"Christian" imperialism


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.

25 thoughts on “"Christian" imperialism

  1. Evangelical “Christians” only count Mormons and Catholics as Christians when they want to call the USA a “Christian country”.

    I’ve heard people say things like: “I used to be a Catholic, now I’m a Christian”.

    For the most part, I do not like any of the religions that are based on blood sacrifice. I find though that the Evangelical “Christians” are generally the most mean-spirited and intolerant of all those who call themselves Christians. That being said, my mother-in-law took Communion daily and was a terrific example of what loving Christians should be, and she was a Catholic.


  2. Personally, I have always wondered why certain strands of Christianity are called “evangelical” and others are not. The greatest numbers of Christian missionaries (i.e. evangelists) belong to sects that are not so termed. So how did a certain set of American churches get to monopolize this term? (I suspect it descends from the fact that “television evangelists” have traditionally been of their bent, but that’s just a guess.)


  3. I used to run into this occasionally (the ignorance, not the gunfire) when teaching at my grad institution, which was located in a predominantly Methodist/Baptist region. I never really understood it. How sad that it’s turned up in such a horrible way.

    ((runs over to beliefnet to see what they’re saying about it over there))


  4. Growing up Southern Baptist, I was raised to believe that Catholics weren’t Christian, along with Mormons. However, the word Christian was more a reference to the central beliefs about personal salvation and a personal relationship with God of a specific kind, rather than the more formalized forms of worship in Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This isn’t to say that this belief isn’t problematic but I think many of us understood that Protestantism and Catholicism shared roots, particularly when Catholicism was compared to Judaism. Also, Presbyterians and Episcopalians were certainly included in the “Christian” fold, although the last time I spent considerable amounts of time in church was before the whole Anglican schism. If anything, Methodism was potentially the liberal outlier.


  5. As a medievalist, I find the appropriation of the term Christian by those groups that have been around for the least amount of time amusing. I think it speaks to a lack of formal education in some groups about doctrine and theology, as well as a certain ignorance about the etymology of the term itself. So many of my students (of which the highest percentage are evangelical) think that Christ is a name, not a title. Then again, they are also stunned to discover that Jesus was a Jew!


  6. Buzz, I am not a historian of modern evangelicalism, but I’ve always understood the term applied to churches that were explicitly evangelical in their outreach (that is, actively trying to convert people by spreading the Good News), which tend to be churches that adhere to the radical Lutheran (as in Martin, 1519) doctrine of 1) salvation by faith alone, without priestly intervention, aided only by 2) reading and interpreting God’s word and Jesus’s message in the Bible. Evangelicals tend not to be affiliated with the mainline American protestant denominations (except for the Baptists, maybe) founded in the 18th or 19th centuries, but rather are 20th century creations–storefront churches (aspiring to megachurch status) not affiliated with an explicit doctrine or tradition, although the Assembly of God is a big evangelical group.

    It’s ironic that Luther’s message, which was so destabilizing to priestly authority, is the one that the new generation of celebrity evangelists of the 20th and early 21st century used to build their audience.

    I think we need an intervention from the people over at Religion in American History. I’ll get Paul Harvey on the Batphone ASAP.


  7. I teach in an area that on the surface looks like the Midwestern bible belt, but that in fact partakes of much more pluralism, now and historically. A survey course that we teach for all non-history majors in the university begins (for those of us who are not modernists, anyway) at or around the Reformation. And on more than a few occasions, unlettered students who had about an equal statistical chance of having been raised Catholic or Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian, or whatever, came up after class to ask “what’s a Protestant?” I think it’s more the general ebbing of cultural knowledge than the specific abduction of terms by certain groups–although I’m sure there’s a lot of the latter too. Glad that you were partaking of the boiling springs rather than the powdered slopes on this getaway, Historiann! (Not that there are not nuts out there everywhere).


  8. What a terrible thing to happen. Thankfully there weren’t more people killed — although since he left after killing the manager, it sounds like there may have been a personal motive mixed with religious nuttery and other problems.

    I’ve got a book from very early 1900’s which (among many other silly party games) includes a “religion trivia” section, which is suggested to be played at church gatherings. You name a religious sect, and players define their unique belief system in a sentence or two. This is an obviously dated book (Hindoos and Mohammadens), but the game is surprisingly comprehensive in its coverage. “Christian” is a very particular sect in the list, however, not the broadly defined term as I would understand it. This confusion of terms is not new. (I can dig that book out if you’d like and give a better reference than just “a silly thing that’s on my shelf”.)

