Russell Nelson

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.

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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?

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Salt Lake Tribune explores how Mormon leaders claim to hear directly from God

Salt Lake Tribune explores how Mormon leaders claim to hear directly from God

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning up my back yard in the Seattle suburb where I live when two Mormon missionaries walked up. Of course they wanted to talk.

I didn’t agree with their theology, nor did I want start a discussion of the Mother God and other doctrinal clashes between Trinitarian Christianity and their faith.

How could I, I wondered, engage them as human beings? It was getting on in the evening and they were clearly tired.

An idea occurred to me. I mentioned how the Pentecostal and charismatic movement is the world’s fastest-growing kind of Christianity and how it shares something in common with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Prophecy, I explained, is a current reality with both groups. The missionaries clearly perked up and we had a good talk.

Now, what would this look like in the news?

It was unusual to see Tuesday’s story in the Salt Lake Tribune about how the prophetic gift actually works. Veteran religion reporter Peggy Stack began the piece this way:

By his own account, Russell M. Nelson speaks often to God, or, rather, God speaks often to him.

Nelson, the 94-year-old president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said recently that he was awakened at 2 a.m. with a distinct impression that he should go to the Dominican Republic.

Within days, the Church News reported, the energetic nonagenarian was on a plane to that Caribbean nation.

This is an “era of unprecedented revelation,” Nelson told the missionaries gathered to hear him there Sept. 1.

Indeed, in his first nearly nine months as the Utah-based faith’s top “prophet, seer and revelator," Nelson has used the term “revelation” again and again to describe his motivation for initiatives and changes.

Few of his predecessors were so open –- or blatant –- about claiming that God personally revealed truths to them as Nelson has been ever since he took over headship of the church in January.

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What's big news? Major Mormon event showcases varying views on what's a big story

What's big news? Major Mormon event showcases varying views on what's a big story

In a 2,000-word news wrap-up about Mormonism’s semi-annual General Conference that concluded Easter Sunday (note unusual scheduling), the lede reported that attendees ”made history” by voting to “sustain” Russell Nelson as the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That was the news judgment of the church-run daily Deseret News. From the standpoint of LDS believers, affirmation of Nelson deserved pride of place because he’s regarded as God’s unique spokesman.

But for non-church media that ritual was yawnsville, worth a sentence or two.

Why? There was no choice of other names and conference attendees always affirm a new president without dissent. Moreover, Nelson’s colleagues had already installed him weeks beforehand. Beyond that, Nelson’s ascent was predestined years beforehand because the new LDS president is automatically the man with the earliest appointment to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

That means newswriters can already put in the bank their advance articles announcing the next president, assuming that Dallin Oaks, 85, outlives Nelson, who is 93.

The Deseret’s secondary theme was the lede for other media: Nelson’s choice of the first LDS apostle with Asian ancestry, America’s Gerrit Gong, and the first apostle from Latin America, Brazil’s Ulisses Soares. It’s intriguing to think Gong, 64, or Soares, 59, could head this heavily Americanized religion someday. (Germany’s Dieter Uchtdorf is also a current apostle. In its early history, the church elevated apostles from England, Denmark and Ireland.)

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