Put that cup of coffee down

I started to put this post up this morning but decided that it was not worth the risk. I did not want people spewing their coffee onto their keyboards.

But first, I realize that many GetReligion readers think we are hung up when it comes to urging journalists to follow the Associated Press Stylebook when it comes to use of the word “fundamentalist.” However, we will not be apologizing anytime soon for thinking that it would be good for journalists to use this word accurately, thus avoiding a label that has been turned into a vague slur word, in far too many cases.

So once again, what does the stylebook say?

“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.”

And now, speaking of the Associated Press, here is the horrific case study for today.

A note to Eastern Orthodox readers: You have been warned. Please put down any beverage that is in your hand.

MOSCOW – A court in central Russia has sentenced a neo-Nazi leader to life in jail and imprisoned 13 others for four hate killings and multiple assaults.

The Tver city court said in a statement … that 22-year-old Dmitry Orlov led a cell of the Russian National Unity, a once-powerful organization that since 1990 has actively advocated white supremacy and Orthodox Christian fundamentalism. … In addition to the attacks, the court says, the defendants also owned arms and extremist literature and desecrated Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

The Kremlin has recently cracked down on ultranationalists amid a spike in ethnic violence and killings of non-Slavs: mostly labor migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Now, trust me, I realize that there are ultranationalists in Russia and elsewhere — think Serbia — who like to march behind Orthodox banners and there are some clergy who have shamefully helped their cause with silence or, rarely, with direct action. But most of these monsters are not the kinds of people who care much about the doctrines and sacraments of Orthodox Christianity. They are often former Soviet-era secular thugs who are likely to be jailing and even torturing godly bishops who are working for peace. Again, think about Kosovo and Serbia.

So what is going on here? The AP has found some violent, neo-Nazi, white supremacy folks who are also into confession, fasting, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), alms giving and other conservative signs of Orthodox devotion, the “fundamentals” of the Orthodox faith?

If not, what in the world does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context?

The key word is used later — “ultranationalist.” Fundamentalists are people who use the word to describe their beliefs. It’s a word defined by doctrine and practice.

I know that this is a short wire-service story. But, please, what are the Orthodox Christian beliefs and practices that define this alleged “fundamentalists”? Can we have one sentence, maybe two, that gives us some information instead of — again — a slur word?

Print Friendly

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.

  • MichaelV

    I wonder what groups that really are fundamentalist think about the word being used for everything.

  • Martha

    Ordinarily, I tend to roll my eyes when I see rants about liberal left-wing media conspiracies, because I don’t think that there are actually a grand overarching conspiracy to push a godless secular agenda and do down good right-thinking Christian folks (possibly it helps that I am not American).

    But yes – when you can pluck instances like this, where “fundamentalist” has become a kind of shorthand for “traditionalist” or “not progressive, a la Giant Puppets of Doom liturgies”, and that in turn means “unenlightened Dark Age bigots who want to burn everyone who disagrees with them at the stake, are anti-science, and probably don’t separate out their rubbish for recycling either”, then yes, the Grand Liberal Conspiracy looks less ludicrous.

    It’s the attitude, the mindset, behind it: to adhere to the fundamentals of one’s faith means that one must of necessity be a fanatic and zealot straight out of the pages of “The Scarlet Letter” – ah, bah!

    As you say, very obviously they’re not taking “fundamentalist” to mean “veneration of icons, prostrations, keeping the Great Fast, monasticism”, are they?

  • carl

    In practice, ‘Fundamentalist’ has come to mean “One who believes in the knowability of absolute truth, asserts that he knows absolute truth, and claims that all men are responsible to submit to that absolute truth.” This is the unifying theme that explains why journalists tag certain groups with this label. The modern western worldview is premised on a denial of the knowability of absolute truth. It sees all claims to the contrary as arrogant, intellectually specious, and motivated by a desire for power over the lives of others. Journalists are simply attaching labels consistent with their view of the world. “Good” religions (like TEC or the UUA) agree on the unknowability of truth, and are rewarded by being labeled “mainstream.” “Bad” religions, on the other hand, make exclusive truth claims and are labeled as ‘fundamentalist’ in order to indicate their rejection of the modern worldview.

