Has this historic term -- 'fundamentalist' -- outlived its usefulness as journalistic lingo?

Believers who perpetuate the prophet Joseph Smith’s polygamy teaching are commonly called “Mormon fundamentalists” in the media, which is, presumably, one reason President Russell Nelson wants to shed the familiar “Mormon” name for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids polygamy.

Meanwhile, debate persists over the frequent term “Muslim fundamentalists” for politicized or violent groups more precisely called “Islamists” or hyper-traditionalist “Salafis.”

The Religion Guy is now wondering whether the F-word has become so problematic that the news media should drop it altogether.

I say that because of a July 21 New York Times book review of Amber Scorah’s book “Leaving the Witness,” about her experiences within, and eventual defection from, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(The Guy has not seen Scorah’s opus, but it’s hard to imagine it outclasses the superb pioneering Witnesses memoir “Visions of Glory” by the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, which goes unmentioned in the Times. While Scorah has left God behind, dropout Harrison turned Catholic.)

Reviewer C. E. Morgan, who teaches creative writing in Harvard Divinity School’s ministry program, repeatedly calls the Witnesses “fundamentalists,” which — historically speaking — is a religious category mistake of the first order.

Thus the question arises: If teachers at Ivy League theology schools, and copy editors at the nation’s most influential newspaper, don’t know what “fundamentalism” is (even as defined in the Associated Press Stylebook), maybe it’s time for the media to banish the word.

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To over-simplify complex terrain, Witnesses believe traditional Christianity is grievously mistaken and God’s unique channel of truth is self-taught 19th Century Bible student Charles Taze Russell, attorney Joseph Rutherford and their successors who’ve led this tightly authoritarian organization.

By contrast, actual fundamentalism is a term used in church history, referring to a loose collection of Protestant writers and thinkers who champion what they regard as Christianity’s authentic teachings across the ages, in a struggle against theological “modernism” that began in the World War One period.

Witnesses are, yes, somewhat “fundamentalistic” in their Bible literalism, wariness toward modern secular thought and evangelistic zeal, but extremely so. Though both groups emphasize the End Times, the substance is quite different. No Protestants follow the Witnesses’ totalistic, self-contained existence, or their unique teachings and practices.

By the standard definition, fundamentalism is a militant biblical movement of churches that draw a line of religious separation over against other Protestants, not only liberals but “evangelicals” of the Billy Graham stripe, Pentecostals and Charismatics.

Fundamentalism long been a slur in mainline culture. This is evident in the Times review, where fundamentalists and Witnesses are lumped together as, among other things, juvenile, psychologically stunted, strident, irrational, lacking in common sense, fearful and absurd. We’re told these folks construct meaning around the “supernatural” (what religion doesn’t?) and grant the Bible ultimate authority (what Protestants don’t?).

The label is tricky enough that The Associated Press Stylebook (in words presumably crafted by beat patriarch George Cornell) says “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

The Guy suggests asking the sort of groups that have such roots historically whether they embrace the word themselves and whether it's too pejorative, or too misunderstood, for media and cultural use. Start with what was the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, founded in 1930. Ask new Executive Director Richard Bargas (616–531-1840) whether that’s why this association of some 1,000 congregations renamed itself “IFCA International” in 1997.

Other sources:

John MacArthur of California’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California (switchboard 434–582-2000), who is also president of The Master’s College and Seminary. He withdrew from personal membership in IFCA in 2017 over doctrinal differences.

Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell proudly embraced the fundamentalist label, but his school apparently avoids the term today. Ask President Jerry Falwell Jr. (switchboard 434–582-2000).

How does Moody Bible Institute define itself nowadays? Ask Mark Jobe (800-DLMOODY), installed as president this year while remaining senior pastor of New Life Community Church.

John Wilkerson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, (219 – 228-2875, pastor@fbchammond.com), also the chancellor of its related Hyles-Anderson College.

Of course there’s Bob Jones University, whose president since 2014, Steve Pettit, is the first non-Jones to lead the school (public relations office 864–241-1634, switchboard 864-242-5100). Its online history does not use the F-word and under Pettit the school even sought the respectability of regional accreditation, gaining it in 2017.

Or since it’s summertime, you could tap Donald Lough Jr., executive director of Word of Life (518–494-6000), which operates a resort, youth camps and a Bible institute out of Schroon Lake, New York.

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