Who’s calling who an evangelical?

tony alamoThis morning brought religion news junkies yet another case of authorities investigating a religious group for doing things that are against the law and against any sense of society’s morality. In this case, it is the Southwestern Arkansas-based Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, more than 100 police from federal and state agencies and six children in state custody. There have been no arrests, but people expect the leader, Tony Alamo, to be arrested soon once again.

The accuracy of the allegations, which are highlighted by “possible sexual abuse of minors” and alleged child pornography, won’t be determined for awhile, but we can judge the accuracy of the terms applied to the group by the media. A reader wonders whether anyone read the Associated Press article’s lead with any level of scrutiny:

FOUKE, Ark. (AP) — State and federal authorities are investigating the possible sexual abuse of minors at a 15-acre evangelical compound run by a convicted tax evader whom critics describe as a cult leader.

The reader also had this insightful comment:

If the reports are true, Tony Alamo is more like Caligula than Billy Graham. Is “evangelical” the new “fundamentalist?” What do you think?

There are many more effective and accurate ways to define this group and “evangelical” is probably not near the top of anyone’s list. However, considering that the term evangelical can mean pretty much anything these days, it is hard to say that the article is in error. Rather, it just continues the unfortunate abuse and use of the term destroying any meaning that used to be attached to it.

Use of the term evangelical aside, I was also befuddled by this quote in the story:

The raid, the culmination of a two-year investigation into child-abuse and pornography allegations, was moved up on the calendar after an e-mail about plans for an October raid was inadvertently sent to media late last week.

Alamo told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday that no child pornography was generated at the ministry but that “consent is puberty” when it comes to sex. Alamo, who said he was in the Los Angeles area, said the government is trying to harass him.

Exactly what crime is Alamo admitting to there? When a person reaches puberty, that person consents to sex? What in the world does that mean? Is there more context that the AP is failing to provide? On the other hand, maybe I am missing something. I also love how the AP attempts to balance their story by including Alamo’s defense that he believes the government is merely “trying to harass him.” Based on the fact that they are investigating you Tony, that is fairly obvious.

There is also this paragraph that has me a bit confused:

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the activities of extremist groups in the U.S., describes Alamo’s ministry as a cult that opposes homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and the government.

Aside from the belief that the group is a cult, is opposing homosexuality, Catholics and the government really all that novel in this country? I would hope there is more substance behind the law center’s research on the group and if that’s the case, the AP had included that information.

Photo of Tony Alamo, from a tract left on a car windshield, used under fair use.

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  • Jonathan

    I don’t think “consent is puberty” means “when a person reaches puberty, that person consents to sex” (that would be “puberty is consent”).

    It sounds to me that it means “if a person consents to sex, that person can be considered to have reached puberty”. Given the context of the article, perhaps the statement is meant to say, “if an under-age child gives consent to being the subject of pornography, this consent means said pornography is not child pornography.”

  • ctd

    My question about the AP story is: What is an evangelical compound?

    Apparently, not only can “evangelical” can now mean anything, it also can by applied to any thing.

  • http://physicsgeekjesusfreak.blogspot.com FzxGkJssFrk

    Did I miss the link to the AP story?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    No, you didn’t miss it. I forgot to include it. It’s been added and it’s also right here.

  • Brian Walden

    My guess at what “consent is puberty” means is that they consider anyone who has reached puberty able to give sexual consent rather than recognizing the minimum age of consent in Arkansas.

  • Dale

    I’ll second Brian’s interpretation of “consent is puberty”, and suggest that Jon Gambrell, the reporter, could have referred to Arkansas law on the age of consent. There’s a wide variation among states. Alamo’s attorney needs to muzzle his client–arguably his statement is an admission of guilt admissible in court.

    It’s curious that an earlier article by the same reporter, Jon Gambrell, starts with this lede:

    15-acre church compound was quiet Sunday morning following a raid by federal and state law enforcement officers as part of a child-abuse and pornography investigation.

    That story has a by-line for Town Hall, a politically conservative website.

    So my question is, why was Alamo’s group described as a “church” in the first article for Town Hall, and then an “evangelical compound” in the second, which was printed in papers with wider circulation than Town Hall’s audience? Who would decide to make that change in the description, the reporter or the editor?

  • Dave

    Once again we see the terms “cult” and “compound.” The media is allowing this outfit to be tried in print through use of the prosecution’s vocabulary. However sleazy an actor this guy may be he deserves, like everyone, a non-hysterical trial by the court system.

    As to what “consent is puberty” might mean, that’s above my pay grade.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currrentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    Perhaps “consent is puberty” means “the age of consent is puberty.” That is what some other sites claim.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    First–Tony Alamo is almost pathologically filled with a vicious hatred of the Catholic Church, thus mention of it shouldn’t just be a passing reference in a news story-it is a major part of his persona. This afternoon CNN’s Sanchez interviewed him and frequently when Alamo got a tough question he attacked the Vatican instead of giving a clear answer.
    On the other hand –isn’t a “compound behind some sort of wall or barriers or in a well-defined territory??? But the pictures on the news were all of a free-standing church and didn’t appear to be part of a “compound” as usually understood.

  • http://www.jrbenedict.com J.R. Benedict

    I can understand why evangelicals wouldn’t want to be lumped in with this guy, but I’m not clear why you think he shouldn’t be called an evangelical? Is it because you think he should properly be called a fundamentalist?

    Just because he likes conspiracy theories, is paranoid, and may be a criminal doesn’t mean he can’t also be an evangelical.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Well, i don’t blame any evangelical for not wanting Alamo lumped in with them, but he’s too incoherent to be called a fundamentalist, to be fair to fundamentalists (hey, i’m a mainline/oldline pastor, so i live at the heart of the old adage “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”).

    This guy kept his late wife in a glass crypt for some months back in the 80′s insisting that God’s power would work soon through him to resurrect her, and she was only finally buried after much official pressure and some friends prevailing in the face of obvious, um, changes.

    I’m really not sure what you call a Koresh or an Alamo. Fundamentalist may seem fair because they claim a “literal interpretation” of scripture, but when that take becomes as idiosyncratic and personalized, i don’t see how you say anything other than “cult leader.” Evangelical doesn’t even begin to be relevant in explaining or describing him.

  • gfe

    But you also have to be careful when you refer to something as a “cult.” It’s a term I would personally apply to this group, but I’d hesitate to use it in a news story without attribution. Like “evangelical,” the term means different things to different people.

    I’m not sure what the best term would be. “Extremist Christian” or “unorthodox Christian,” perhaps?

  • rw

    This should be obvious – AP has a Stylebook for use of the term “evangelical.” Did the story match the Stylebook’s usage guideline?

  • Chris Todd

    Traditionally, a cult is characterized as a group that (a)is built around a personality whose word is not questioned, (b) withdraws from society, and (c) characterizes its relationship with the outside world in terms of “good versus evil, us versus them.” I don’t know much about Tony Alamo. Does his group fit these criteria?