Attack of the Evangelicalists!

On September 28, we noticed a Time magazine story with some glaring errors. The caption alone managed to misspell and misuse the word “diaconate.” As of this writing — October 11 — the spelling and other errors haven’t been fixed. Reader joye commented on a thread a few days ago:

I can’t believe that not even the spelling errors have been corrected in the previous Time story by Dawn Reiss. The caption on the photo still described Ms. Jacko as becoming “a deaconate”.

I’m not a journalist and my views on the profession are rapidly approaching Kierkegaard’s famous insult, but please, journalists, hear my cry and answer if you can.

Don’t you guys CARE any more?

Reading a news article is increasingly akin to watching a movie where the zipper on the monster’s back is fully visible, or a boom mike floats over the actors’ heads. In B movies, this is because, as Mystery Science Theater 3000 famous put it, “They just didn’t care!” But for such sloppiness to go uncorrected for two weeks in the most prominent newsmagazine in the US? Is that what your industry has sunk to?

I thought of that when another GetReligion reader sent along the caption to this NPR story about the rise of evangelicalism in Cuba. Except, well, this is the headline:

Cubans Flock To Evangelism To Fill Spiritual Vacuum

Clearly this doesn’t sound right — but maybe the story is about Cubans evangelizing. Except once you get to the caption, you realize that the problem runs deeper:

Some 3,000 evangelical Christian Cubans attend an open-air service in Havana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their public service in 1999. Evangelism is among the fastest-growing religions in communist — and formerly atheist — Cuba.

Right. Now, the story itself has a few holes, but it’s clear that this is a copy editor or copy-editing problem. And certainly the industry struggles to hire editors who are both technologically savvy and literate. But, as the reader who submitted this notes, this is embarrassing. Evangelism is not a religion. Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity and evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.

It’s been a few years since we shared this Christian Smith passage that was published in Books & Culture:

Often in our discussions, journalists refer to ordinary evangelical believers as “evangelists” — as if the roughly 70 million conservative Protestants in America were all traveling preachers like Billy Graham and Luis Palau — or, more to the point, televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy [Swaggart]. Hey, aren’t all evangelicals really pretty much like these last two, or rather as many reporters tend to see them — scandal-prone limelight seekers with ambitions to impose a repressive Christian moral order on all America? Other journalists simply cannot pronounce “evangelicals” at all. They get confused and flustered, and after a few uncomfortable tries at “evangelics” and “evangelicalists” they give up and resort to referring to evangelicals simply as “them.” These are the knowledge-class professionals who are supposedly informing millions of readers about religion in America.

Would editors settle for this kind of work on other newsroom beats? Smith continues:

I find it hard to believe that political journalists call Washington think tanks and ask to talk with experts on background about the political strategies of the “Democrizer” or “Republication” parties, or about the most recent “Supremicist Court” ruling. Surely reporters covering business and markets do not call economists asking 45 minutes of elementary questions about how the business cycle works or what effect it has when the Fed drops interest rates. So why do so few journalists covering religion know religion?

Things really have improved in the last few years, at least when it comes to those who are regularly on the religion beat. But the problem persists among some, particularly those who aren’t used to covering religion, those copyeditors who write captions and headlines.

Print Friendly

  • Martha

    Not to mention that “communist – and formerly atheist – Cuba” has a pretty strong Catholic presence still.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the online versions of stories are considered not “proper” reporting but more along the lines of opinion pieces, and so anything goes – no need to be so nitpicky about mistakes or usage.

    After all, Ms. Reiss isn’t the only one who made some elementary mistakes; her phrase about “serving” Communion was repeated by Tim Padgett in his Roman Catholic women priests stories. If they can’t get such details correct – and no, I don’t think I’m being unduly nitpicky about the Eucharist – then it seems to show a lack of care about the content of the story; the mood seems to be more important (these women are so really priests no matter what the mean ol’ Vatican says because they do all the stuff a real priest does).

  • John

    I thought Evangelicalist was the term of choice in much of the anglophone world outside the US. I’ve used it many times myself to differentiate American Evangelicals from other denominations who can also claim the title of Evangelical – such as Lutherans.

  • Ira Rifkin

    The Time piece could have benefitted from some historical context in addition to savvy copyediting.

