants them to do so.

    So Kevin, when they ask you these questions, they are really trying to asses if they should fear you or not, and if so to what degree.

  2. The problem with the question is the intentionally misleading efforts of Christian Fundamentalists to equate their views with all of Christendom. When fundamentalists say “Christian” they mean their form of the religion, not the entire faith in general. But they attempt to take credit for the entire faith when it is an issue of numbers or to pretend their views have a wider acceptance than reality permits.

    Usually as a matter of course I try to distinguish between “Christian” (meaning fundamentalists) and “christian” (meaning anyone who believes in the teachings of Jesus)

    • Fundamentalists refer to themselves as the “real” Christians because they believe that Catholics and those who believe certain things about the Eucharist to have gotten Christ’s teachings wrong. They are not being deceptive. They believe that they alone are the real Christians and others calling themselves Christians fall into idolatry or other grave errors.

  3. This is such a helpful and interesting article!
    I like the suggestion of responding with “what your faith is and where you worship” because anyone with Internet access could at least Google that information later and get a more thorough understanding about what you believe. Of course, there is always the possibility for continued misunderstanding when your personal theology does not quite align with the more specific tenets of the church you attend. For instance, I go to a PC(USA) church and am fairly comfortable with being labeled a “Presbyterian Christian”, but a more accurate description of my theology would be a “Liberal Christian”.

  4. Unfortunately, this question “What kind of religious believer are you?” will be necessary so long as folks like Earold are beaten up by bad 5th grade theology, spewed by under-educated religious leaders, until they actually believe that this is what religious adherents actually believe. I understand Earold’s misunderstanding. There are lots of loud ignorant religious leaders who gladly contribute to his misunderstanding. But that’s what it is: A misunderstanding.

    For instance, if one gauged what “average American life” is like by looking at daytime talk shows and newscasts, you would come up with a horribly skewed view that in no way reflects the average daily experience of 95% of Americans. Why? Because such media sources choose the loudest, most outrageous examples of American life in order to sell ad time. Religious news often functions the same way, although RNS does a particularly good job of NOT falling into this stereotype. But if you listen to religious news coverage on most outlets, and you add to it the jaded eye of someone like Earold who obviously has been hurt by ignorant religion, it would be easy to make statements that all religion is toxic, and all religious adherents want to either convert people or oppress the unconverted.

    Truth is that most religious believers aren’t like that. And a great many religious leaders claim their metaphysical religious beliefs as the foundation for advocating a radically pluralist, egalitarian, democratic society. For instance, Earold demands that religious adherents “keep [their] belief to themselves and take no actions to force either the belief, or the tenets of the belief upon others”. But where would our Democratic society be if religiously motivated 19th century abolitionists or suffragettes did this? Or Gandhi, or MLK, or Malcolm X, or even Stephen Colbert? Or religiously motivated modern advocates of LGBTQ rights, or the dignity of immigrants?

    The fact is that there is a way of being religious that see pluralism and equality under the law as the direct result of being made in God’s image, inherent in dignity, worthy of protection and freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion. Such moral assumptions derive from metaphysical beliefs about the nature of Reality. They cannot be gained by mere empirical observation and description of “the way things are” in the natural world. Such moral assumptions must be embraced– by well reasoned faith– as prescriptions about “the way things should be”.

    So, when we say that society should be democratic, people should be equal under the law, no one should be coerced against their conscience, we are all making non-empirical metaphysical moral statements. In this we are all in the same boat: Religious or Secular or Secularly Religious. We are all hoping for something better for society as embraced by well reasoned faith. And ALL of us who hold such pluralist, egalitarian moral assumptions need to band together, no matter where we got our moral assumptions from, no matter if we hold them on religious or secular grounds. Because there are loud and proud folks across the world who want to turn society back 500 years, and if those of us who hold democratic faith don’t stand up, they could well be successful.

    So religion or lack thereof is not the determinative factor in making the world a better place. The determinative factor is how one conceives of coercive political power in relation to the personal liberty of one’s conscience. Should power be used to coerce everyone to be “like me” or else? Or should power be used to protect persons from being coerced and oppressed into things they do not agree with? Both religious AND secular ways of organizing public life can be used to validate either totalitarianism or pluralism. I think Earold’s (and Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ and Pat Robertson’s and Bill O’Reilly’s) binary assumption of “Religious vs. Secular” blinds us to the complexity of the issues. The line cannot be drawn between Religious and Secular people, but is drawn right through the middle of us all.

  5. In the US, especially the South, Christian often does not include Catholics. But most people in the world would not get that distinction. They might get “I’m a Christian who recognizes the Pope as our leader,” and “I’m a Christian but we do not recognize the pope as our leader.” Most people know who the pope is, and many non-Christians think he is the Christian leader. I have met people from India who had only the vaguest idea of “this Jesus person,” but they knew something about the pope as a Christian leader. The pope is in the news more often than Jesus.

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