The ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

ap_styleFundamentalism is like neoconservative. Its just a buzz word that lets the left know they are allowed to dislike someone. Nobody out there can really define neo-conservative. Similarly few people, especially on the left, can tell me what the central tenents of Fundamentalism are. When people start calling Catholics “fundamentalists”, then you know they don’t have a clue.
Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | August 27, 2004 02:10 PM

Amen. Preach it Jeff.

This issue of “experts” nailing the label “fundamentalists” on the foreheads of innocent people just drives me nuts as a religion writer. I remember decades ago, just as the Religious Right was springing to life in the wake of Jimmy Carter, reading a mainstream media reference to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “fundamentalist stance” on nuclear arms control. Say what?

So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don’t handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.

The bottom line: When used in a Christian context — and you can make a case that this is the only context in which to use it — the term “fundamentalist” has specific doctrinal and even historical content.

But, first, may the journalists in our midst draw swords (this is an evangelical or fundamentalist cultural reference) and open their copies of the bible of deadline journalism. I refer, of course, to the Associated Press Stylebook. There you will find the following passage of authoritative material:

“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.”

In addition to that last sentence, it is important to note that AP takes the history of the word seriously.

The vague words in this reference are “strict, literal interpretations of Scripture.” I get the impression these days that there are legions of journalists who think that applies to anyone who clings to all of the Ten Commandments. True “fundamentalism” is a product of the early 20th Century, which means it certainly is not a word to describe people who are defending basic Christian doctrines and sacraments. Someone is not a “fundamentalist” simply because they believe in a creedal doctrine such as the Second Coming of Christ or that salvation is through Jesus alone. It is bad journalism to use the term in such a context.

So who were the first “fundamentalists”? You’d be surprised. Some of them were Anglicans and Presbterians and others mainliners who, today, are considered intelligent life forms by journalists. An essay posted at the simple — but informative — website called “Believe: Religious Information Source” notes:

Fundamentalism is a term popularly used to describe strict adherence to Christian doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This usage derives from a late 19th and early 20th century transdenominational Protestant movement that opposed the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and philosophy. With some differences among themselves, fundamentalists insist on belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the vicarious and atoning character of his death, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming as the irreducible minimum of authentic Christianity. This minimum was reflected in such early declarations as the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

A key phrase in that paragraph is “some differences among themselves.”

Whereas centuries of Christian believers had believed in, again, the Second Coming, different schools of thought among fundamentalists took this belief off into highly specific and often ideosyncratic directions. You can end up with mysterious symbols in the Book of Revelation turning into — literally — a prophecy of how many Israeli fighter jets can dance on the head of the Antichrist if the United Nations votes to do this or that. Classic Christian theology is often left behind.

Once again, the “Believe” site notes:

Two immediate doctrinal sources for fundamentalist thought were Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy. Millenarianism, belief in the physical return of Christ to establish a 1,000 year earthly reign of blessedness, was a doctrine prevalent in English speaking Protestantism by the 1870s. … The name fundamentalist was coined in 1920 to designate those “doing battle royal for the Fundamentals.” Also figuring in the name was The Fundamentals, a 12-volume collection of essays written in the period 1910-15 by 64 British and American scholars and preachers. Three million copies of these volumes and the founding of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919 gave sharp identity to fundamentalism as it moved into the 1920s.

It is also hard to talk about what “fundamentalists” believe about issues in moral theology, such as abortion or the sinfulness of sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Once again, the greatest minds of Christendom had addresses these issues over and over for nearly two millennia before the BIRTH of a movement called fundamentalism. Those interested in seeing examples can dig into various sites on the writings of the early Church Fathers (who were not all male).

There is this famous passage, for example, from the teachings of the “Didache.” It is certainly conservative. It is certainly traditionalist. But it is not — in any accurate sense of the word — “fundamentalist.” Fundamentalists did not exist in 70 A.D.

“The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1-2).

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://livejournal.com/~argan_argar Andrew S.