    During the Castro revolution, evangelical churches gained a leg up because they were people-oriented as opposed to the Catholic Church hierarchy that supported and aligned itself with the corrupt Batista establishment.

    Castro’s Cuba was officially atheist but during the revolution evangelicals fought with the anti-Catholic 26th of July Movement and even served openly as evangelicals in the Castro government during its early years in power.

    I’m sure some evangelicals were motivated by their concern for the the poor, the community from which Cuban evangelical churches sprang. But I’d guess the revolution’s anti-Catholic flavor was also pay back for some.

    Despite subsequently rejecting Castro’s heavy-handed authoritarianism, evangelical churches, or at least those that limited themselves to personal piety issues and avoided politics, fared much better than did the Catholic Church, which because of its international reach remained a potential political threat.

    My larger point is simply that evangelical Protestantism has a longer history in Cuba than Time lets on. But of course every journalist knows that it ain’t a story until it appears under your byline.

  • tmatt

    Folks, I have never heard of the word “Evangelicalist.”

    That is not a word, period.

  • MarkAA

    As a copy editor with almost two decades of daily newsroom experience in “fly-over country,” I can say without any hesitation that very little copy editing like what was the norm 20 or even 10 years ago is happening in newsrooms today. Copy desks have taken the most massive downsizing hits of any department, with the possible exception of photographers (who largely have been replaced by contractors). Folks, I don’t think it’s clear outside the actual for-profit news media industry how seriously gutted all the editing functions are now at any level other than “national” media. What’s flowing into the content management systems from the reporters’ keyboards is basically what’s heading out on the web and in print, maybe after a spell-checker scans it. “Copy editor” is just old speak for overworked paginator. It truly is *that* bad in the trenches.

  • mattk

    I don’t buy it. There is no excuse. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t their regular beat. I’m not a reporter and nothing is my regular beat but I know the terminology of every important movement and subculture in America. It is utterly amazing how uneducated some reporters are. Its not about being a Christian, or even well educated. Its about living in American society and knowing it. I don’t like cars and am not very interested in them but I can discuss the relative merits of drum, disc, and anti-lock brakes because I’m an American and cars are important here. Same goes for sports. I don’t care about pro-sports of any kind but I at least know the difference between the San Francisco Giants and the New York Giants. How can an American reporter not even know how to spell Evangelical? If they can’t do that is there any hope they understand what Evangelicalism is? Or who in American history is fairly labeled an Evangelical? More and more, I think the lack of knowledge on the part of reporters is a sign of their animus toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    Regarding Time on Evangelicalism in Cuba, Ira is right. The small Evangelical denomination to which I used to belong had over twenty congregations on the Island before the revolution. Contact with them was lost when the God-hating Communists took power, but in the early 1980s the leadership of those congregations got word to the denominational H.Q. that they were still in existence, and though persecuted (among other things, the schools had been shut down and some pastors imprisoned), they were still growing in numbers.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    It seems to me that there is an analogy between a reporter of the “Evangelicalist religion” and a Republican speaking (as they did often a few years ago) of the “Democrat party.” In both cases, it is hard to be clear whether ignorance or hostility is at work.

    While we can’t help every confused and under-copyedited religion reporter, perhaps in this one sad case GR readers could chip in to buy Dawn Reiss a dictionary. I highly recommend the American Heritage college edition, especially its earlier versions.

    And yes, as a Lutheran (part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, deployed to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Romania, which works closely with the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania), it would be a great relief to me if the word “Evangelical” were still used in English the way it is (often, anyway) in the languages of central Europe, to indicate my own particular tribe. But that door closed a couple of centuries back,

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Pardon me. One dictionary for Dawn Reiss and another for NPR’s Nick Miroff. They really aren’t expensive books, at least considering how useful they can be.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Evangelicalists =/= a word

    Never has been, never will be. To use it in a journalistic context is not acceptable.

    On a slightly related note, someone referenced different uses of the word ‘evangelical’. It is true that the standard North American usage of the word evangelical is different than the European usage, in which it is largely synonymous with ‘protestant’. However, I would not necessarily expect a journalist to know this (esp. if they are not a religion reporter).