    @e.j. — and his middle name started with an H, too? 😉


  9. This might be off-topic, but it’s my “best” religion-and-cultural-ignorance story:

    One semester, I showed a fantastic documentary called DIVINE FOOD: 100 YEARS IN THE KOSHER DELICATESSEN TRADE [http://www.chayesproductions.com/divine.html] in a Sociology 101 course. A few students had NO CLUE why I was showing a film about “the meatpacking industry” during “Religion” week.

    While I fully expected most non-Jewish students wouldn’t grasp the intricacies of keeping Kosher [which is why I thought the film was excellent and informative], I thought that most would at least be able to grasp that there are connections between “Kosher” and “Jewish” and the Rabbis interviewed about their relationship to business.

    It was eye-opening to read the student comments about the documentary. This was one of the clues that there was as sea change in preparation and intellectual curiosity of the undergraduate population. And it was not promising.


  10. Oops…and a P.S.:

    A former friend did her dissertation on anti-Catholic riots and demonstrations in 19th century Philadelphia. [http://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI9800865/]

    It was amazing to hear her tell stories about how hated Catholics were at one time in the U.S. I’m just not shocked “the Papists” are still despised in some corners as heretics.


  11. Building on Historiann’s response to Buzz … Evangelicalism doesn’t just refer to the proselytizing, although that’s a part of it, but to a particular, conversion-centered strain of Protestant Christianity (“born again” Christianity, essentially), that has deep roots in Christian tradition (puritanism, e.g.) but really took off in the transatlantic revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, and in the American south and west beginning in the 1790s, and especially after the “Great Revival” of 1800.

    On Erica’s point, her book is probably referring to the Restorationist groups (like those led by Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone in the early national period) that simply called themselves “Christian” and eventually united into the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.

    I’ve run into the same student confusion that people mention above — lots of papers that refer to the Reformation creating a division between “Christians and Catholics,” for instance, but I really think a lot of that is sloppiness rather than raw, unadulterated ignorance (and thus it pisses me off even more).


  12. I’ve just come off of teaching a term course on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Sadly, some students really don’t feel comfortable accepting the historical context of their own and other religious beliefs when they don’t fit into their own personal prejudices. For some, “Christian” is what they are and accepting that someone else, with whom they might not be comfortable can also call themselves by the same label? That’s very hard. (I’ve had both Catholics and evangelicals get squeamish about using that label when it comes to the other group in one way or another.)


  13. I’m so sorry – having this happen locally sounds so awful. Peace to you and your family. Columbia SC doesn’t have a majority religion but our plurality religion is Catholicism, so it’s hard to picture the same thing happening here but I guess it could, or something parallel. Again, peace and warmest wishes.


  14. The_Myth–yes, Evangelical anti-Catholicism dies hard, but from 1690 to 1860 or so, it was at a high water mark in American history. (Those of you who are nineteenth century U.S. historians may disagree with my dates–fire away!–after 1800 my knowledge trails off pretty quickly.) I looked up the diss. you cited–the author and I would have been contemporaries at Penn, but I don’t remember her in the History department. (I wonder if she was in American studies or Religion?)

    There was another dissertation in process at Penn in the 2000s about 19th C anti-Catholicism and the Charlestown convent fire in 1834, but I don’t know where that one is. Since my first book unexpectedly turned out to be a lot about anti-Catholicism, and the subject of my second book is a Catholic convert, I’m eagerly awaiting its appearance and articles by the author. Although I can’t stop running into anti-Catholicism in the eighteenth century, the vast vast majority of scholarship on American Catholics and anti-Catholicism is on the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s a good reason for this–Catholics didn’t live in great numbers in the colonial Anglo-American colonies or states until the great Catholic immigrations from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But, just as Germany proved that you didn’t need to have Jews to have anti-Semitism, colonial and early U.S. Anglo-Americans proved that you didn’t need Catholics to have anti-Catholicism.

    Thanks so much for all of your comments–especially to JJO, who in RL is a historian of American religion! I wasn’t arguing here that evangelical definitions of “Christian” or anti-Catholicism were the primary motives of the killer. (I think it’s pretty clear that mental illness plus firearms are the main causes). Although the papers today don’t have any further information about the murderer’s religious background or ideas, I hope we’ll learn more, since “Christianity” was foremost on his mind when he killed Brian Mahon.