    It’d be nice if we only used “fundamentalist” in the technically accurate way. But it may be too late for that.

    I’ve got a little rule of thumb: Whenever I hear anyone use the word “fundamentalist” while sneering, I assume he’s talking about me.

    I’m Eastern Orthodox, I own icons, I believe in an old earth and evolution, I don’t believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture. So certainly the good people of Bob Jones University would not consider me a “fundamentalist”.

    But I believe in the Nicene Creed. I believe that God became the man Jesus Christ, died on the cross for my sins, and bodily rose from the dead–rose such that people could look at him, touch him, eat fish he’d cooked. I believe in Heaven and Hell and the Last Judgement. I think people shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and marriage is only between one man and one woman. So as far as most people in the press (and academia) are concerned, I am a fundamentalist.

    So why fight it? If they use the word to mean me, I’ll accept that.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Whenever this subject comes up, I always want to hear a journalist DEFEND using the word wrong, using it in a way that is factually inaccurate and violates the AP Stylebook.

    It’s hard for a journalist to do that. So most just sneer.

  • G.T.B. Treu

    Re:Friday, August 27, 2004

    The Ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

    You write (In Paragraph Two):

    “So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don’t handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.”

    Can they spell? Or, like you, are they stuck in a faith that relies on computer spell checkers?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    Like “Fascist”, “fundamentalist” has simply become an ALL-PURPOSE swear word. Do you believe that the virus causes AIDS? If so, you are an “HIV fundamentalist”, according to the “AIDS dissidents”.

    “Neoconservative” is more complicated. When the labels started cropping up, it looked to me like “neoconservatives” were old “liberals” who had stayed right where they were all along, instead of joining the headlong dash leftward. Telling was fairly simple. Paleoconservatives read National Review; neoconservatives read the Weekly Standard.

    Then we started getting the rants about nefarious “neoconservatives” pulling Bush’s strings, from people who never quite came out and said “Jewish”. (I noticed a puzzled comment from a blogging rabbi, who did not understand why he was labeled “neoconservative”…. apparently because he is conservative and Jewish.)

    In turn, people who were previously called “paleoconservatives” started ranting about the nefarious “paleoconservatives”, who were alleged to be xenophobic and anti-Semitic.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Dear G.T.B. Treu: (I hope I spelled that right)

    Oh, I am sure that most of these fundamentalist scholars are excellent, old-world educated spellers. I, on the other hand, am one of the worst spellers in the history of the world, a life-long source of shame to my language-arts-teacher mother. When it comes to spelling, I am the worst of unorthodox sinners.

    Which raises an interesting question, as we continue to work in this GetReligion stage in which we are still an experiment on Typepad. The software contains ZIPPO editing bells and whistles. So I have started trying to write my posts in Eudora and then cut and paste them as text only files into Typepad.

    Any of you other bloggers out there: Do you write straight into the programs? How do you handle this editing and spelling issue (other than brilliant people who can spell)?

  • molly

    My personal reaction – and the word fundamentalist is often used to get one (see comment about dirty words) – is of a person facing a largely new, unknown, and thereby frightening world. In order to deal with the fear and anger that results from facing the big unknown, the individual falls back on the basics or fundamentals for comfort. Sort of like turning to macaroni and chees, I guess, rather than boldly striking out and sampling something new and potentially life changing. Lately I have found myself moving from impatience with “fundamentalists” stubbornness to feeling sorry for them. How unfortunate to be so afraid of God’s total creation that one can only cling to the roots and thereby miss out on the rest of the garden. Yes, there be snakes out there; but who made the snake?

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    I for one use the term “fundamentalist” in the manner you criticize in some of my writings, and I will continue to do so. I do so in full knowledge of the officially sanctioned AP stylebook version of the term.

    I often use the term as spirituality writer Thomas Moore does. In “Care of the Soul,” he wrote that “I would define fundamentalism as a defense against the overtones of life, the richness and polytheism of imagination … The intellect wants a summary meaning–all well and good for the purposeful nature of mind. But the soul craves depth of reflection, many layers of meaning, nuances without end, references and allusions and prefigurations.”

