Here’s a very sad local story that’s becoming all too familiar in this state: a young man who appears to have suffered a form of religious derangement went on a muderous rampage yesterday at a local ski resort. (It’s the one my family members ski at most regularly.) The murder itself is not what’s most noteworthy (sadly)–rather, it’s the murderer’s possible definition and use of the term “Christian” that interests me:
[Derik] Bonestroo [the murderer], who was not well-known in the laid-back mountain community and had worked only this season as a lift operator, fired a bullet into the ceiling of the resort’s locker room after saying something along the lines of: “I’m a Christian and if you’re not a Christian I’m here to convert you.”
West said that Bonestroo asked resort manager Brian Mahon about his own beliefs. Mahon told the gunman he was Catholic before being shot to death.
Fortunately, Mahon was the only person killed, although the murderer was gunned down by a sherriff’s deputy shortly thereafter.
Over the past few decades, evangelical Protestants have commandeered the blanket term “Christian” to refer only to their brand of Christianity. Instead of calling themselves “evangelical Protestants,” or aligning themselves with a particular doctrine or faith tradition, they call themselves “Christians.” This strikes me as a particularly obnoxious form of “Christian” imperialism–seizing the term exclusively from themselves, and implicitly denying it to other Christians. Evangelical leaders downplay the role of tradition and doctrine in their own beliefs and practice, so they don’t teach their flock that Catholics, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, and Presbyterians, for example, are Christian too. Since most evangelicals have little sense of the complexities of the millenia of Christian history between Jesus and Jerry Falwell, many young evangelicals are ignorant of major religious and historical turning points like the Reformation. Accordingly, many young “Christians” of the evangelical persuasion are unaware that Roman Catholicism is one branch–some would say the main trunk!–of Christianity.
A friend of mine taught history at an evangelical Protestant college in the 1980s and 1990s, and he told me that his students were usually quite surprised to learn that Catholics were Christians. (Then again, at the Catholic university we both taught at, the overwhelmingly Catholic students there were usually in the dark about evangelicalism, although I think they were aware that their faiths had shared roots.) Bonestroo’s murderous reply to Mahon’s statement of his Catholicism suggests that perhaps Bonestroo labored under the same misinformation that Catholics are not Christians. Mahon’s reply, which he intended to mollify Bonestroo, may have instead inspired Bonestroo to kill him.
We don’t know for sure what Bonestroo said or exactly why he killed Mahon. (Later in the linked story, it states that “Bonestroo spewed something religious — a statement that was heard differently by witnesses. ‘There are various interpretations of what was said,'” according to one investigator.) How desperately, desperately sad and even more pointless is Mahon’s death if it turns out that Brian Mahon was killed in part because of his killer’s utter ignorance of his own religious tradition.
UPDATE, 1/1/09: See here for updated stories at the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Both stories suggest that Bonestroo wasn’t particularly devout, so the religious derangement he appears to have suffered was a surprise to friends and family members.
For more informed commentary from some actual American religious history scholars, see JJO’s comment below, as well as the thoughtful post by John Fea at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. Says Fea on the definition of evangelicalism,
Let me throw in my two cents, borrowed largely from evangelical historians such as David Bebbington and George Marsden. I would define an evangelical as a Christian who believes in the “New Birth” or the “born-again” conversion experience, upholds the divine inspiration of the Bible as a spiritual and moral guide for living, and takes seriously the “Great Commission” mandate (Matthew 28) to spread the gospel throughout the world.
Evangelicals can thus be found in all kinds of Protestant denominations, not just mega-churches or storefront congregations. I also know a few self-professed evangelical Catholics. Many evangelicals believe that they are direct descendants of the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicalism was present, to an extent, in Puritan New England, but it really hit American shores with force in the eighteenth-century revivals known as the First Great Awakening. It came to define American culture in the early nineteenth-century revivals known as the Second Great Awakening.
The bottom line is this: All evangelicals are Christians, but not all Christians are evangelicals. It is time that we get this straight.
In an e-mail, Paul Harvey of Religion in American History disagrees with me, and writes (in agreement with the comment from thefrogprincess yesterday),
The outer edges of evangelical groups, the fringe, preach some of this stuff [i.e. that they’re the only “Christians” worthy of the name], but most do not, I think. Mostly they just ignore non-Protestant groups. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, for example, and I was vaguely aware that there were people called Catholics, but I couldn’t have told you anything about them other than that they had something called a Pope who appeared on television periodically. We assumed they were more or less Christian, but mostly we didn’t think about them at all, and this is basically still true. That, I think, characterizes evangelicalism more generally. As for evangelical leadership, they are too busy allying with Catholics and Mormons or abortion and gay marriage to decry them as not being Christian. In their language, in fact, “Christian” has become more ecumenical, not less, in recent years. This is generally true for the most visible people –[Rick] Warren, Joel Osteen, etc. When they say “Christian” of course they mean evangelical, but if pressed they’ll mention everyone else as well, and like I said the social “values” issues have been a great unifier.
Thanks, friends, for your witness today. It looks like the killer’s actions were motivated primarily by mental illness and (as always in my fair state!) easy access to firearms. It’s interesting to note that while mental illness is distributed fairly evenly across the population, afflicting people in all demographic groups, it’s usually only young white men who are empowered by their demons to shoot up their workplaces, schools, churches, and shopping malls.