Fundamentalism

Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

A quarter of a century ago, America was already a bitterly divided nation — especially on matters of religion, culture, morality and politics.

Thus, liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School (author of the ‘60s bestseller, “The Secular City”) was shocked when he invited to lecture at Regent University. It’s hard, he noted in The Atlantic (“Warring Visions of the Religious Right”), to titillate his sherry-sipping colleagues in the Harvard faculty lounge, but accepting an invitation to invade the Rev. Pat Robertson’s campus did the trick.

Cox was pleased to find quite a bit of diversity at Regent, in terms of theological and political debates. He was welcomed, and discovered lots of people testing the borders of evangelicalism — other than on moral issues with strong doctrinal content. He found Episcopalians, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers.

Politically, too, the students and faculty members I met represented a somewhat wider spectrum than I had anticipated. There are some boundaries, of course. I doubt that a pro-choice bumper sticker would go unremarked in the parking lot, or that a gay-pride demonstration would draw many marchers. But the Regent student newspaper carried an opinion piece by the well-known politically liberal evangelical (and "friend of Bill") Tony Campolo. … One student told me with obvious satisfaction that he had worked hard to defeat Oliver North in the Virginia senatorial contest last fall. If there is a "line" at Regent, which would presumably be a mirror image of the political correctness that is allegedly enforced at elite liberal universities, it is not easy to locate.

The bottom line: Cox found limits to the diversity at Regent, but they were limits that left him thinking about Harvard culture. In terms of debates on critically important topics, which school was more diverse?

I thought of that classic Cox essay a computer click or two into a must-read new essay at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice

A guide to the most—and least—politically open-minded counties in America

So where does one find diversity that matters, people who are trying to be tolerant of their neighbors who represent different cultures and belief systems? You wouldn’t know that by reading that headline.

So let’s jump-start this a bit with the headline atop the Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher take on this piece, which has been updated several times (including his detailed reaction to a criticism from one of the authors). That headline: “Least Tolerant: Educated White Liberals.”

Where is Dreher coming from? Here is a key passage in the interactive Atlantic piece:

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NPR could have asked: What should evangelicals say about a president caught in adultery?

NPR could have asked: What should evangelicals say about a president caught in adultery?

Every journalist knows this essential truth: It’s very easy to report and write a story that you have already reported and written in your mind — even before you make the first phone call to the first source.

During the week leading up to Christmas, I was bracing myself for one of those stories, focusing — #DUH — on Donald Trump and all of those white evangelicals in Middle America who, in most media coverage, worship the ground on which he walks.

As it turned out, that’s the kind of story that showed up in the spectacular scandal at Der Spiegel, where editors had to face the fact that superstar reporter Claas Relotius had been making up lots of the material reported in his feature stories — including a piece about Trump supporters in the American heartland.

In my post about that media storm, I wrote the following:

The key is that one of the most celebrated newsrooms in Europe decided to probe the dark heart of Middle America in the age of Donald Trump. You know: How do solid, faithful, ordinary Americans in the heartland make peace with their support for a demon? That sort of thing.

Frankly, I have been bracing myself for exactly this kind of feature during the Christmas season, a kind of 'It’s Christmas in Donald Trump’s America' vision of life in some heavily evangelical Protestant town in the Bible Belt.

Well, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

To which, a longtime GetReligion responded: “How about this one, courtesy of NPR?”

Well, the story in question isn’t a Christmas piece. It’s an end-of-the-year feature with this headline: “For Evangelicals, A Year Of Reckoning On Sexual Sin And Support For Donald Trump.” But, as we would say in Texas, it’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.

As always, this NPR story featured the following piece information:

About 80 percent of white evangelical voters backed Trump in 2016, and exit polls from this year's mid-term election showed little or no erosion of that support.

As always, I would have preferred, for the sake of nuance and accuracy, that this sentence have said that these evangelicals “voted for” Trump in 2016, rather than “backed” — since many actually opposed his candidacy and reluctantly voted for him as a painful way to defeat Hillary Clinton. Click here for more poll research on that point.

But the simple fact of the matter is that this NPR piece pushes lots of valid buttons, using a mix of sources — such as evangelicals and, if would appear, former evangelicals. Here is the overture:

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Evangelical leader offers serious reaction to blockbuster #ChurchToo report in Forth Worth

Evangelical leader offers serious reaction to blockbuster #ChurchToo report in Forth Worth

For decades now, conservative religious leaders have served up harsh attacks — often justified — at mainstream news coverage of religion news.

