Washington Post essay: Yo! You fundamentalist wackjobs! No quotes for you!

As faithful readers of GetReligion know, the Associated Press has a very sane and logical stance on the use of the explosive word "fundamentalist."

We have quoted this Associated Press Stylebook policy so many times here that I really feel like there is no reason to print this again. Right?

But, just to be careful, let's look at that once again. Journalists, let us attend:

“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.”

Before we get to an amazingly candid recent use of this term in The Washington Post, let's pause once again to reflect on the following wisdom from one of America's top scholars on religion and philosophy, drawn from one of my "On Religion" columns ("Define fundamentalist, please").

Trust me, this material will be relevant a few paragraphs from now. Why do journalists misuse this term so often?

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." ...
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.' "

With that in mind, consider the following from a PostEverything essay by Jessica Bennett, who is described simply as a "New York-based journalist who covers gender issues and culture." This is long, but you need to see the context:

My first assignment as a journalist -- as an intern at a now-defunct Seattle daily -- was a front-page story about the 2003 court ruling that legalized gay marriage in Canada. I was 19, and picked a fight with my editor after being asked to call a fundamentalist wackjob for “an anti-marriage quote” -- you know, to show we were objective. (I lost.)
Later, as a cub reporter at the Boston Globe, I covered the first gay marriages out of Massachusetts, the first state to go legal, as well as attempts by local districts to block it.
I covered gay marriage in New York. I produced a video series about the battle over Proposition 8. I won a GLAAD award for my coverage of LGBT seniors, and the challenges faced by people aging without legal marriage rights. At Newsweek, where I was a staff writer, I picked another fight with an editor, when asked again to insert an anti-marriage quote -- this time for an article I was writing about a new generation of gay activists. I argued again. This time I won.

Now, I do not think that AP style discusses the precise meaning of the term "wackjob" (definitions here) when attached to the historical Protestant term "fundamentalist." I think it is safe to say that this reference -- the latest in Kellerism lingo -- represents a major breakthrough in candor in the coming age of new European model of the press journalism here in America.

Is it safe to say that this reporter would have trouble accurately and fairly covering the beliefs of wackjob fundamentalists such as Billy Graham, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and millions of other religious believers?

This was in an opinion piece, of course. The implication -- read that passage again -- is that this policy of ignoring the other side of these crucial religious-liberty debates is the norm for GLAAD-endorsed coverage of LGBT issues?

Please respect our Commenting Policy