    This is an apt a meaning for fundamentalist as any I’ve heard. I will not cease using fundamentalist in this way because it ticks off a few religionist crybabies.

    As for the narrow meaning of fundamentalist which refers to sects preaching Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy, that’s all well and good. The broader way I use fundamentalist includes others who might be considered traditionalists, literalists, or just plain kooks by other definitions.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Perez:

    Several comments.

    * So, essentially, you arguing for a postmodern concept of words. The words mean what you want them to mean and that’s that. I can redefine the word “Democrat” to mean “Stalinist” and that would be fine, so long as I am the gatekeeper that allowed it into print. Yes? There is no reality to what a word means, no intellectual or historical content. The word is meaningless and that is OK.

    * What is the context of this usage? I would agree that people who write in partisan media tend to use words however they want to use them. But I would argue against people doing that in mainstream media. Destroying words destroys the ability to communicate accuately and fairly. This assumes one is trying to communicate accurately and fairly, of course.

    * “I will not cease using fundamentalist in this way because it ticks off a few religionist crybabies.” This must be the first time I have heard the stylebook committee of the Associated Press accused of being “religionist crybabies.” Must be some other Associated Press than the one I know.

    My wider point is that mainstream media has, in the past, thought of itself as somewhat of a guild, with some common goals and practices. The stylebook has been one of the symbols of this approach to the craft.

    Deconstruct the stylebook and you deconstruct the craft of information. I oppose that for journalistic reasons, not because of my status as a religionist crybaby.

  • http://www.midwesternmugwump.com Randy Heinig

    Great post. Ignoring the historical origins of terms dulls our ability to make historical comparisons and diminishes our understanding of contemporary actors and movements, both comparatively and when understood solely in their current context – no one wins, though I’ll admit that terms can change in usage and meaning over time (but slowly and with limits). Blurred distinctions too often yield sloppy thinking, even if snappy rhetoric (see also Taliban, Mullah, etc.)

    If you want good working definitions, check out the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton – http://www.wheaton.edu/isae/defining_evangelicalism.html – its a pretty good place to start

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    A postmodern concept of words? I didn’t say that I use fundamentalist in an *arbitrary* or *subjective* way. I said I use fundamentalist in a broader way, and specifically define the sense that I give to it. This is no different than when I use a term like feminist or conservative. Such terms are bendy and flexible in their meanings. Different people mean different things, but there are limits to what a term can mean. Fundamentalist will never mean freethinker, no matter how postmodern the writer. You say that “people who write in partisan media tend to use words however they want to use them,” and I guess that includes me. I realize this is a pet peeve of yours, and I’m sure it feels good to vent on your blog about it.

    Context is important to bear in mind. In your comment, you are talking about the use of “fundamentalist” by the “mainstream media,” but in your original post, the target of your rant is “experts” and the general public (“so many people use this word…”). I am defending the use of fundamentalist in a broad, overarching way in general discourse, while remaining indifferent to the question of how it’s used in the mainstream media. If professional journalists want to keep to the AP Stylebook for their reporting, that seems like a reasonable thing. But the AP’s narrow definition is increasingly out of step with the public’s usage.

    As for your status as a religionist crybaby, that is not in question. ;-) Your protests against the use of the fundamentalist term remind me of the protests of liberals who are upset that “liberal” has become a “bad word” and term of abuse in the general discourse. And yes, there are Catholic fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists and Jerry Falwell can indeed take a “fundamentalist stance” on nuclear arms control. Fundamentalist has become such a “bad word,” like it or not.

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    Come on tmatt, you couldn’t link to my blog and get me some page views?

    When applied to christians, Fundamentalist has a well defined meaning. The most commonly known tenet is the inerrancy of scripture, but it also includes the divinity of christ (including the virgin birth), atoning sacrifice, resurrection from the dead, and belief in some form of second coming.

