When French fundamentalists attack

The photographic image accompanying this post is not the work of Andres Serrano with which newspaper readers would almost certainly be familiar. However, I cannot seem to convince myself that I need to put a copy of that infamous work of modern religious or anti-religious art on this website on Good Friday. Sue me.

However, as you will see, this quiet picture of a nun — entitled “The Church” — is also at the heart of a Guardian story that serves as yet another perfect lesson in how not to use the word “fundamentalist” in a news report.

Here is the top of this hot-button story from the world of art, to provide some context:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year. It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The attack was illegal and, while the work offends a great many people (including me), in a free society the solution to disputes about private (as opposed to tax-payer funded) art is supposed to be more freedom for other artists, not violence. That said, I would say that some protesters at this exhibit — not the attackers — were onto something when they muttered that the museum would not appreciate it if they offered to create a similar work of art by immersing a copy of the Koran or “The Diary of Anne Frank” in a container of urine.

However, the journalistic point for me is, once again, the use of a doctrinal label from Protestantism in the context of a dispute between a liberal, sort-of-Catholic artist (see this 1991 interview with Serrano) and other Catholics who are offended by some of his work. What precisely is a “French Catholic fundamentalist”?

Another point: What do journalists actually know about the doctrinal beliefs of the attackers, as opposed to the Catholic traditionalists behind the other protests? Do we know if there is a organizational link at work here? And if we are dealing with violent Catholics offended by the profaned image of the crucifix, why attack this other image of the nun (other than the identity of its creator)? What, precisely, is the doctrine at work here?

One more time, for the record, here is the Associated Press Stylebook’s wisdom on when to use and when not to use the loaded “fundamentalist” label, which has turned into a meaningless linguistic club with which to pound a wide variety of believers (not just Protestants who hold the doctrines linked to the term):

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.

Then again, perhaps the journalists behind this report simply could control themselves as they did their work. After all, the online version of this article now ends with the following oh-so-sweet correction. Folks, you just can’t make this up:

This article was amended on 19 April 2011. The original referred to the Senator Jesse Helms as Jesse James. This has been corrected.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

IMAGE: Andres Serrano, The Church (Soeur Jeanne Myriam, Paris), 1991

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.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    So would there have been comments if I had used THE OTHER art?

  • Dale

    tmatt wrote:

    So would there have been comments if I had used THE OTHER art?

    Yes, using the name of an American Protestant theological movement to describe French Catholic protesters makes about as much sense as describing laissez faire economics as Marxist– it’s not only misleading, it’s dead-on ignorant.

    Maybe the writer has adopted the use of “fundamentalist” described by Alan Plantinga:

    On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a b****’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical [definition] element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

  • Harold

    The Guardian, a UK paper, doesn’t use the AP Stylebook. They have their own style book.


    Is the AP style book standard internationally? Isn’t it true that it is merely a “guide” and not a mandate?

    On the “fundamentalist” question, I wonder how we are supposed to describe Catholics who would attack a piece of art because they think it is blasphemous. If they were Muslim, we’d call them “radical” or “extremist” So are these “radical” Catholics, “extremist” Catholics? Why is it okay to label Muslims while not using similar labels on Christians who are outside the mainstream?

  • Pamela Zohar

    In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

    I’m starting to think that whole piece of advice is a lost cause. ‘Fundamentalism’ is rapidly losing it’s status as a copyrighted term, so to speak. Even for me – and I grew up in a church that proudly proclaimed it’s adherence to The Fundamentals – the term itself has broadened to mean merely ‘traditionalist, perhaps extremely so’, no matter what the topic referred to.

  • Jon in the Nati

    This is, of course, just another example of how the word “fundamentalist” makes less and less sense the farther removed it becomes from its original context: the fundamentalist-modernist controversy within mainline American protestantism (particularly Presbyterians and their progeny) in the 1920′s.

    Applying it to modern protestantism makes some sense, but not as much; applying it to Catholics in France further makes it even more meaningless, and applying it to Muslims makes absolutely no sense at all.

    In the current milieu, I have a hard time disagreeing with Dale’s quoted section: that ‘fundamentalist’ has little meaning other than ‘person I don’t like, and who probably doesn’t like me, and whose theological views are (much) more conservative than my own.’

  • Harold

    In the current milieu, I have a hard time disagreeing with Dale’s quoted section: that ‘fundamentalist’ has little meaning other than ‘person I don’t like, and who probably doesn’t like me, and whose theological views are (much) more conservative than my own.’

    So what’s a better term. In this situation, where radical Catholics attack art, how do we describe them? Are they “faithful”? Are they “traditionalist” or “orthodox”? Are they “radical”? Maybe the harder task is describing extreme acts of people who hold beliefs essentially the same as ours.

  • Harold

    Or to use TMatt’s infamous hierarchy of Catholicism, are these “sweat the small stuff” Catholics?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    First things first: What is the status of the information that the attackers were, in fact, Catholics? Or is that the assumption based on previous PROTESTS?

    Thus, on labels: How about “violent Catholic protesters,” if it turns out they were proven to be Catholics.

