fundamentalist

Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Every now and then a columnist faces a writing challenge that requires a call to the copy desk asking what is or what is not appropriate language in a family newspaper.

Believe it or not, this even happens to folks like me who cover religion.

Consider, for example, this passage from one of my “On Religion” columns back in 2011 about debates — in journalism and in academia — about the meaning of the much-abused Godbeat f-word, “fundamentalist.”

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among 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.' "

Now, in the Donald Trump era, similar arguments have raged about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”

As a rule, journalists have — #DUH — attempted to turn “evangelical” into a political word, as opposed to a term linked to specific doctrines and church history. Many evangelical leaders have attempted to point reporters to the work of historian David Bebbington, who produced a short, focused set of four evangelical essentials. Here is one version of that:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus

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Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Courier-Journal pins F-word (fundamentalist) on Southern Baptists, but thinks better of it

Words have meanings.

For example, for journalists the word "fundamentalist" has a specific meaning. The Associated Press Stylebook -- the journalist's bible -- notes that "fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself," the stylebook advises.

Those pejorative connotations are why I was surprised to see the Louisville Courier-Journal characterize ordinary Southern Baptists as fundamentalists in a story today. I was prepared to question this original lede in the Courier-Journal:

Fundamentalist Southern Baptists have long opposed same-sex marriage and ordaining gay ministers, arguing that the Bible unequivocally rejects homosexuality as sinful and perverted.
The Louisville-based Kentucky Baptist Convention hasn't left that position to interpretation. The powerful Southern Baptist group, which has 2,400 churches and 750,000 members across the state, has ousted congregations that bless gay unions and welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender as pastors and missionaries.
That's why discussions on dropping a ban against hiring gay and transgender people by a more liberal group of affiliated churches, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has threatened to trigger an even larger rift.

Why, I wondered, did the Courier-Journal choose to use that adjective in this story?

I was not alone in asking that question:

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The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

Certainly I was interested in reading about the unlikely match between the "coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical" that is now running our country, which is why I quickly reached for the New Yorker's piece on Vice President Mike Pence.

With a headline of "The Danger of President Pence," I knew where the article was going, but I hoped there might be solid, factual, even fair-minded gleanings about Pence's faith and how his God connection guides what he does. 

The bottom line: I found little there that other writers hadn't already covered. The feature began like this:

On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who doesn’t want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”

The piece goes on to describe how little attention has been paid to Pence (who refused to be interviewed for the piece) until now, when people are longing for anyone, anything to replace Trump. And that Pence, with his political experience, conservative moorings and connections, may be as dangerous as his boss or even more so (you know, all that religion stuff).

The New Yorker then went on a long digression about Pence’s connections with billionaires Charles and David Koch. (Not surprisingly, the reporter, Jane Mayer, did not mete out the same criticism to multi-billionaire George Soros and his contributions to Democrats but then again, this part of the piece is recycled from her recent book “Dark Money” about conservative fat cats ).

Any fresh religious content is surprisingly skimpy, when you consider that this is a profile on a very devout man. Starting in his college days:

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Vice.com's take on climate change blames same old fundamentalist hobgoblins

Vice.com's take on climate change blames same old fundamentalist hobgoblins

I know journalists are seeking good click-bait headlines, but Vice.com’s “The Fundamentalists Holding us Back from a Climate Change Solution” sounded overwrought right from the get-go.

But I wanted to linger, as I’m interested in what all these news/feature/opinion forums, aka millennial niche sites (Quartz, Vice, Vox, Vocativ, Mic, BuzzFeed, OZY, Fusion, The Ringer, etc.) offer in terms of religion reporting. Most don’t seem to have a specialist on staff.

So they get a freelancer or staff writer, who may or may not know anything about religion, to hold forth. Which is why I was interested in Vice.com’s take on climate change problems. The use of “fundamentalists” in the headline is a red flag, in that this term is hardly used these days (and the Associated Press Stylebook says it should be used carefully). The folks described in the opening paragraphs are actually evangelicals.

It's unclear whether the writer knows the difference between the two, but our own Richard Ostling explains things for the uninitiated. Vice says:

Rachel Lamb grew up thinking that climate change was a liberal hoax. That's what everyone thought at the rural Michigan church where her dad was the pastor. The world was slowly getting hotter, but that fact was rarely mentioned in the Baptist social circles she spun through, and when it was, it was in the context of something Democrats blew way out of proportion. Her attitude about the subject was more wary than antagonistic. If someone were to come up to her clique and suggest that the climate was changing, their response would most likely be a sarcastic, Where'd you hear that from?
Although the 27-year-old used to go hiking in national parks with her family as a kid, she was taught to think of her love of Jesus and her appreciation of nature as being separate—two puzzle pieces that made up the larger picture of her personality but didn't fit together. Then she took a climate change politics course at Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois, where her worldview coalesced and she found her purpose.

We next learn that she is a member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, but that progressive groups like hers are foiled by that:

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Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

First, my apologies for the fact that this week's "Crossroads" feature post is a day or two late. The world just keeps spinning out of control and it's hard to catch one's breath.

