Jerry Falwell

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

Friday Five: Paradise lost, Pittsburgh rabbi, Vatican shock, Jim Acosta, porn and politics

Friday Five: Paradise lost, Pittsburgh rabbi, Vatican shock, Jim Acosta, porn and politics

“We knew where we were all the time,” quipped Joe Glenn, a preacher who ended up on the missing persons list after a wildfire wiped out the California town of Paradise.

Glenn and his wife, Pat, escaped the blaze “with the clothes on our back,” he told me in an interview for The Christian Chronicle.

After learning they were “missing,” the couple alerted authorities to their whereabouts — a Motel 6 about 65 miles southwest of their charred home.

“It is good to have a sense of humor ... when your world has literally burned up around you!" the minister told friends on Facebook.

Amen!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Often, this space reflects the week’s biggest or most important religion news. This week, I want to highlight an excellent piece of Godbeat journalism that you probably missed.

Specifically, check out Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Peter Smith’s in-depth profile on “Jeffrey Myers: A face of tragedy, a voice for peace.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

If you are a journalist of a certain age, as well as an old-guard First Amendment liberal, then you remember what it was like trying to get people to understand why you backed ACLU efforts in 1978 to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie.

Clearly this march was going to cause pain and emotional suffering, since that Chicago suburb included many Holocaust survivors. But First Amendment liberals stood firm.

If you grew up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt, it was also hard to explain why you thought Hustler magazine had the right to publish a filthy, sophomoric satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, including a fake claim that he had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a New York Times report at the time noted, this Hustler piece was clearly satire and the First Amendment wasn't supposed to protect people from feeling offended or even abused by voices in the public square.

The central legal issue is whether, in the absence of the kinds of false statements purporting to be fact on which libel suits are based, a public figure like Mr. Falwell should be able to win damages from a publication that intentionally causes emotional distress through ridicule, tasteless or otherwise.

Several Justices suggested they were grappling with a conflict between the freedom of the press to carry on a long tradition of biting satire, and what Justice Antonin Scalia called the concern that ''good people should be able to enter public life'' without being exposed to wanton abuse in print.

I remember, back then, liberals saying they would be quick to defend the First Amendment rights of conservatives who spoke out on tough, tricky and even offensive issues.

This brings me to one of the most Twitter-friendly stories of this past weekend, a Times report that ran with this rather blunt headline: "Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel." It's amazing how little religious content is in this report, in light of waves of religious-liberty fights in recent years.

If you are looking for the thesis statement or statements in this article -- which I think was meant to be "news," not analysis -- here it is: 

... Liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.


Please respect our Commenting Policy

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

By now, news of the editorial bloodbath at Religion News Service is into its fourth day. The bare facts: A respected editor was ousted with apparently no warning or announced cause; two more veteran staff members quit within three days, two others had recently been let go and many others are looking to leave.

There’s a been a wave of postings on the Religion News Association’s members Facebook page. The topics: a campaign by current and former RNS employees to tell their story and –- in an unrelated matter –- a pending $4 million deal by which RNS material would be distributed by the Associated Press.

The conflict appears to have begun with two people: Tom Gallagher, the publisher of the Religion News Service and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Before arriving at RNS in November 2016, Gallagher was a corporate lawyer and one-time volunteer with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He had been a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter since 2009. His detractors note that he has zero full-time, mainstream news experience (it’s certainly missing from his bio here). Also, the foundation manages RNS, which has about 100 media subscribers, and the Religion News Association, the global network of religion reporters. Its business office is housed at the University of Missouri and employees are paid through the financial structures of the university.

“I think we all knew when he was hired he didn’t have a ton of daily journalism experience,” Kimberly Winston Ligocki, a (now former) RNS national reporter based in California, told me. “We figured he would learn on the job. The thinking was he was hired more for his expertise with money and fundraising, which we needed.”

When I got ahold of Gallagher Wednesday morning, he refused comment on the RNS hirings and firings. When I asked him about his background, he said, “I have to run,” before hanging up.

When Gallagher came on board, RNS was already under the leadership of editor Jerome Socolovsky, a religion reporter for Voice of America and a multi-lingual correspondent for NPR, based in Spain. Socolovsky was hired in the fall of 2015.

This is a long, complicated story. But where did the conflict begin?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

Please trust me on this. If you were a journalism graduate student in the early 1980s -- especially someone like me who already had worked through two degrees combining history, religion and journalism -- then you knew all about Francis FitzGerald.

So, yes, I devoured her famous 1981 piece in The New Yorker -- "A Disciplined, Charging Army" --  about a rising, but then obscure, figure in American life -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I recognized that it had some of that "National Geographic studies an obscure tribe" vibe to it, with Falwell and his supporters seen as the heathen hosts who were coming to sack Rome.

