Here's a question that we have asked here at GetReligion -- more than once, in fact -- and, now, it's being asked at the Wall Street Journal. That question is: What is the meaning and the purpose of the word "devout" when inserted in front of the name of a religious group or movement? You know, as in, "Neighbors were stunned to learn that this quiet man, a devout evangelical fundamentalist, was secretly selling nuclear-weapons secrets to Texas."
At the Journal, this was discussed in the online "Style & Substance" newsletter, Here's the item in question:
Relevance of religion
In an account of a $3 billion fraud allegedly perpetrated by Tom Petters in Minnesota, we said, "Mr. Petters grew up the fifth of seven children in a devout Catholic family in St. Cloud, Minn."
Especially in a story about wrongdoing, it is important to consider carefully whether a person's religious persuasion is relevant enough to mention. If the fraud had centered on Catholic institutions (the way Bernard Madoff's fraud often involved Jewish organizations and philanthropies, for example), a case could be made for the relevance of the religious reference. But the relevance in this instance wasn't evident.
Moreover, hasn't devout Catholic become a cliche, rather like oil-rich Kuwait? It would seem that only Catholics and Muslims qualify as devout, since devout Catholic has appeared in our pages four times in the past year and devout Muslim twice. Zero for devout Jews and Protestants.
Well, regular readers of many mainline news publications would certainly know that devout Jews are often called "ultraorthodox." I'm sure that's in a style manual somewhere. And we all know that devout Protestants are called "f _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ s," no matter what the Associated Press requests.
But the Journal raises a good question, one worthy of meditation there and among the members of the committee that controls the AP Stylebook, the bible of American journalists. Just saying ...