Second, I should warn readers that this week's podcast -- click here to tune that in -- deals with a topic so confusing that, several times, host Todd Wilken and I got a bit confused ourselves. In the end, we confessed that we totally understand that some journalists struggle in this complicated corner of the religion-news world (and thus make mistakes, such as this and even -- oh my -- this).

The topic? The language that various religious groups use to describe their leaders who are ordained, or in other cases not ordained. As I wrote several days ago:

When it comes to history, some religious movements insist that they don't have ordained clergy -- yet clearly they have leaders who play some of the roles that ordained clergy play in other flocks. Remember all the controversies a few years ago about GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney and his time as a "bishop" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Suffice it to say that a Mormon bishop is not the same as a Pentecostal bishop, or a United Methodist bishop, or a Lutheran bishop, or an Anglican bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop. Reporters need to understand these kinds of facts, when dealing with stories that involve clergy or other "ministers" in various religious traditions.

In addition to offering reporters and editors many, many chances to make factual errors, these ordained-on-not issues can affect a wide range of legal and even financial issues linked to religious life and practice.

Everyone knows that, when a Catholic priest hears confessions, this communication is -- stated in legal language -- "privileged" and protected communication. With America's heritage of church-state separation, the state has no write to ask this priest to violate his vows (a point of law that is, some are convinced, getting blurred as of late).

But how about a Catholic deacon who has a private conversation with a church member in which she or he divulges loaded information?

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Washington Post reports: Hey, not all parents with lots of kids are fundamentalist wackos!

Washington Post reports: Hey, not all parents with lots of kids are fundamentalist wackos!

Oh my. Folks at The Washington Post have just published an interesting story about non-religious large families that raises all kinds of questions. If you thought journalists had run out of valid new angles for coverage of the whole Pew Forum "none" phenomenon, this piece will convince you otherwise.

Nevertheless, there is a religion-angle problem -- maybe two -- in this story, which ran under the headline, "Stop assuming that families with lots of children are religious."

For starters, the Post team did a pretty good job of telling readers what parents such as Timothy and Kyla Buller do NOT believe. However, the story makes little or no attempt to describing what they DO believe. Hold that thought.

The story also managed, creating an LOL moment for this GetReligionista, to combine two of this blog's least favorite nasty and shallow labels into one all-purpose journalistic insult. Here is what that looks like:

As younger adults elect “none” as their religious preference more and more often, the number of large “none” families in the country may well rise.
But if large non-religious families are getting more common, Tracey Stoner hasn’t noticed it yet. “It’s hard to find support as a large family that’s not religious,” she said.
Raising seven children who range in age from 6 months to 16 years old, Stoner has sought advice in Facebook groups for large families. But the members seem to be “95 percent Christians,” she said, often with fundamentalist ideologies.

You got it! The Post managed to use both the journalism F-word and an ISIS-era application of the word "ideology" at the same time!

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Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Journalists’ need to nurture professional skepticism should apply to the latest partisan lingo.

Examples from showbiz and advertising are legion. Are drivers of cars other than Subarus unloving? If a TV drama announces that the events and characters are totally fictional, the viewer automatically thinks “this story must be about real events and characters. Otherwise why the disclaimer?”  

Public discourse on politics, morals and religion is full of such word games, slogans, euphemisms and carefully calculated misdirections. 

In politics, during the Great Depression conservatives coined a classic still with us, the “right to work law,” which actually means the “right to refuse union membership or dues-paying,” and in reality “the right to have a weak union.” Ask your Guild rep. The Jan. 17 New York Times Magazine ran down the ways different eras have proudly embraced or shunned “progressive” and “liberal.”  “Left-leaning” becomes cautious journalistic usage when “liberal” is a slur. Has “socialist” suddenly become benign now that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats accept that label? 

In other up-to-the-minute canons, oppressive-sounding “gun control” is now “gun safety.” Insurgent Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is magically an “establishment” candidate. In current campaign speak, “amnesty” means whatever immigration policy the other guy wants -- or used to want.  Newswriters are now expected to replace “illegal” immigrant with “undocumented.” 

Turning to moral and sexual conflicts, the Stylebook from The Religion Guy’s former Associated Press colleagues has this stumble (unless it’s been corrected in the latest edition):  “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

My take: "Anti" sounds negative while “rights” is positive for Americans. Better for journalists to use parallel terms that leaders on the two sides accept as their labels, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” admitting that the latter skirts what action is being chosen. Meanwhile, conservatives borrow that helpful “choice” slogan when it comes to schools.

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Washington Post essay: Yo! You fundamentalist wackjobs! No quotes for you!

Washington Post essay: Yo! You fundamentalist wackjobs! No quotes for you!

As faithful readers of GetReligion know, the Associated Press has a very sane and logical stance on the use of the explosive word "fundamentalist."

We have quoted this Associated Press Stylebook policy so many times here that I really feel like there is no reason to print this again. Right?

But, just to be careful, let's look at that once again. Journalists, let us attend:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.
“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Before we get to an amazingly candid recent use of this term in The Washington Post, let's pause once again to reflect on the following wisdom from one of America's top scholars on religion and philosophy, drawn from one of my "On Religion" columns ("Define fundamentalist, please").

Trust me, this material will be relevant a few paragraphs from now. Why do journalists misuse this term so often?

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." ...
Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

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