Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

First, my apologies for the fact that this week's "Crossroads" feature post is a day or two late. The world just keeps spinning out of control and it's hard to catch one's breath.

Second, I should warn readers that this week's podcast -- click here to tune that in -- deals with a topic so confusing that, several times, host Todd Wilken and I got a bit confused ourselves. In the end, we confessed that we totally understand that some journalists struggle in this complicated corner of the religion-news world (and thus make mistakes, such as this and even -- oh my -- this).

The topic? The language that various religious groups use to describe their leaders who are ordained, or in other cases not ordained. As I wrote several days ago:

When it comes to history, some religious movements insist that they don't have ordained clergy -- yet clearly they have leaders who play some of the roles that ordained clergy play in other flocks. Remember all the controversies a few years ago about GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney and his time as a "bishop" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Suffice it to say that a Mormon bishop is not the same as a Pentecostal bishop, or a United Methodist bishop, or a Lutheran bishop, or an Anglican bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop. Reporters need to understand these kinds of facts, when dealing with stories that involve clergy or other "ministers" in various religious traditions.

In addition to offering reporters and editors many, many chances to make factual errors, these ordained-on-not issues can affect a wide range of legal and even financial issues linked to religious life and practice.

Everyone knows that, when a Catholic priest hears confessions, this communication is -- stated in legal language -- "privileged" and protected communication. With America's heritage of church-state separation, the state has no write to ask this priest to violate his vows (a point of law that is, some are convinced, getting blurred as of late).

But how about a Catholic deacon who has a private conversation with a church member in which she or he divulges loaded information?

Yes, I know. Catholic (and Orthodox) deacons cannot hear confessions. But they are ordained. Is that enough to receive the "privileged" nod from the state? How about a Southern Baptist counselor? A rabbi? A United Methodist pastor? A non-ordained Mormon bishop? How about a Scientology practitioner? How can state officials decide when leaders in other faiths receive this "confession" privilege, even though their faiths do not have a rite of Confession?

The questions go on and on. What do you call an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who leads a parish that is also recognized by the Episcopal Church. Oh, and she is a woman. What is the term for a pastor (hint, hint) in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?

A loyal GetReligion reader responded to one of my recent posts on this topic by noting that, at the very least, I was being consistent on this topic. A decade ago, he noted, I wrote about this topic for the brain trust at Poynter.org. Want a flashback?

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. ...

What does the word "church" mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word "Church" mean to a Roman Catholic? A "bishop" in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define "marriage." Define "sin." Give three examples. ...

Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It's hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person's "evangelical" is another person's "fundamentalist." One person's "moderate" is another's "liberal." The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

Here's a practical example -- from 2005 -- that I cited in that Poynter piece.

... The New York Times pinned the "fundamentalist Christians" label on a list of scientists and philosophers that included Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Orthodox Christians and others. They were all "fundamentalists"?

Here's the precise Times language:

Their credentials -- advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California -- are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.
"They're interested in the same things I'm interested in -- no one else is," Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. "What I'm doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It's not something a ‘scientist' is supposed to do." ... Most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

If you follow GetReligion, you know that this is another example of journalists using one of their favorite f-words -- "fundamentalist" -- as a slur. Another Associated Press Stylebook flashback:

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... 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."

So we have scientists who are from a variety of religious backgrounds and they are all said to be "fundamentalists." Even the Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans? Even people who are in no way biblical literalists on these issues?

Yes, words matter. God is in the details on this beat.

End of sermon.

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