A 'fundamental' problem in 'B.C.' obits

BChart1All together now. Please take out your copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and turn to page 213 (in the edition currently on my desk) or look up the "religious movements" reference. There you will find the following, which has been quoted many times here at GetReligion:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

I have been planning to bring this up all week because of MSM coverage of the death of cartoonist Johnny Hart, but have been delayed by sickness, academic work and various online issues.

Thus, it is no surprise that a journalistic friend of this weblog, Frank "Bible Belt Blogger" Lockwood at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat me to it. Here is a part of what he had to say:

A reminder to the New York Times and the Washington Post -- Many American Christians consider the terms "fundamentalist" and "fundamentalism" to be pejorative. In the 1910s and 1920s, the term referred to a Christian who believed in the "fundamentals" of the faith -- the Virgin Birth of Christ, his sinless life, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection and his second coming in the clouds of glory.

Since then, however, the term "fundamentalist" has been hijacked. Today, it is an insult, a slur, a code word the Manhattan media and others use to marginalize people. It's not nice to call someone a fundamentalist when they're alive. It's even worse to use the term in an obituary.

Here's the key paragraph in the Times, located at the end of a piece by Charles McGrath titled "An Appraisal -- Johnny Hart and His Wham-Wham World":

In his later years, Mr. Hart's religious fundamentalism got him into hot water more than once as he insisted on incorporating Gospel messages into his strips, most famously one that depicted a menorah morphing into a cross. But his literalism also enabled a kind of comic daring in which he could imagine his cavemen playing baseball and football, worrying about Noah and the flood, wisecracking about 21st-century dining habits. They lived in an eternal present that was also a kind of prehistoric paradise.

Note the word "insisted," which is a strange thing to say about the work of an artist who never hid what he believed and, come to think of it, named the cartoon strip in question "B.C." -- which stands for "Before Christ."

Meanwhile, over at the Post, Adam Bernstein included the following reference:

For a strip whose tone was lighthearted, "B.C" suddenly became controversial in the 1990s when Mr. Hart included themes influenced by his fundamental Christianity and literal interpretation of the Bible. He did so sparingly, often around holy days, but its inclusion was perceived by many readers as making him far more frank about Christianity than any of his mainstream contemporaries.

Some newspapers canceled the strip. Others, including The Post, pulled it selectively. On at least one occasion, the Los Angeles Times relocated it to the religion page. The Times initially canceled the strip -- scheduled to run on Palm Sunday 1996 -- showing Wiley drafting a poem about Jesus's suffering on the cross.

bc easter2And so forth and so on.

There is no question that Hart was a controversial figure, and it is easy to find fierce and often valid debate about some of his statements, debate in which he stood his ground. Hart was also one of the most popular cartoonists alive, if one considers the number of newspapers that carried his work. His work pleased millions of people, and it offended many as well.

So be it. The obvious point is that free speech is free speech and Hart had as much right to defend traditional Christianity as other cartoonists have the right to attack it, something that happens rather frequently in modern media.

The journalistic question, however, is more basic. What do the editors at these newspapers think the word "fundamentalist" means? Is the mere defense of the ancient Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus alone enough for a person to be labeled a "fundamentalist"? Do journalists have a right to redefine words in this manner, even when guides to journalistic style and ethics urge them not to do so?

Thus, let me echo Lockwood and note that the leader of The New York Times has already voiced his concern about this issue. Remember that 2005 memo by editor Bill Keller to his staff?

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

By the way, before I end, let me note that I thought the Associated Press piece on Hart by Mary Esch was very newsy and fair and the Los Angeles Times piece by Claire Noland was also quite good, which is important in light of that newspaper's role in the disputes over the cartoonist's work. Noland wrote:

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, who created the popular Stone Age comic strip "B.C." and generated controversy in recent years with overtly religious themes reflecting his evangelical Christian beliefs, died Saturday, the day before Easter. He was 76. ...

Hart began imparting Christian messages, especially at Christmas and Easter, in the 1980s, after experiencing a religious conversion. Some Jewish, Muslim and secular readers complained to newspapers and to the syndicate, saying his views were offensive or inappropriate for the comics page and better suited for the op-ed pages.

But many Christian readers gave overwhelmingly positive reaction to his unapologetic statements, and free speech advocates spoke up for his right to express himself.

And all the people (hopefully not just conservatives) said, "Amen."

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