    If the person you describe does not believe these things they cannot be a fundie. Even if he does, he still may simply be an evangelical. How do you tell an evangelical from a fundie? If they seem angry they’re usually fundies. :) An unspoken rule of fundamentalism is that they will have nothing to do with people that do not believe as we do. When you hear people railing against protestant-catholic ecumenicism and quoting Tertullian to do it, you have probably found a fundamentalist.

    The trick with “fundamentalist” is that its not just a word used to describe christians any more. There are Islamic Fundamentalists as well, but to my knowledge they do not have a document of Fundamentals like their christian namesakes.

  • Ed Jordan

    Good post.

    Apparently, talking about the misuse of the word bothers some anti-religious zealots. However, I hope you do not cease talking about fundamentalist in this way “just because it ticks off a few” anti-”religionist crybabies.”

  • Victor Morton

    I was once asked by my boss whether I was a “Catholic fundamentalist.” I explained to him that there ain’t no such beast, but it was like trying to water a rock garden. He later wrote a column in which he said, and I quote — “Saddam Hussein was a fundamentalist; Adolf Hitler was a fundamentalist.” (He was heavily into A Course in Miracles, the miracle apparently being the turning of the human brain to pudding. Water into wine … pfffft.)

    But at least there is unquestionably such a thing AS a Christian fundamentalist (however ill-applied the term may have become). The thing that truly drives me up the wall is the common use of the terms “Muslim fundamentalist” and “Hindu fundamentalist” (apparently Judaism and Buddhism haven’t yet gotten into the party for any number of reasons. Yet.) to describe well, practically anything Muslim and the BJP in India.

    Such usage just proves the user’s ignorance, and I suggest that’s part of the reason they’ve become popular in projecting onto religions **where it makes no sense whatsoever.** We have no idea how *else* to decribe the Bharatiya Janata Party or Ayatollah Khomeini or Osama bin Laden, so we apply our own boogie-man term to designate the boogies abroad.

    BTW, it is very amusing to hear a definition that says “a summary meaning (is) all well and good for the purposeful nature of mind” being used to defend a private, ahistorical, personalist understanding of the process of defining words.

  • http://dprice.blogspot.com Dale Price

    I wish I could find it, but my favorite definition of “fundamentalist” was the one coined for a scathing review of one of John Spong’s brain droppings. Essentially, the reviewer was so put-off by Spong’s indiscriminate use of the term that he finally realized that it meant “anyone with an inclination to take the biblical text seriously.” I think that fairly sums up the operative definition of our secular elites.

  • Rosemarie

    +J.M.J+

    >>>The thing that truly drives me up the wall is the common use of the terms “Muslim fundamentalist” and “Hindu fundamentalist” (apparently Judaism and Buddhism haven’t yet gotten into the party for any number of reasons.

    Actually, I remember reading an article by Fr. Richard McBrien (sp?) many years ago, in which he called Hasidic Jews “fundamentalists”.

    In Jesu et Maria,

  • Rosemarie

    +J.M.J+

    >>>The thing that truly drives me up the wall is the common use of the terms “Muslim fundamentalist” and “Hindu fundamentalist” (apparently Judaism and Buddhism haven’t yet gotten into the party for any number of reasons.

    Actually, I remember reading an article by Fr. Richard McBrien (sp?) many years ago, in which he called Hasidic Jews “fundamentalists”.

    In Jesu et Maria,

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    It was commented elsewhere.. “‘fundamentalist Moslem’ makes as much sense as ‘Hasidic Christian’”.

    ” As for your status as a religionist crybaby, that is not in question. ;-)

    As for your status as a name-calling twit, that is not in question.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/ Dan Berger

    Quoth Perez,

    “I didn’t say that I use fundamentalist in an *arbitrary* or *subjective* way. I said I use fundamentalist in a broader way, and specifically define the sense that I give to it.”

    Qoth Humpty Dumpty,

    “When _I_ use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    See “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There,” Chapter 6.

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