But the reporting in the piece was fantastic. I used it as the hook for a paper in a graduate seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled, "The electronic tent revival: Computers in the ministry of Jerry Falwell."

FitzGerald was interested, kind of, in the faith and history of Falwell -- a man who was already blurring the line between an unrepentant Protestant Fundamentalism and the emerging world of the new Evangelicals. But mainly she was interested in this new threat to her world and the existing political order.

Remember that famous quote from philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, the one in which he quipped that:

... (A)mong academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This brings us to this weekend's think piece, which is a Neil J. Young review at the Religion & Politics website of FitzGerald's recent book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America." The headline on the review states the obvious: " 'Evangelical' Is Not a Political Term."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Evangelicals, post-Trump: Associated Press -- kind of -- scopes out movement's future

Evangelicals, post-Trump: Associated Press -- kind of -- scopes out movement's future

Oy, another story on the devil's bargain that is Donald Trump and evangelicalism? Well, no, it's better than that. The Associated Press examines the state of the movement after the presidential election -- win or lose. It just doesn't fully explore the questions it raises.

The indepth article shows the knowledge of the territory that a Godbeat pro like Rachel Zoll can impart. It quotes evangelical insiders, including those on each side of the Trump divide. And it adds cooler, more analytical views from scholars -- though still within the movement.

Trump's candidacy "has put a harsh spotlight on the fractures among Christian conservatives, most prominently the rift between old guard religious right leaders who backed the GOP nominee as an ally on abortion, and a comparatively younger generation who considered his personal conduct and rhetoric morally abhorrent," says a summary high in the story.

"This has been a kind of smack in the face, forcing us to ask ourselves, 'What have we become?'" Carolyn Custis James, an author on gender roles in the church, tells AP.

But how intensely are believers doing so?

Here's the evidence AP musters:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

This just in! New York Times probes old, old, old divisions among American evangelicals

This just in! New York Times probes old, old, old divisions among American evangelicals

If I remember correctly, I wrote my first major feature story on growing divisions among American evangelicals in about 1986, while at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP). It focused on the work of Evangelicals for Social Action, a group that was relevant in Denver because of the work of the late (great) Denver Seminary leader Vernon Grounds (my next-door-neighbor, in terms of office space, while I taught there in the early '90s).

The group's most famous leader is Ron Sider, author of the highly influential book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" -- first released in (note the year) 1978.

The basic idea in the Rocky feature was that there was a growing number of evangelicals who simply did not fit under the already aging Religious Right label. In fact, many -- like Grounds and Sider -- never were part of that movement in the first place.

Folks in this "JustLife" crowd (with a few exceptions) were orthodox on essential doctrinal and moral issues, especially abortion and the defense of traditional marriage, but they were fiercely committed to economic justice, racial equality and peacemaking. They were already struggling to find political candidates -- Democrats or Republicans -- they could support in national campaigns. There were quiet arguments about whether it was right to support third-party candidates or to boycott some elections.

Does any of this sound familiar?

You got it! This is now breaking news in The New York Times, months after that wall-to-wall national media "Evangelicals Love Trump!" thing that helped create momentum for the Donald Trump brand in the GOP primaries. The headline at the Gray Lady proclaims: "Donald Trump Reveals Evangelical Rifts That Could Shape Politics for Years."

Let me stress that this is a good Times story, even if it is very, very, very old news.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New York Times is very, very, very cautious when describing Billy Graham's career

The New York Times is very, very, very cautious when describing Billy Graham's career

Believe it or not, news consumers, journalists really do not like to make mistakes. Reporters and editors are also trained to be skeptical, to say the least, when it comes to accepting statistics provided by activist groups.

In practice, this leads to two syndromes: (1) Using language that fudges the numbers, making sure readers know that they are estimates and (2) trusting statistics from trusted organizations that fit the newsroom's editorial template, while distrusting statistics from organizations that the newsroom, well, doesn't trust.

Case in point: In a story on abortion, which organization to you think the editorial team at The New York Times will trust when it comes time to offer statistics on, let's say, abortions (or perhaps mammograms) -- Planned Parenthood or the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops?

However, there may be another explanation from time to time for some of the strange factual statements that one encounters in news copy. Call it "bizarre caution." This can happen when journalists do quick, hurried work in unfamiliar territory. For example, consider the overture on a new Times report that ran with this headline: "Heirs to 2 Evangelical Empires Take Different Paths Into Political Fray."

OK, the goal is to spot the two #LOL references -- think cautious, fudged language -- in this copy about the Rev. Billy Graham.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One, the president of the Christian university his father founded, raised eyebrows and provoked an outcry among some evangelicals when he endorsed Donald J. Trump before the Iowa caucuses.

Please respect our Commenting Policy