Fundamentalism with a human face

Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times has written a 1,400-word article that uses the word fundamentalism 15 times--and never in a way that qualifies her report for GetReligion's Creeping Fundamentalism file of hysterical or misleading stories. Goodstein has achieved something that really shouldn't be so difficult for reporters who set their mind to it: Remembering one of the wisest sentences in The Associated Press Stylebook ("In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself").

These paragraphs by Goodstein are the best summary I've seen in a very long time in the major media of how fundamentalist is used too loosely in American discourse:

After the American presidential election in November, some liberal commentators warned that the nation was on the verge of a takeover by Christian "fundamentalists."

But in the United States today, most of the Protestants who make up what some call the Christian right are not fundamentalists, who are more prone to create separatist enclaves, but evangelicals, who engage the culture and share their faith. Professor [Martin] Marty defines fundamentalism as essentially a backlash against secularism and modernity.

For example, at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C., students are not allowed to listen to contemporary music of any kind, even Christian rock or rap. But at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical school, contemporary Christian music is regular fare for many students.

Christian fundamentalism emerged in the United States in the 1920's, but was already in decline by the 1960's. By then, it had been superceded by evangelicalism, with its Billy Graham-style revival meetings, radio stations and seminaries.

The word "fundamentalist" itself has fallen out of favor among conservative Christians in the United States, not least because it has come to be associated with extremism and violence overseas.

To be sure, Americans sometimes apply the word too loosely to Muslims or Hindus, and it would be a huge mistake to insist that fundamentalism inevitably leads to violence. Maybe someday journalists will find as clear a definition of fundamentalism as seems to prevail in some academic circles. For today, thank God for Laurie Goodstein's clear example of how good work can be done.

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