The word is evangelical, not fundamentalist

I’ve already lamented the demise of the once-delightful Column One feature on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. And I feel that I’ve dissected more than my tolerable share of articles by Mitchell Landsberg, the LAT‘s recently new scribe on the Godbeat; add to that Mollie’s commentary yesterday on Landsberg’s Vatican coverage.

I’ve really tried to show him some grace as he warms up to religion reporting. But it’s been several months and I couldn’t avoid discussing this Column One, “Community service is the religion,” which wastes no time violating a cardinal rule of religion reporting. Here’s the fourth paragraph:

Fulford, a social worker for San Diego County, is in daily contact with the homeless, the formerly homeless and the soon-to-be homeless. But this encounter was not part of her job — not her paying job, anyway. Fulford spends 30 to 40 hours a week volunteering as the leader of a ministry for homeless people for the Rock Church, a fundamentalist megachurch in Point Loma that is making its mark as a powerhouse of community service as well as evangelism.

If you guessed that the Rock isn’t a funadamentalist megachurch but an evangelical megachurch than you’re right. I know, the headline kind of gave it away.

There is, of course, a difference. A BIG difference. For those who have forgotten, which likely isn’t many GetReligion loyalists, some evangelicals are fundamentalists — think Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell — but certainly not even close to all of them. As Christianity Today explained in a “Did You Know?” about the new evangelical awakening:

This modern form of evangelicalism began, therefore, as a kind of reform movement within fundamentalism. In the beginning years (the period much of this issue covers) the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” were interchangeable. But eventually, the lines of division hardened.

Today, the terms usually refer to two different groups, ultra-conservative Christians (fundamentalists) and those who take a more engaged approach to modern culture (evangelicals). Both, however, share the same family tree.

And the AP Stylebook says:

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.

Which begs the question: How does The Rock identify itself?

Unfortunately, if you go to the church’s Web site, you are not greeted with a “Welcome to The Rock!” You can, however, see the church’s Beliefs and Statement of Faith, which are clearly evangelical. The church’s Wikipedia entry begins “The Rock Church is a non-denominational, evangelical Christian megachurch located in San Diego, California.” Though The Rock likely monitors that page, let’s not put too much stock in that assessment.

As you may recall from the beginning of the Carrie Prejean saga, Miss California was a member of The Rock Church. And as I mentioned at the time, the church is evangelical, maybe even socially and theologically conservative, but not fundamentalist.

Nowhere in The Rock’s literature does the church identify itself as fundamentalist, nor can I believe that its pastor, Miles McPherson, would have told Landsberg is was — that would hardly be a popular thing to do.

And, would you believe it, Landsberg later says that The Rock’s programs “have a strong evangelical undercurrent.”

As The New York Times recognized four years ago, evangelicals have been long uncomfortable with the confused connections that the uninformed draw between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Even before that, when I came on the Godbeat, this was one of the first lessons I learned.

This isn’t quite like calling a Sunni a Shiite, but it is an important distinction that gets to the heart of good journalism: attention to detail. And like every reporter learns the first time they misspell a name, if you can’t get the little things right, readers aren’t willing to trust you with the big things.

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  • http://www.churchthatmoves.com Ron Geyer

    For most folks, the working definition of “fundamentalist” is “anyone more conservative than the person speaking.”

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    +1.

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    I find it ironic that this post popped up the same day as Terry’s post about “one Islam” and what you call a Muslim with particular beliefs. They’re both really about labels and when, if ever, it is appropriate for journalists to use them.

    We gotta use ‘em sometimes. Most stories these days are too short for much theology.

    The word “fundamentalist,” like the word “cult,” has a specific meaning useful for academics. But these words are so festooned with cultural baggage as to make them not useful for basic journalism. Far better to offer a a list of beliefs. Up or down on Biblical inerrency? Position on gay marriage and abortion? The Tmatt trio? All good ways to signal what kind of church it is.

    I’d not use “fundamentalist” outside a quote. And rarely even in one.

    Even “evangelical” has its limits as a label, btw. Is every church in the ELCA evangelical? Is the denomination itself?

  • http://www.ralphandalice.blogspot.com Pei Chuan Koay

    I think AP’s advice that self-identification is generally the best for individuals and organizations such as churches. Ideally, such labels should be a matter of self-identification for reportage and personal judgment for water-cooler conversations.

    I was raised in an evangelical church as a kid and noted how various individuals self-identified themselves as “fundamentalists.” One acquaintance I knew proudly called himself one having attended, then, Liberty College as a seminary student and boasted of having met the Rev. Jerry Falwell several times.

    Frank Schaeffer self-identifies himself and his late father Francis as coming from the Christian fundamentalist movement. But anyone who is familiar with the ministry and works of Francis Schaeffer would be hard-pressed to put such a label on some of his works and L’Abri — esp. his thoughts on art and culture.

    The other problem for writers and journalists is when we try to address or establish sociological patterns of various fundamentalisms.

    There seems to be an exemption for applying AP’s litmus test to Islamic fundamentalism if only because not many writers and journalists (or the public, for that matter) are conversant in Arabic (there are a few dialects, and spoken and literary variants), Farsi, and other lanuages commonly spoken in Muslim-dominated ethnic groups and don’t bother to reach out to American Muslim communities.

  • Dave

    There seems to be an exemption for applying AP’s litmus test to Islamic fundamentalism if only because not many writers and journalists (or the public, for that matter) are conversant in Arabic (there are a few dialects, and spoken and literary variants), Farsi, and other lanuages commonly spoken in Muslim-dominated ethnic groups and don’t bother to reach out to American Muslim communities.

    There’s always “Islamist” and the adjective “trsditional.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    It sounds like Landsberg confuses “evangelical” and “evangelistic” (sigh).