Thought for the day, religion style

9293~Praying-Hands-and-Rosary-PostersHere’s a question that we have asked here at GetReligion — more than once, in fact — and, now, it’s being asked at the Wall Street Journal.

That question is: What is the meaning and the purpose of the word “devout” when inserted in front of the name of a religious group or movement? You know, as in, “Neighbors were stunned to learn that this quiet man, a devout evangelical fundamentalist, was secretly selling nuclear-weapons secrets to Texas.”

At the Journal, this was discussed in the online “Style & Substance” newsletter, Here’s the item in question:

Relevance of religion

In an account of a $3 billion fraud allegedly perpetrated by Tom Petters in Minnesota, we said, “Mr. Petters grew up the fifth of seven children in a devout Catholic family in St. Cloud, Minn.”

Especially in a story about wrongdoing, it is important to consider carefully whether a person’s religious persuasion is relevant enough to mention. If the fraud had centered on Catholic institutions (the way Bernard Madoff’s fraud often involved Jewish organizations and philanthropies, for example), a case could be made for the relevance of the religious reference. But the relevance in this instance wasn’t evident.

Moreover, hasn’t devout Catholic become a cliche, rather like oil-rich Kuwait? It would seem that only Catholics and Muslims qualify as devout, since devout Catholic has appeared in our pages four times in the past year and devout Muslim twice. Zero for devout Jews and Protestants.

Well, regular readers of many mainline news publications would certainly know that devout Jews are often called “ultraorthodox.” I’m sure that’s in a style manual somewhere. And we all know that devout Protestants are called “f _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _  _ _ _ _ _ s,” no matter what the Associated Press requests.

But the Journal raises a good question, one worthy of meditation there and among the members of the committee that controls the AP Stylebook, the bible of American journalists. Just saying …

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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.

  • Jerry

    I would have thought that the word devout would have been mentioned in the stylebook before you pointed out it is not. This won’t mean, of course, that people will pay attention to the guidelines, but maybe a few will understand that depth of commitment and the theology of their commitment are two different things.

  • Caleb

    I get the impression that “devout Catholic” may have been inserted to explain what followed directly, “fifth of seven children.” Perhaps and perhaps not, but it isn’t exactly fashionable in these immediately-pre-apocalypse days to have many children, and I’ve found in my reading experience that that _ of x >3 children is often preceded by “devout Catholic” or “fundamentalist ___.”

  • Ray Nearhood

    and I’ve found in my reading experience that that _ of x >3 children is often preceded by “devout Catholic” or “fundamentalist ___.”

    Honestly, it’s sort of accepted in today’s America. I heve been guilty, in the past, of asking a friend with eight (8!) kids ranging from 3 to 22 if he was Catholic.

    His answer, “Nope, I’m Presbyterian.”

    I answered, “Sorry.”

    He replied, “No worries. It’s an honest question.”

    So, I agree. I think the author was likely explaining the number of siblings in a way that modern culture understands, whether it can relate or not.

  • Adam W.

    Devout means something that is sincerely believed. You can be devout, and believe something, and be seriously wrong in what you believe or practice. It is also a way for people to rationalize their inappropriate actions and declare to others that they are a “good person.”

  • Bern

    I guess you can’t be a “lapsed” Catholic and have more than 3 kids. :-)(Does lapsed appear anywhere in the AP Stylebook?)

  • Kris D

    Somewhat related to this is the New York Daily News mentioning that Farrah Fawcett was a “devout Catholic.” I don’t know any details about her relationship with the Catholic Church, but it’s almost like you have to have the two words together, especially if your funeral is in a cathedral. Maybe there should be an AP devotionometer. Plug in the number of times you go to church in a year + the number of times you receive the sacraments & see where you come out on the grid.

  • Kevin J Jones

    I was curious about that “devout” description of Fawcett as well, since I hadn’t followed her travails.

    One news video showed her praying what appeared to be a Rosary, and another video of her clearly captured her in the moment of making the sign of the cross as she prepared for an MRI or similar diagnostic exam. (It was only part of the gesture, however, meaning many people definitely would not have understood what it was.)

  • Julia

    Perhaps non-Catholic folks don’t understand what “devout” means because Catholics have a lot of what we call sacramentals and devotions in addition to Sunday Mass. To this Catholic a “devout” person does more than just what is absolutely necessary. It’s the kind of person who genuflects to the Blessed Sacrament when crossing from one side of church to the other, who keeps talking in church to a minimum in deference to the Real Presence, who might go to Novenas or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – or at least doesn’t pooh pooh the idea. It doesn’t have so much to do with the state of someone’s soul; it’s about observance and reverence for Catholic holy things and activities.

    I know Farrah never married her son’s father, her son was a drug addict in jail, etc. etc. etc., but from the descriptions of her I’d say she was devout. Crossing herself and praying the rosary are little acts of devotion that many Catholics don’t bother with any more. It’s almost a state of mind that sincerely pays attention to the little things. I don’t think Protestants have things like that, but I’m sure there are Orthodox and Anglican practices that would be the equivalent.

    Whether Farrah went to Mass every Sunday and confession when necessary are a different matter. But I’m 64; perhaps these days that would qualify somebody as “devout” since anybody can call themselves Catholic these days it seems.

    I have a Jewish sister and Jewish in-laws. From what I understand there are a lot of little things that would indicate a “devout” Jew, too. For instance, my sister as the woman of the house would never miss leading the Friday night prayers regardless of being on vacation or whatever. When her husband died, black cloths were draped over all the mirrors and she & her family & friends literally sat shiva on the floor. But I can’t really speak beyond that about Jewish practices.

  • Will

    To misquote Buckley:

    Q: How do I keep from being “ultraorthodox”?
    A: Try being ultra heterodox.