Sarah Palin ain’t a fundie

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We rarely discuss opinion columns here, unless they contain content that might be helpful to mainstream reporters who are trying to cover religion news in the mainstream.

Well, here is an interesting piece from columnist Susan Campbell of the Hartford Courant that address an issue that has received a lot of attention at this here weblog lately (and the general subject has drawn lots of attention in the past) — the question of whether mainstream journalists should use that other F-word (fundamentalist) to refer to Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska.

Campbell has a rare and interesting angle, for a mainstream reporter, which is captured in the headline: “Sarah, You’re Not One Of Us.” Here’s the top:

Sarah Palin may be a lot of things, but she is not a fundamentalist Christian.

In fact, she is no more a fundamentalist than Barack Obama is a Muslim. The misinformation about both candidates (she’s evangelical, by way of Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism; he’s a Congregationalist) has at its heart an ignorance that, like that fountain in the Sunday school song, runs deep and wide.

Understand that Palin will never be my candidate. I disagree with her on a woman’s right to choose, on marriage equality and on the sorry little wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, my list of reasons for not voting for her is so long that one hardly needs to bring religion into it. Still, she’s an evangelical, the tribe of Christians to which roughly 26 percent of Americans belong. A fundamentalist is a tiny, unique (roughly three-tenths of a percent) subgroup of that, and Palin doesn’t make the cut.

Campbell then covers a lot of the historical background behind the fundamentalist movement within Protestantism, which is, in fact, the origin of the term. There is much here that a reporter on or off the beat can learn.

2004100505 Display 35She even knows that the movement began with a very broad ecumenical base, including writers and thinkers in churches (think Episcopal/Anglican) that are rarely called “fundamentalist” today, unless, of course, they are Africans and the story is about sexuality.

Thus, I enjoyed this background passage:

The word “fundamentalist” probably came from a series of tracts published with the money of two oil men worried that Christianity was losing its way. The tracts’ tone is fairly moderate, but people took the message — as people will do — and ran with it. The essays that stressed the authority of the Bible became bedrock for some. For years, a popular bumper sticker at my local Foodtown read, “God said. I believe it. That settles it.”

Yet every religion — including that of a fundamentalist — is more nuanced than that. And just because you’ve never heard of a church is not necessarily a good reason to be scared.

Many readers will not agree with everything in this column. But it is helpful to see this kind of material printed in the mainstream. Read it all, then feel free to criticize, if need be.

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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.

  • FW Ken

    every religion — including that of a fundamentalist — is more nuanced than that

    A wonderful sentiment, which might have been applied to this:

    the communion wafer becomes Jesus’ literal flesh

    Yes, Catholic sacramental theology is a little more nuanced that “literal flesh”.

  • Tom S

    Her insights are not surprising to me since I knew her when we were reporters together in the 1980s. She grew up in the Church of Christ in Missouri and attended theological classes at, I believe, either Union Theological or Hartford Seminary while a reporter/columnist for the Courant.

  • Stephen A.

    Color me confused. Does Campbell say “you’re not one of us” with the “us” meaning “Fundamentalist”? She may have been *raised* a Fundie, but her statement that “I disagree with her on a woman’s right to choose, on marriage equality..” seems to indicate that this reporter is a religious liberal – now, anyway.

    Surely Campbell isn’t part of that “us” anymore, right? So I find the headline confusing, at least.

    I do think her definitions were a good attempt at explanation, however. Her upbringing shows.

  • Patrick

    If we’re going to go by the “original” 1910 5-point definition of fundamentalism:
    1. Inerrancy of the Bible
    2. Virgin birth of Christ
    3. Christ’s substitutionary atonement
    4. Christ’s bodily resurrection
    5. Authenticity of Christ’s miracles

    then I would assume that Sarah Palin probably is a fundamentalist, and in that respect, the majority of evangelicals likely would be considered fundamentalists. It wasn’t until the beliefs started to become much more refined (and I dare say un, or at least extra-biblical), by replacing point #5 with premillennial eschatology, and some sects adding things such as drinking, dancing, etc., that the population started to go down dramatically.

    That being said, I don’t quite understand the columnist’s point with the article. Stephen seems correct, that she certainly doesn’t seem to be a fundamentalist herself, so to argue that Palin isn’t one of “us” seems a little muddled. Likewise, to argue that Palin isn’t a fundamentalist (by the modern definition of the word) – to that I say, “so what?” I don’t recall her ever claiming to be. It almost seems as though her entire point in the article is to try to show how inconsequential (and by implication, unimportant) modern fundamentalism is, by painting it as a minute subset of evangelicalism.


  • gfe

    I enjoyed the column, even though I could nitpick it to death (the biggest nit being her statement that fundamentalists make up 0.3% of evangelicals, as I would put the percentage higher, although of course it depends on the definition). The columnist let her own personality and background shine through while also doing a decent (but not perfect) job of explaining some of the differences among groups that might seem very similar to the outsider.

  • Pingback: Sarah Palin’s Religion: not a Fundamentalist « A Blogspotting Anglican Episcopalian

  • tmatt


    Please give us a URL on that source.

    That is not the five I studied in church history classes.

    Where is premill dispensationalism? Or, at the very least in the original, a premill version of the second coming?

  • FW Ken