Sometimes these attacks include detailed, accurate discussions of issues linked to accuracy, fairness and balance. At the same time, many of these attacks are simply complaints about stories that religious leaders didn’t want to see in print — period.

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat knows all about both sides of that equation. Here at GetReligion, we have spent nearly 15 years trying to pay attention to all of that, the good and the bad.

Well, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made waves the other day with a massive, stunning report about sexual abuse in the world of independent, fundamentalist — an accurate label in this case — Baptist churches. Our own Bobby Ross Jr., wrote a lengthy GetReligion post on that topic with this headline, “A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches.” Bobby noted:

Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.

In this case, a major evangelical leader — and frequent media critic — has responded with a positive column urging church leaders to dig into the Star-Telegram epic, while taking this topic seriously. I thought this would make a constructive think piece for this weekend.

Here is a sample of this Breakpoint essay by John Stonestreet of the Colson Center and his co-writer Roberto Rivera. The headline: “Another Abuse Scandal in the Church — Sin Isn’t Just ‘Out There’.” Here is a crucial chunk or two of that, opening with a reference to the oceans of ink spilled after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report about seven decades of clergy sexual abuse by Catholic priests:

… The Fort Worth report differed from the Pennsylvania report in one significant detail: The churches and clergy being exposed this time were on the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum. One hundred sixty-eight leaders of independent fundamental Baptist churches, known as the IFBC, have been accused of a litany of crimes, including rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The victims included young children and teens, and stories included some of the most prominent IFBC leaders and churches in America.

This Fort Worth report hit me hard, maybe because I grew up on the outskirts of the IFBC movement.

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Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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Does the race card work? Christian school bans long hair for boys, including dreadlocks

Does the race card work? Christian school bans long hair for boys, including dreadlocks

It would be hard to imagine a click-bait story that features more unfortunate stereotypes about race and religion than the USA Today report about the young Florida student who was forbidden to enroll in a small Christian school because of his dreadlocks.

Turn up the social-media heat under this headline: "Florida school receiving death threats after turning away 6-year-old with dreadlocks."

Actually, the Washington Post piece on the same topic went one step further by putting everyone's favorite religion F-word in the headline: "A little boy with dreadlocks enrolled at a fundamentalist Christian school. It didn’t go well."

Let's stick with the USA Today piece, which is more compact and less sensationalistic. Here is the overture:

A private Christian school in Florida is facing backlash after a 6-year-old black child was turned away on his first day of class because of his dreadlocks.

Clinton Stanley Jr. was all set for his first day at A Book’s Christian Academy, but when he arrived, he was denied entry because of his hair. His dad, Clinton Stanley Sr., expressed his frustration in a now-viral video on Facebook Monday.

“My son just got told he cannot attend this school with his hair,” he said in the video. “If that’s not bias, I don’t know what is.”

The question hovering in the air is simple: Is this a case of racial bias at a predominately white Christian school? Hold that thought, because there is a crucial fact here that probably belongs in the lede -- especially with the Post using "fundamentalist" in its headline.

But first, consider this factual question: Was the dreadlocks card played as a racial ace in this case?

As it turns out, the school's policy is clear. USA Today notes:

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Read this fine RNS feature about changes at Westboro Baptist (oh wait, it's an opinion piece)

Read this fine RNS feature about changes at Westboro Baptist (oh wait, it's an opinion piece)

Here we go again.

What we have here is a Religion News Service think piece that I sincerely wish was a hard news story. 

In other words, it's a first-person essay that is clearly labeled "opinion," yet it deals with a topic that worthy of serious hard-news reporting. Here's the headline: "They’re still here: The curious evolution of Westboro Baptist Church."

The key, of course, is that the author is an academic in religious studies -- Hillel Gray of the Jewish Studies department at Miami University of Ohio -- instead of an RNS reporter or freelance writer.

Maybe that's the answer to this puzzle. Maybe Gray had the time to do this feature and no one else did. I would imagine that it was much less expensive to pay a freelance stipend to a professor than it would have been to send a reporter. There's that Internet-era equation, again: Opinion is cheap. Information is expensive.

What's interesting, in this case, is that Gray provided lots of new information and it's about a group that is certainly newsworthy -- especially if the "God Hates Fags" flock has made major changes in its mission, following the death of the Rev. Fred Phelps in 2014.