    The problem with journalism in this matter is not some overarching conspiracy. Rather, the problem stems from the fact that journalists by and large share a common worldview, and are acting consistent with that worldview in their reporting. The herd sees no problem because they all agree with each other. Calling a conservative Christian a fundamentalist (not to mention bigot, and hater, and lots of other terms) is no different than calling a Klansman a racist. I suspect many journalists would see that as an exact parallel of both kind and type. Who is there to call them to account for this?

    carl

  • Mark

    For years I would read clips like this from AP wishing there was someone, somewhere, with the credibility to call them on it. Thank you!

  • Jon in the Nati

    Now, trust me, I realize that there are ultranationalists in Russia and elsewhere — think Serbia — who like to march behind Orthodox banners and there are some clergy who have shamefully helped their cause with silence or, rarely, with direct action. But… these monsters are not the kinds of people who care much about the doctrines and sacraments of Orthodox Christianity.

    It is good that you realize that, TMatt. And I mean that sincerely; a lot of western, particularly American, converts do not understand or realize the subtle connections and deep-seated historic conflicts between ethnic nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, particularly in the Slavic world.

    On journalism matters, I believe I have mentioned Hanlon’s Maxim in previous comments. It goes something like this:

    Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.

    I think it is so reflexive for western media to call any “conservative” (read: traditional) religious group “fundamentalists” that most folks don’t even think twice about doing so, even when it happens in a context (Orthodox Christianity) in which the word fundamentalist is virtually meaningless. I don’t think there is any particular plan to slur Orthodox Christianity here; its just that western journos are taking a subject they probably know very little about and imposing a western concept on it.

    It doesn’t excuse it or make it right, but it does (in my mind) help explain it.

  • Dave

    About a decade ago I read a generalized definition of fundamentalism by, iirc, Martin Marty, that attempted to separate the term from the Christian Fundamentals. One element is a sense that the world is ganging up. Another is a belief (as a matter of history, not an item of faith) in a golden age sometime in the past when everyone followed the rules and everything was fine. It was intended to be generally applicable. Could there be an underground influence of this definition among journalists? (NB: I encountered this definition prior to 9/11.)

  • northcoast

    It is ironic that Russians are described as neo-nazis given the centuries of antagonism between Russia and Germany. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to just call them fascists?

    Since English is a living language, I don’t see any hope for correct usage of ‘fundamentalist’. Even people who understand the historic meaning use the word to describe non-Christians.

  • Jon in the Nati

    It is ironic that Russians are described as neo-nazis given the centuries of antagonism between Russia and Germany. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to just call them fascists?

    Yeah, it is probably ironic. But then again, the U.S. has white-nationalist/neo-Nazi groups, as does the U.K. and France and most European nations. I wouldn’t think that there is anything particularly or uniquely German about Neo-Nazism.

    To your second point, I don’t think ‘fascists’ is really the proper word, as fascism (a political ideology) does not really carry any connotations of racism or nativism, although in practice the two are often intertwined. If it were me, I would use the phrase “white-nationalist”.

  • Maureen

    Russian white-supremacist groups are generally also folks who believe the whole “Russia is destined to rule the world as the New Rome” thing. This one says they just want to expel Russians whose ethnicity originated outside Russia. (And they don’t want intermarriage between “compatriot” Russian ethnic groups. Even though that ship sailed centuries ago.)

    But in re: Nazism, the flag of this particular group is a swastika-variant on a red field, so clearly they want to be Nazis. The religious thing doesn’t seem to be big with them, although on general principles they say they want more power for the Russian Orthodox church.

  • Maureen

    Apparently their ultimate vision of “compatriot” ethnic groups is something like “here’s your reservation — stay on it”. Still doesn’t sound too religious.

    Possibly any religious trappings were associated with anti-Muslim anti-Chechen activities?

  • Jon in the Nati

    The religious thing doesn’t seem to be big with them, although on general principles they say they want more power for the Russian Orthodox church.

    This would be interesting to explore. Do they want more power for the Church because they are committed, observant members of the Church? Or do they want more power for the Church because they think it will aid them in their anti-Muslim goals? Not irrelevant.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X