I think I am going to have to create a GetReligion list of "Big Ideas," the concepts that drive what we do here. These two ideas would certainly be near the top, "Words have meaning" and "Ideas have consequences." When journalists use terms incorrectly, they add bad information and distortion to public discourse. Thus, we spend lots of time here discussing what words mean, especially in terms of church history and the history of world religions. Debates over the meaning of the word "jihad" matter. It matters that the Associated Press has provided specific guidelines on how to handle the precise term "fundamentalist," which has turned into a slur that gets thrown all over the place willy-nilly.
Thus, I praised the Associated Press the other day (click here for background) when it appeared that someone on the copy desk or in a regional bureau got a clue and came to the accurate conclusion that you can call the Rev. Tony Alamo all kinds of things, but it is hard to accurately call him an "evangelist," in the ancient or modern definitions of this word.
This started an interesting discussion in the comments pages, including the following:
Jettboy says: July 26, 2009, at 10:39 am
It pains me ... but he IS an Evangelist Christian. You might want to add, perhaps, Independent Evangelist Christian if he doesn't belong to any main branch. Frankly, when I do hear the word Evangelist I don't personally think of Billy Graham, but some form of this guy. Something tells me that I am not alone in that stereotyping mental image. Right or wrong, Evangelicals have come off as offensive even if I agree with their conservative politics.
This is a variation on an old argument that sounds something like this: "This is what I think the word means, so that's what it means." There's a variation on this theme that journalists often use that weaves in a kind of postmodern twist: "Words change. Everyone knows what that word means right now when the great community of mainstream journalists use it that way. Thus, that's what the word means." This is a popular argument on the left when using the aforementioned "fundamentalist." On the right, there are some folks who like to toss around the "cult" word.
In this case, Alamo is an "evangelist" because he tried to make converts, even if he never did large-scale public evangelism, that I am aware of. For years, journalists kept calling Pat Robertson and Dr. James Dobson "evangelists" too. If you want to be accurate, both are "religious broadcasters."
Now, you might say that Alamo was a "street-corner evangelist" at times, except that the more common term for that role -- used by AP in the improved, second draft of one early story -- is "street preacher." He was certainly a pastor, in a warped sort of way.
Anyway, I am sad to report that there is another Associated Press report out there that tosses the "evangelist" label back into play, along with some other labels -- some more accurate that others. You could have a lively discussion in a church-history seminar on the question of whether it is more accurate to call Alamo's congregation a "sect" or a "cult." As I said earlier, I vote for the latter term for doctrinal and sociological reasons.
Here's the lede on this new Associated Report
Of all the horrid accusations against evangelist Tony Alamo -- and the list is long -- it was the testimony of formerly loyal subjects, recounting "marriages" between their sect leader and girls as young as 8, that may end his 40-year rule and send him to prison for life.
Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman, the 74-year-old faces up to 175 years behind bars after his conviction Friday in federal court in Texarkana, Ark., on 10 counts of transporting young girls across state lines for sexual purposes. Some jurors wept while women described being molested by and forced into sex with their decades-older pastor.
Among many who've watched Alamo's handiwork since the 1970s -- which produced allegations including kidnapping, brainwashing, child abuse, tax evasion and threatening a federal judge -- there was never any doubt the street-hustler-turned-pastor should be locked away for good. Their question is, what took so long?
The irony is that this otherwise excellent, highly detailed report by Deborah Hastings gives all kinds of information about Alamo's activities during his troubled lifetime, from his role as a trashy fashionista to his virulent anti-Catholicism. However, the story never describes Alamo as the leader of evangelistic rallies -- large or small.
You see, Alamo's message was far too radical for that. This was a guy who won his converts face to face and then pulled them into his small, secretive flock. His handing out ugly tracts enough to make you an "evangelist"? What does this fine story gain from using that technical term?