Creeping Fundamentalism XII: Private-school sins

HardlyboysLet me join the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc in praising the 1,400-word essay by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times that used the word “fundamentalism” 15 times without veering into the cheap-shot territory that earns reporters a note in our Creeping Fundamentalism files. Let all the people say, “amen,” or “bravo,” or whatever.

At the same time, I hereby move to nominate another story for Creeping Fundamentalism status, even though it is rather old by now. It’s from the Dallas Morning News and it did not show up on my radar earlier, in part, because it was in the hard news pages and not in the religion section. That says something about how hard it is even make a dent in reading all of the major stories that are out there that we need to read while chasing our ghosts.

Reporter Kent Fischer’s story ran under the headline “Gay student forced to leave school.” But before we look at that report, let us turn once again to that familiar passage in the Associated Press Stylebook.

There you will find this wisdom: “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.”

Let me note a few interesting word choices in this story. First of all there is the lead: “Three weeks ago an 18-year-old honor student at Trinity Christian Academy was cruising toward graduation. He had already been accepted to a prestigious university, and the final months of high school seemed a mere formality.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I would have avoided the word “cruising.”

Fischer’s story notes that the anonymous student — since named in reports in gay media and elsewhere — was a varsity athlete, thespian, journalist and student leader at a “fundamentalist private school.” However, he was forced out of school when administrators learned that he had created a website for young gays and lesbians to chat, hook up and exchange photos. Then, in “a matter of days, the student, who is gay, went from prized student to sinner outcast.”

We are told that he violated the student code. We are not, however, given the part of the code that he violated. Perhaps the school declined to provide this text. If the school does not have a fully detailed code that clearly states moral teachings for its students, then the school is really asking for trouble. Here is the money quote:

Today, the student attends high school in Plano, and students, teachers and administrators at Trinity Christian are left debating whether forcing the withdrawal of a popular lifelong student was the “Christian” thing to do. The case also shines a light on the moral culture clash with which private fundamentalist schools are increasingly wrestling.

The other use of the f-word is when Fischer notes that: “Those who work with gay teens say the expulsion of gay students from private fundamental school is quite common.” It seems there is something missing from this sentence. It could have been “from a private fundamental school” or “from private fundamentalist schools.” It’s hard to tell.

Either way, the report offers no indication whatsoever that the word “fundamentalist” has any specific content of meaning. This is interesting, in a newspaper published in Dallas, a city in which there are more than a few Baptists and other evangelicals who know the precise meaning of “fundamentalist” and probably would have answered their telephones. Maybe they were busy.

The News report does contain some useful information about this high-profile issue in private schools. First of all, a gay-rights lawyer does note that the private school was acting within its legal rights. He does not, however, note that this “freedom of association” for members of religious groups is precisely the same right that would protect, well, gay and lesbian groups. Religious groups have a right to define and defend their doctrinal and moral standards — especially when a student and his or her family signs the document.

Readers are also told about a national network that lobbies on behalf of gay students trapped in religious schools. We are not told about any corresponding groups on the other side of the issue, other than Christian-school professionals. It also would have been nice if Fischer had noted, when describing how school administrators declined to discuss aspects of this case, that they could not discuss these matters without violating privacy laws.

One more comment on this “fundamentalist” school. Its website shows it is backed by accreditation groups that are not, as a rule, associated with true “fundamentalist” or “Bible school” groups. Also, I could not help but notice that the school has a football team and a marching band. It is my observation that truly fundamental, separatist schools rarely draw a large enough student body to maintain competitive programs in sports and the arts. They tend to be small fortresses. I suspect, in fact, that many, many of the students at this school are from families that are not very conservative, when it comes to church practice. This tends to create interesting social problems.

But that is another news story. If the Dallas Morning News decides to cover it, I hope the reporters and editors that work on it will avoid making fundamental errors.

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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.

  • dlw

    So you are advocating giving people the benefit of a doubt from a journalistic perspective?

    Others define fundamentalist differently from whether or not they interact with mainstream culture.

    Gary Dorrien used the term fundamentalist to apply to the way that the authority of scripture is understood. Under which case, evangelical and fundamentalist would not be mutually exclusive categories.

    I think that your approach is better from the perspective of reducing the faith-based political acrimony in our country, even though it glosses over the fundamental theological differences in our country.


  • C. Wingate

    Maybe it’s just because I’m more persistent about querying websites, but if you look at the employment application the school posts, you’ll see that it does contain a “Doctrinal Statement”:

  • tmatt


    Excellent. Thank you. I had not looked into that .pdf

    Now, this does not tell us what STUDENTS AND PARENTS affirm, which is the key here. But it does give content about the doctrinal approach.

    I would have to check the wording, but this looks VERY similar to the National Association of Evangelical docs. Very mainstream. I’ll have to print it out and inspect if more carefully.

    Doug, what do you think? Your CT background brought you into contact with NAE and the Billy Graham people more than me….

  • C. Wingate

    In the admissions part it says that students in grades 9-12 are expected to be “Christians”, whatever that means.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    This school’s statement of faith goes further than NAE’s statement. A few examples:

    -¢ “We believe that man was created by a direct act of God in His image, not from previously existing life, that all men sinned in Adam (the historical father of the entire human race) and thus incurred both physical and spiritual death; and that all men have inherited a sinful nature.

    -¢ “We believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, totally apart from human merit, and that the experience of regeneration produces a new creature in Christ.

    -¢ “We believe that this age will be consummated by the literal, visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to this earth.”

    Most statements favor brevity. This one favors spelling out its intended meaning exhaustively. But that doesn’t make this school a secondary-level version of Bob Jones University.

  • dlw

    Geesh, do you guys ignore everyone that takes a different tack on issues than you?


  • tmatt


    No we don’t. But we do defend the basic standards of American journalism and the AP book is at the heart of that. The Dallas Morning News simply used a very important word inaccurately. There is no evidence that anyone used the word “fundamentalist” in this case other than the reporter and, perhaps, the gay-rights critics of this nondenominational Protestant school.

    Our “tack” is pro-Associated Press style and pro-accurate writing.

    The story was valid, as my post made clear. But it really hurts a newspaper to abuse language in this way, especially in a city such as Dallas — where these words apply to some groups and not to others. I mean, we are talking TEXAS! There are fundamentalists there who fit the AP rules! Use the word when you write about them!

  • dlw

    Sorry TMatt. I apologize. I didn’t know it was an official journalism rule.


  • tmatt

    No problem. Hang in there with us. We are trying to air out — and debate — these issues. We think words matter.

    Most of all, keep telling us what you think!

  • wildwest

    Why don’t any evangelical Christians want to be called “fundamentalists” anymore? Twenty years ago Jerry Falwell was editor of “Fundamentalist Journal.” He was proud of the term, and I think the ridicule he received from it was a source of pride for him. I’m not sure that he uses it anymore. When Pat Robertson ran for President in 1988 I was surprised to hear him refer to his constituency as “evangelicals.” I thought “evangelicals” were the more worldly kind of fundamentalists, the kind that taught at Fuller Seminary, Calvin and Wheaton Colleges, and that “fundamentalists” were from Liberty, Regent, and Bob Jones.

    Harold Lindsell left Fuller Seminary in the 1960s because “evangelicals” were becoming too worldy, and he reverted to calling himself a “fundamentalist.” When did fundamentalists suddenly become embarassed by the term they invented for themselves in 1920? And why?