  15. Historiann and especially JJO: I know which sects are considered “evangelical,” but that doesn’t say anything about how these churches managed to co-opt the term. The plain meaning of “evangelist” is “missionary,” no more no less. Yet the so-called evangelical churches are not those primarily engaged in conversion work. (If I remember correctly, the churches with the largest numbers of missionaries are the Catholics and the Mormons.)

    However, I think I have a better idea now why these sects are called “evangelical.” The majority of devoted missionaries are invisible to our culture, for they try to convert people in far-away parts of the world. On the other hand, members of evangelical sects are encouraged to talk about their faith with their neighbors and associates–the members of our own culture. (In this way, they are more similar to the early evangelists in the New Testament, who preached to the pagans around them.) In reality, I think most evangelicals and “evangelist ministers” spend most of their time talking about their faith to others who share similar belief. Maybe this wasn’t true during the Great Awakenings, when there were fewer entertainment options, and even relatively irreligious people might go to hear Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield. So the “evangelical” Christians get credit for a) talking about their faith a lot, even if it’s not actually evangelistic, since they are talking to people who already share similar beliefs; b) trying to convert people from our own culture, which is a more visible activity than converting people overseas; and c) belonging to a tradition that was more actively missionary than it is now.


  16. Is it not possible that religion actually had nothing to do with this killing? Was the killer mentally ill?
    Schizophreniza often presents with a fixation on religious ideas, but you couldn’t say a killing that happened under that derangement was because of religion.


  17. I’d like to disagree slightly with Paul Harvey’s comment above and suggest that this usage of the term “Christian” isn’t quite as benign as Harvey says. Sure, if you press Warren or Osteen they might say that Christian includes groups other than Southern Baptists (to use Warren’s denomination). But the continual use of the unmarked “Christian” to describe a particular variant of evangelical Christianity does define their variant as normative Christianity and is thus in its own way a form of cultural imperialism.

    I think it might be useful to compare this to the way that whiteness and masculinity often become “unmarked” categories when we’re invoking group identities. The cliche example as a history professor is the students who always ask why there are so many women and black people in my history survey; if they wanted that, they’d have taken women’s history or Af Am history. (And yes, I’ve gotten these comments before. Nor are professors are immune to this, either. I still remember telling my dissertation director that Chapter 6 of the diss was going to include a long section about Quaker marriage practices. He said that he didn’t see how this was relevant because the project wasn’t “about Quakers and their women.” So I responded, “But Mike, many of these Quakers *are* women.”)

    To return to the earlier point: if you have to push people to explain what they mean by the word “Christian” (and find out they don’t really mean the term in the broadest sense), then you’re already playing the game where norms have been defined and described so as to exclude a great many people.


  18. John, thanks for your further comments. Buzz, I think your critique is persuasive–perhaps I should have titled this post “evangelical” imperialism, too!

    Elliot, I think it’s clear that Boneroo was a very troubled person, and that mental illness plus his access to firearms were the main contributing factors to his murder of Brian Mahon. My post here was just speculation on what the evangelical hijacking of the word “Christian” may also have done to Boneroo’s thinking. If there are more media reports that shed light on his religious delusions, then I’ll share them and comment on them here.


  19. I once taught at an ELCA affiliated college where the Christianity of Catholics came as a shock to some students. Both there, and at my current institution, the question of my own religious belief has always been broached over the few days in World History where we discuss Christianity. Consequently, my strategy has evolved to the point that I use that moment as an opportunity to get students thinking about the labels applied to various denominations. So I tell them that while I am not Catholic, Orthodox or Evangelical, I am catholic, orthodox and evangelical, and belong to a church which advertises itself as Protestant. So, can anyone guess what I am? 😎


  20. Profane: with those “catholic” criteria, you could be any of the mainline Protestant congregations: Baptist, Congregationalist, Presby, Lutheran, Methodist, and possibly even Unitarian.

    Am I getting warmer?


  21. Mainline Protestant is spot on, but I happen to be an Episcopalian. [This is why I said a church which advertises itself as Protestant, where the reality is that we are darn close to big-C Catholicism!]


  22. Oh, DUH! Why did I think of that?

    I guess you can tell by my omission that I grew up pretty low church myself (Methodist. But now I’m an atheistic scoffer who somehow got hired at not just one but two Catholic universities, and who’s writing a book about a Protestant girl who became a very devout Catholic and a professed nun.)

    Go figure.


  23. Pingback: Ski resort “Christian” murderer update : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  24. I’m not a christian, but I think we should hold off on assuming that Bonestroo was a christian. Yes, I know he said he was one. But maybe that was to get people to identify themselves as christian so that he could shoot them.


  25. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

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