The politics team at CNN recently produced a major story about religion and politics, one so long and so serious in intent that a loyal GetReligion reader wrote me a note saying that he was confused and thought this had been produced by Al-Jazeera English.
The story is about the Religious Right, which means that by unwritten journalistic law it should have fit into one of two pre-White House race templates. If you have followed coverage of religion and politics at all, you have seen these two templates many times.
No. 1 argues that the power of the Religious Right is fading (because America is growing more diverse and tolerant), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.
Template No. 2 argues that the power of the Religious Right is as strong as ever (the dangerous quest for theocracy lives on), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.
You can see the basic approach in this long, long report by scanning the epic double-decker headline:
Fear and voting on the Christian right
A wedding chapel went out of business because its evangelical owners refused to host a same-sex wedding celebration. Conservative Christians are on edge -- and they could sway the presidential election.
Clearly the goal in this story was to tell the story of some soldiers on the front lines in the First Amendment wars, offering the wedding-chapel owners tons of space in which to offer their views. Some GetReligion readers were impressed with that. Others, however, were troubled for reasons that we'll get to in a moment. Pay attention for the fine details here in the overture:
They called her a bigot, a homophobe, even a racist, which was strange, because the two gay men were white and so was Betty Odgaard. The angry people on the Internet told Betty she would die soon, that her death would be good for America, and then she would probably go to hell.
Betty had other ideas about her final destination, but she agreed it was time to go. "Take me home," she prayed, without effect. Revenue kept declining. Two years passed. One night this summer, just after the Görtz Haus wedding chapel closed forever, she and her husband sat in the basement and thought about the choices they'd made in the name of God.
"I would do it all over again," she said with an air of defiance.
According to Sen. Ted Cruz, the presidential candidate from Texas who intends to lead a conservative revolution, Richard and Betty Odgaard deserve a round of applause. According to his more moderate competitors for the Republican nomination, the Odgaards deserve some kind of accommodation. According to the Democrats, the Odgaards deserve what they got. In any case, stories like theirs could alter the next election.
Just for the record, note that this wedding chapel is a business, not a chapel linked to a denomination. That makes matters more complicated and similar to the business cases involving wedding cakes, wedding photography, etc.
Now the framing material continues:
A growing number of fundamentalist Christians believe the government is singling them out for persecution. Their fear intensified this summer when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. That decision put tens of millions of Americans who hold traditional Christian beliefs at odds with the law and the majority. It also could drive them to the polls in large numbers, which is why a number of Republican candidates are playing to their fears — and why Hillary Clinton has used their rhetoric against them to motivate her own Democratic base.
"Fearful and angry people vote," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa who studies the intersection of religion and politics. "People may well vote to advance certain kinds of ideals, but they will also vote if it's a matter of self-protection."
The potential strength of evangelical voters was on display this week when their support propelled Dr. Ben Carson to the head of the Republican pack for the first time nationally and in Iowa, home to the first caucuses.
You can see the basic problem, right?
Who is this story about? First, readers are told that it is about the fears of -- you got it -- the f-word people, those dang fundamentalists. This means it is about a large slice, but still just one slice, of the world of evangelical Protestantism. If you know your history (yes, we will get to the Associated Press Stylebook in a moment), you know that fundamentalism, accurately defined, is a Protestant movement with its roots in early 20th Century disputes in American Protestantism.
But then CNN says that it is about "tens of millions of Americans who hold traditional Christian beliefs."
Yes, that is accurate. There are many Catholics, for example, who believe that the free exercise of religious convictions, especially those backed by centuries of church doctrine, is a First Amendment right that must be defended. Ditto for Eastern Orthodox Christians. And Pentecostal Christians. And there are many mainstream evangelicals and even some old-school liberal Protestants who agree as well. And then there are Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Muslims and others who take the same stance.
So who is this story about? Wait, a few lines later CNN says that the story is about the "potential strength of evangelical voters."
So is this story about fundamentalists, evangelicals, people who honor centuries of ordinary Christian doctrine (take that Pope Francis guy, for example) or a wide variety of religious believers who want to retain their First Amendment rights, when push comes to shove on taking part in, or being forced to endorse, same-sex marriage rites and events?
One again, journalists DO NOT have to support the religious doctrines at the heart of these disputes. But they do have to understand who these people are and what they are saying. Journalists need to get the basic facts right.
So who is this story about? It appears that CNN thinks that only "fundamentalists" are affected by this First Amendment conflict, which is very, very, very wrong. And, as the bible of journalism (time to quote AP style) notes, CNN editors should have been avoiding the f-word, period:
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.
The problem, of course, is that "fundamentalist" -- even among some scholars -- has become a curse word flung at people whose beliefs clash with those of the media powers that be. To catch the drift, let's turn to a mainstream scholar who once stated matters in the clearest of terms. This is from that same "On Religion" column in which I quoted the AP definition:
Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "
This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.
The problem, of course, is that many journalists -- especially those covering politics, the true religion in most newsrooms -- do not know what they do not know when it comes to the fine details of religion. As we say around here, they just don't "get" it. As Bill Moyers of CBS and PBS once told me, most mainstream journalists are "tone deaf" to the music of religion.
All of this inspired the following rant by conservative Erick Erickson. You don't have to agree with all of this to get his main points.
I seemingly must rewrite this every election season. As Ben Carson rises and the media is confronted by some mysterious something called a "Seventh Day Adventist," it is time again to explain American Protestantism to the press. It is amazing how the American mainstream media continues to write about American Christianity with complete ignorance regarding its basic terms, history, and beliefs.
First, understand that a "mainline" protestant is not a "mainstream" protestant. The two are not interchangeable. The former is more of an academic term. The basic way to understand what a mainline protestant is would be to understand that the term largely means those protestant denominations that existed during the colonial era of the American colonies and as they have evolved from that point.
Many suggest that the term comes from the Pennsylvania Main Line railroad that ran through Philadelphia neighborhoods at the turn of the twentieth century, which were organized around communities of interest making up those original colonial faiths.
Specifically, mainline protestant denominations are Episcopalians, the United Methodists, the Presbyterians (USA), the American and Northern Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the Congregationalists, the Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
While evangelical churches are more mainstream in America, they are not considered mainline.
Lo and behold, he also offers a short, crisp and accurate definition of "fundamentalist," in terms of the doctrines -- worded in ways common among conservative Protestants -- that define this term. Let us attend!
When people talk about "fundamentalists" these days, they usually mean hard line Christians who are no fun. Actually, a "fundamentalist" is someone who subscribes to five specific points within Protestantism: 1) the inerrancy of the Bible; 2) the virgin birth of Christ; 3) the atonement of sins through Christ's death; 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ; and 5) the reality of Christ's miracles.
Pretty wild stuff, right? It doesn't help that there are about a dozen different ways to define the "inerrancy" of the Bible. Maybe that is a topic for another day, or week, or year.
But let's go back to where we started. CNN tried to produce a complex and sweeping piece and should be applauded for that.
But who is the piece about? Just the "sumbitches" that are easy to mock or, basically, the wider world of traditional forms of religion? Did the editors know what they were publishing?