Associated Press Stylebook

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

THE QUESTION: 

What is (and is not) “fundamentalism”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

One of The Guy’s weekly memos for getreligion.org recently proposed that “fundamentalism” has become such an abused and misunderstood label that maybe we media folk should drop it altogether.

The Guy was provoked to go public with this heretical idea when The New York Times Book Review  assessed a memoir of life among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reviewer, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, said repeatedly that Witnesses are “fundamentalists.”

Ouch (see below).  If the Ivy League elite and the nation’s most influential newspaper are confused, it’s time to consider scrapping such a meaningless word.

Not so long ago, most people understood that a fundamentalist is by definition a Protestant, usually in the U.S., and a strongly tradition-minded one with a distinct flavor and fervor. Some quick history.

The term originated with “The Fundamentals,” a series of 12 booklets with 90 essays by varied thinkers from English-speaking countries that were distributed beginning in 1910. Along with standard Christian tenets, the writers defended and the authority and historical truth of the Bible over against liberal theories coming mainly from Germany.

That founding effort drew support from “mainline” Protestants, “evangelicals” and proto-“fundamentalists.” Brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil millionaires who funded the project, were lay Presbyterians. The authors were reputable scholars ranging from Anglican bishops to “mainline” seminary professors to Bible college presidents. The tricky issue of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis was not assigned to an extreme literal interpreter but respected Scottish theologian James Orr.

The budding movement was further defined by insistence on the “five points of fundamentalism,” namely the Bible’s “inerrancy” (history without error) as originally written, the truth of biblical miracles,  the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and “vicarious” atonement through his death on the cross to save sinners.

Notably, these points were defined by predecessors of today’s rather liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). After a dispute over clergy ordinations in New York City, the General Assembly of 1910 required affirmation of the five points by clergy candidates, and reaffirmed that policy in 1916 and 1923.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yo, New York Times editors: The Episcopal Church's leader is The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Yo, New York Times editors: The Episcopal Church's leader is The Most Rev. Michael Curry

Needless to say, your GetReligionistas understand that people in the press — on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — are happy that there is a new baby in England’s Royal Family, and one with a complex and interesting connection to the USA.

Journalists may not be as excited as Prince Harry is, at this moment in time. But that is understandable. Check out the top of this New York Times report about the prince’s informal and very untraditional presser, which — #GASP — broke with the royal norm. I think the key word here is “amazing.”

LONDON — Prince Harry could barely contain himself. Facing a news camera to announce his son’s birth, he rubbed his hands together, bounced on the balls of his feet and seemed unable to stop himself from grinning, even for a second.

“It’s been the most amazing experience I can ever possibly imagine,” he said, standing in front of the stables at Windsor Castle, where two black horses nodded behind him.

“How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension, and we’re both absolutely thrilled,” he said about his wife, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. The duchess, he said, was “amazing,” and the birth “amazing,” and the love and support from the public “amazing.”

So that’s that. Later on in this Times report there is a passage — caught by an eagle-eyed reader — that draws us into a subject that has been discussed many times over the years at this here weblog.

The question: Why are more and more reporters and copyeditors ignoring Associated Press style rules when it comes to the formal titles of ordained religious leaders? In this case, I will go ahead and add a question that I have asked many times (one example here): Why do formal titles that have existed for decades (or in some cases centuries) seem to vanish when journalists write about (a) African-American clergy and/or (b) ordained women?

Here is the passage in question, in which someone at the Times (I will not assume the reporter) was caught up in informal Meghan-and-Harry fervor and, well, forgot to give a certain American clergy person the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. that he deserves.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Mormon style update: AP changes rules on referring to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Mormon style update: AP changes rules on referring to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Earlier this month, I wrote a post titled “Associated Press coverage of post-Mormon Latter-day Saints full of irony — or is it mockery?”

That post addressed the irony of an Associated Press story that reported on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moving away from using the nickname “Mormon” while still emphasizing that term in the headline and lede.

“Is there any chance it was mockery?” I asked about the AP approach, linking to a related tweet by Joel Campbell, a Brigham Young University journalism professor.

Right after writing that post, I joined a group of U.S. religion journalists on a trip to Israel. So I haven’t had a chance until now to mention that soon after that story was published — and after my critique of it ran at GetReligion — AP updated its style on Mormons.

Campbell tweeted that he was “grateful” for the update.

Both the Salt Lake Tribune and the church-owned Deseret News reported on the change — and the significance of it.

The Tribune noted:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Associated Press coverage of post-Mormon Latter-day Saints full of irony — or is it mockery?

Associated Press coverage of post-Mormon Latter-day Saints full of irony — or is it mockery?

“Does anyone see the irony here?” Joel Campbell asked in reference to The Associated Press’ coverage this week of changes in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Me! Me! Me!

Campbell, a journalism professor at Brigham Young University, was referring to an AP story out of Salt Lake City.

As Campbell noted, both the AP headline and lede seemed full of irony — or is there any chance it was mockery?

Here’s the deal: The story concerned new developments in the church’s effort to drop the name “Mormon.”

If you need a refresher on that subject, this 2018 post by Richard Ostling is a must read. Ostling was the co-author with his late wife, Joan, of the book “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise.” And our own tmatt wrote a national column on this topic: “Escaping the M-word: Trying to go back to the Latter-day Saint future.”

Back to AP: This is the headline:

Mormon websites renamed in push to end use of nicknames

This is the lede:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church said Tuesday it will rename websites, social media accounts and employee email addresses to get rid of “Mormon” and “LDS” as the faith continues a push to be known by the religion’s full name and not shorthand nicknames it previously embraced and promoted.

Alrighty.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.

The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?

Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:

A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.

Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.

That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.

Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.

In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”

LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Nix 'Mormon' talk in news! How can media handle major faith’s unreasonable plea?

Nix 'Mormon' talk in news! How can media handle major faith’s unreasonable plea?

The venerable Mormon Tabernacle Choir has announced that it is now named “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” (Will newswriters trim that to “Tabernacle Choir”?)

Reason: President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared that “the importance of the name” that God “revealed for His Church,” means believers and outsiders must drop “Mormon” and use that full nine-word name. (Copyreaders will note: definite article with capital T, hyphen, lower-case d.)

Church scriptures say this name was given to founder Joseph Smith, Jr., on April 26, 1838, the same day God granted him “the keys of this kingdom.”

Nelson, a former surgeon who became Smith’s successor as prophet in January, even asserts that use of “Mormon” is "a major victory for Satan." He admits “it’s going to be a challenge to undo tradition of more than 100 years,” but change is “non-negotiable”  because “the Lord wants it that way.” 

The faith will lose something, because the “Mormon” people have long built up respect for their nickname through upright and neighborly living. Indeed, the church spent serious money on an image-boosting “Meet the Mormons” movie and “I’m a Mormon” ads.

The name game is a blame game that puts the media in a bind, as news executives said after Nelson’s August edict, so The Religion Guy adds some guidance to GetReligion’s prior article and this tmatt interview with an LDS journalism professor.

Obviously, The Guy gave this perennial problem considerable thought in co-authoring the book “Mormon America” with his late wife Joan.

The Associated Press Stylebook deems the long-ingrained “Mormon” label acceptable — although it originated with 19th Century antagonists — and was only gradually adopted by the believers themselves.

Since “Mormon” is no slur for 21st Century audiences, what’s going on here?

Please respect our Commenting Policy