  • Julia

    It seems to me that there is an analogy between a reporter of the “Evangelicalist religion” and a Republican speaking (as they did often a few years ago) of the “Democrat party.” In both cases, it is hard to be clear whether ignorance or hostility is at work.

    I don’t get it.

    The Republicans belong to the Republican Party.

    Don’t the Democrats belong to the Democrat Party?

  • Julia

    Jon in the Nati:

    I discovered in searching my German roots that the German government at one point in the 1800s forced the Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Church even in little villages to combine. The church records reflect that event. So it seems there was a separate Evangelical Church in Germany at one time. I think “Evangelical” indicated a Calvanist church body. I could be wrong about what the name meant, but it was separate from Lutherans who are definitely Protestant, right?

  • Mollie

    Evangelical=Lutheran. When the state forced the Protestants to join together, they became the state church — the “Evangelical and Reformed” — or “E&R.”

    Those who couldn’t abide this forced syncretism fought and/or left — and that’s the roots of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church — my denomination. You’ll usually notice that the official name of a Lutheran congregation will be “such and such Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

    Technically speaking, the Protestant Reformation occurred after the Lutheran Reformation. They aren’t the same thing.

  • Will

    When I saw it, I thought it must be another ad hoc pejorative like “Christianist” and “Xtian”. Otherwise, it makes as much sense as saying that people were “converted to Episcopacy”.

    Julia, some Republicans make a point of saying “Democrat party” to imply that they are not really democratic in sentiments. In the same spirit that many neo-pagans insist on writing “Xtian”.

  • Mollie


    It’s funny because I remember the first time I wrote the phrase Democrat Party, I was shocked to find out it was considered pejorative.

    But, then again, I write Xian or XPian for Christian — since the X is like the cross of Christ . . .

    So there you go.

  • joye

    Aww, I’m quoted! I feel special. :)

    I’ve always hated the term Xtian. Since X is a shorthand for Christ (as in Xmas), does that mean that Xtian is an abbreviation for Christtian?

  • Michael Gast

    My American Lutheran Church (ALC) pastor who became an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor when they merged, explained it to me that “evangelical” means “Bible based.” Evangelical today is trying to mean more fundamentalist, preaching type worship experiences – but true all U.S. churches are most likely “evangelical” since they are 98% Bible based, and preaching oriented. Right?

  • Tyson K

    It’s a quirk of the way the terms used for political parties in this country evolved that for some reason “Republican” is used both as an adjective (e.g., Republican Party) and a noun (e.g., I am a Republican), while “Democrat” is only used as a noun, with the adjective being “Democratic.” This has caused a great deal of accusations, misunderstanding, and ridiculousness when people get the terms confused, though some of what Will suggests actually happens. Generally, in common parlance, I think most people just avoid using the adjective form for Democrats, saying things like “Republican ideas” but “the Democrats’ ideas” rather than “Democratic ideas.”

  • Cathy G.

    Like MarkAA, I too am a proud copy editor, albeit a much younger one. And as an evangelical Christian who makes it a point to learn about other faiths, I like to think I “get religion,” too.
    But, there aren’t many of us around anymore – especially not as newspapers and magazines are consolidating their editing/pagination functions and even outsourcing them to foreign countries in some instances.
    Plus, even in newsrooms that still have copy desks, there’s not the kind of specialization that you have with reporters. You might be lucky to have one desk for sports and one for news, both of which handle religion stories when they come up.
    Sad, but it’s the nature of the biz.
    Maybe the RNA could hold a session at its next conference just for copy editors – or the American Copy Editors Society could hold one on religion? :)

  • Julia

    Actually, I went back and looked. There were three churches in the Palatinate villages before the consolidation: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformist.

    Those were the labels that the genealogists gave me. Perhaps the churches called themselves something different in the 1600s & 1700s before Napoleon came and transformed everything.

  • Will

    The problem is that usually people who say “bible-based” mean “based on MY approved interpretation of the Bible” (but will vehemently deny this when called on it.)

  • LisaMc

    Hi All,
    The American Copy Editors Society would be happy to hold a session on editing religion stories. Our next national conference is in Phoenix in March 2011. If you are or you know of a person who would be capable of and willing to present such a session (all of our speakers are volunteers), please contact me at lisamc (at)
    Lisa McLendon
    ACES Vice President/Conferences