December 30, 2004
People of Faith
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Geoffrey Nunberg comments on the growing usage of the phrase "people of faith" in Sunday's New York Times (December 26). Increasingly used in place of "churchgoers" or "believers," the media has been busy citing the words, deeds, and intentions of people of faith in a year that has seen religion and faith issues pushed to the fore again and again. It's a versatile and ambiguous phrase that sounds inclusive (of any faith) but, more often than not, signifies Christians and particularly conservative Christians.
Faith figured in many of 2004's top media events. The DaVinci Code; The Purpose Driven Life; and The Passion of the Christ were among the bestsellers and blockbusters of the year. Christianity also played a role in many of this year's top news stories: Bush's re-election campaign, Ronald Reagan's memorial, the heated battles over same-sex marriage and ordination, public postings of the Ten Commandments, and the morality of the war in Iraq and the quasi-religious (good/evil) language surrounding it.
Perhaps the phrase people of faith, used in Sightings as well, is less helpful than it appears. Understanding the role of conservative Christianity in American life and politics is becoming more and more crucial. Definitions of terms, and relevant demographic data, are needed to identify "evangelicals," "fundamentalists," "people of faith," and even "Christians," in order to facilitate public discourse. Clear language about who we're talking about is necessary in any analysis on the current and future civic/religious boundaries in our nation.
In the year's election coverage, the term "evangelical" was widely used to describe conservative Christian Republicans. Never mind the fact that a significant minority of "evangelicals," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "believing in the sole authority and inerrancy of the Bible, in salvation only through regeneration, and in a spiritually transformed personal life," oppose the war on religious grounds and commonly vote Democratic. One third of evangelicals in America take their Biblical commitments to mean activism in the fight against poverty, the protection of the environment, and lobbying for peace -- issues that typically resonate with the liberal camp.
The phrase "people of faith" implies common interests among God-believers. If this common interest lies only in the realm of conservative politics, the term may just be obscuring the more accurate "conservative evangelicals," "conservative Catholics," "fundamentalists," and, sometimes, Pentecostals and Latter-day Saints. However, if "people of faith" implies a broader like-mindedness -- perhaps, defense of public self-expression; workplace holiday and prayer rights; freedom of speech in schools for children; the acknowledgement of secularism as a belief-system, not the lack of one; and prophetic, faith-driven moral witness to the larger culture -- the phrase may grow in its usefulness and value. Secularization theory's presumption that religion would maintain a steady decrease has been stunningly weakened by the American case and faith-diversity in America continues to grow (see Diana Eck's Pluralism Project).
In the coming year, under new editorship, Sightings hopes to continue to address the role of faith in our multi-cultural society and explore, as precisely as we can, the people, groups, denominations, networks, coalitions, and councils that make up American religion. We remain committed to analysis of the role of religion in all our publics, not merely the political realm, but the arts, business, education, and media.
The opportunities and challenges for 2005 are already upon us. People of faith, people of doubt, and people of decidedly a-theistic commitments will continue to grapple with the changing role of religion in a world yearning for compassion, service, and witness to the good.
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is the outgoing Managing Editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the History of Christianity.