A few friends and I were discussing some recent ridiculous behavior of the Christian Right — opposing same-sex marriage, or advocating for creationism in science curricula, or something else, who knows — and one friend piped up to defend Christianity in general. “Well, as a person of faith,” they said, “I certainly recognize that [ridiculous behavior x is ridiculous].” It did seem pretty clear from the previous discussion that the rest of us were coming from a godless or at least non-Christian perspective, criticizing these movements both for their conservative and their religious ideology. My friend wanted to remind us all that there were Christians out there who didn’t take those extremely misguided political stances, and that’s fair.
It got me thinking, though, about the phrase “person of faith.” It brings to mind politically correct ways to refer to people who are not white (people of color), who are obese (people of size), who are very tall (people of height), who have dwarfism (people of restricted growth), and so on. Constructions of this sort seem to be focused on immutable or at least plainly physical characteristics, in particular things that people might suffer discrimination as a result of. Sure, you can see the string “a person of” in other contexts, describing some attribute of the individual being discussed, but the phrase “person of x” seems to appear as a distinct unit, broadly and repeatedly, in this sense I’m talking about.
What does it mean when religious people call themselves “people of faith”? I think it evokes the idea of discrimination, that religious devotees are a persecuted minority who deserve to be protected. It also makes it sound as though faith is something inherent in a person, like skin pigmentation or physical stature. If you’re a person of faith, you can’t be expected to lose that faith any more than a person of color could be expected to become white. It would be monstrous to even suggest such a thing would be beneficial!
Of course, religious belief is an assessment of reality, and as such is subject to revision whenever there’s new information or new analysis of existing information. Those beliefs aren’t programmed into your DNA any more than your political affiliation or your assessment of the weather outside. We may have predispositions to see agency where there is none, but as rational adults we’re able to question those assumptions and build our beliefs based on the facts.
I don’t think there’s anything we can or should do about this. My guess is that most people who describe themselves as persons of faith aren’t actively thinking through the implications I’ve just described, anyway, so correcting them would be very off-putting and ineffective. The best way to respond is to be aware of when the phrase being used, and be conscious of the effect it has on the conversation — like you do with gasoline prices ending in 9/10ths of a cent, or commercials advertising “risk-free” trials of unregulated drugs. Language necessarily frames the discussion, and it can have a huge subconscious impact if we’re not careful to think critically.