Like what? Once you get past the academic overture (Gray has studied this topic since 2010) readers are told that the Westboro flock is still out there, even if reporters are ignoring them. They remain hyperactive on the Internet and continue doing public protesting -- with some of their famous signs and many new ones. There's even a Donald Trump angle in this essay. 

But the faces have changed and so have the signs. That's the news angle that's worthy of hard-news coverage:

In the last few years, membership has even broadened beyond the Phelps clan. ... Perhaps the most unexpected “new” member is Katherine Phelps, a daughter of Fred Phelps Sr. who had been estranged for decades.


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Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

For the foreseeable future, journalists will be covering Muslim zealots who terrorize innocent civilians in God’s name, fellow Muslims included, hoping that violence will force the creation of  a truly Islamic society. Their revolutionary  bloodshed spans the globe -- and spurns centuries of moderate teaching by Islamic authorities.

Journalists remain uncertain on how best to name these groups, which is among matters explored in “The Mind of the Islamic State: ISIS and the Ideology of the Caliphate” by Robert Manne, an Australian media personality and emeritus professor at La Trobe University. Though publisher Prometheus Books is known for partisan and sometimes supercilious attacks on religious faiths, The Religion Guy finds this title even-tempered, as well as brisk and valuable (though Prometheus deserves brickbats for providing no index).

This readable background will help guide journalism about a complex scourge that mainstream Islam is unable to eliminate. The book covers only Sunni extremists, not the rival radicals in the faith’s minority Shi’a branch centered on  Iran. Here’s Manne’s advice on common terms and labels seen in the news.

Islamo-Fascism. This label is “quite misleading” due to fascism’s historical fusion with nationalism (Muslim radicals spurn existing nation-states and  simply divide humanity into believers vs. “infidels”), and with racism (the movement’s hatreds lie elsewhere).

Islamic Fundamentalism. Also a misnomer, this borrows a term for strict textual literalism among Protestant Christians (see the Associated Press Stylebook). Problem: Such Protestants are non-violent, and so are many of the Muslims who favor that approach to holy writ. Rather, we need to label a terroristic political faction.

Islamists. This term designates believers who seek to reshape politics in accordance with religious law (sharia). Here again, such Muslim activists do not necessarily embrace terror.

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Preparing for real #SBC2018 debates -- It's not 'moderates' vs. 'fundies,' these days

Preparing for real #SBC2018 debates -- It's not 'moderates' vs. 'fundies,' these days

If you look at a timeline of events in American culture, there is no question that the great revolt by Southern Baptist conservatives was linked -- in part -- to Roe v. Wade and the rise of Ronald Reagan and his mid-1970s campaign against the GOP country-club establishment. 

But if journalists want to understand the priorities of the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, they need to back up and look at some other events as well. It's important to understand what young SBC conservatives (male and female) want to change and what they don't want to change.

OK, let's start back in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when SBC conservatives became worried that theological trends in liberal Protestant denominations were seeping into their own seminaries. Truth be told: There were not many truly liberal Southern Baptists out there -- on issues such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus -- but they did exist.

Southern Baptists who were worried about all of that, and SBC agencies backing abortion rights, kept running into institutional walls. They were called paranoid "fundies" (short for "fundamentalists") and hicks who lived in the sticks and they had little input into national SBC committees and agencies.

In reality, there was a small SBC left and a larger SBC hard right, framing a vast, ordinary evangelical SBC middle. But the "moderates" were hanging onto control.

Then the Rev. Jimmy Allen organized an establishment machine that pulled his own loyal "messengers" into the 1977 Southern Baptist Convention, insuring his election and control over the committee on committees that shaped SBC institutions. He won again in 1978.

Leaders on the right -- like the (now all but exiled) Rev. Paige Patterson, Judge Paul Pressler and others -- took careful notes and decided they could play that game before the fateful 1979 Houston convention. They built a church-bus machine that beat the old "moderates," then they did that again year after year.

Now, what does that have to do the big issues in the current crisis? Let's walk our way through a passage in a pre-SBC 2018 background piece at The Washington Post, a story that also details recent events linked to the fall of Patterson from power.

... Patterson knew how to make things happen in the late 1970s and ’80s when he and others on the far right grew increasingly worried about the convention becoming more moderate on the key question of the Bible’s inerrancy, including on the place of women and the family.

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