    All newspapers have their own stylebooks, in addition to AP. So that tells us nothing.

    It would be rare for one to contradict AP on such a content-heavy topic that has NO RELATION to France or to local understandings.

    Also, is the Guardian a MEMBER and contributor to AP? That would be the other question one would need to ask.

  • Dale

    Harold wrote:

    So what’s a better term.

    Perhaps “fanatic”. It asserts the writer’s value judgment about his subject (just as fundamentalist does) without making false equivalencies between between markedly different religious traditions. If the writer wants to avoid value judgments, “Catholic protesters” is descriptive enough.

    Neither “radical” or “extremist” Catholic makes much sense, because “catholic” itself means universal or all-encompassing. Anyhow, “radical” and “extremist” are relative terms, and unless the qualified noun is specific enough, those adjectives don’t add much to meaning other than as pejorative. For example, a “radical” or “extreme” pacifist would be someone who absolutely rejects all forms of violence. But what’s an “extreme” or “radical” Catholic? Someone who goes to mass every day? Someone who memorizes every papal encyclical? Certainly vandalizing blasphemous works of art isn’t high up on the list of things that make a Catholic a Catholic.

    So it is with Muslims. An “extreme” or “radical” Muslim may be anything from an otherworldly Sufi, an apolitical Shi’ite or a revivalist Sunni. GR has repeatedly criticized pieces that use “radical” or “extremist” to modify “Muslim” for that reason.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What bothers me is how, when a Moslem uses violence at how their holy book is treated, you don’t have to look far in the media to find people expressing some sympathy for the anguish Moslems feel at seeing their holy things treated with disresepect. They were driven to violence by the disrespect some in the media will say.
    However, try to find some expressions of sympathy in the media for the anguish these Catholics must feel over the disrespect shown to their holy things which drives them to violence.
    Amost never will you hear or read some sympathy for Catholic religious sensibilities in such situations.

  • Brian Volck

    I agree that the use of “fundamentalist” in this context is largely unintelligible except as a marker for a journalist’s opinion of the person(s) under consideration, rather like the terms “hardliner,” “extremist,” and the prefix “ultra-.”

    As for Serrano’s image itself, NEA funding aside(which is a significant issue to bracket, I realize), it’s worth invoking the intentional fallacy, which in it’s weaker form treats the author’s or artist’s intention, once the art is made public, as one critical voice among other critical voices, and which may or may not necessarily have privileged status.

    That in mind, it may be helpful to consider other views of “the image that must not be named.” I have in mind Andrew Hudgins’ poem (see the link below). Hudgins, I believe, has Baptist roots and he is married to a Catholic. Neither, in my experience, could be described as fundamentalist. On this particular day, Hudgins’ interpretation may be especially apposite:


  • Jerry

    I side with Pamela Zohar. The word “fundamentalist” has become, like the word “hacker”, divorced from the original meaning. I’ve read that “awful” used to mean “full of awe” and not terrible as it means today. And of course there is the word “gay”. Some things are lost causes.

  • Julia

    “Fundamentalist” does not compute in the French mileau.

    Who knows what strain of Catholics were involved.

    If fundamentalist was used only because the folks took action against a desecration, that’s a misunderstanding of even how the word is broadly used in the US.

    The French Catholic world has several fringe strains – none of which are found to any degree in the US.

    There’s a fair number of followers of LeFebre – those folks whose bishops were un-excommunicated last year. They don’t think the last several Popes were legitimate and they want Benedict to denounce Vatican II.

    Then there is another strain that yearns for a return of the monarchy and its coddling of the ancient French church, seeing France as the eldest daughter of the church with certain perquisites. Their thinking is as much political and social as it is religious. They invented the term “ultra-montane” for Frenchmen who unpatriotically paid more attention to the Pope (across the Alps in Italy) than they did to the French hierarchy.

    And there are some French Catholics are still go to church on Sundays; French reporters would probably consider them fundamentalists for doing more than getting baptized and married in church, if that.

    Notre Dame Cathedral has great attendance at its concerts of ancient chant – Gregorian and versions that are Gallic, but in general it’s an aesthetic and historic appreciation that draws the audience, not religion.


    Ancient chanting of a non-Gregorian type for a concert, not for the liturgy:

    So France is not the US and the issues are not the same.

  • Bram

    Terms like “radical,” “militant,” “extremist,” “hardliner,” “fundamentalist,” et al are more applicable to Andres Serrano than to anyone (most of us) who dislike his work. It’s funny how no one in the media ever seems to be overly concerned with encouraging more “moderate” and “tolerant” form of secular progressive ideology, even in the face of virulent bigotry like that in which Serrano has trafficed for years. I wonder why …

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    And how would you relate that to the journalism issue?

    It sounds like a comment on Serrano, who’s rights of artistic expression are/were not a real issue (other than, possibly, the tax-funded angle)?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As Marty Helgesen said in a slightly different context, this “fundamentalist” makes as much sense as “Hasidic Christians”.

    Jerry: There is a beautiful passage in Williams’ DESCENT INTO HELL where a woman is carrying on about how nature is “terribly” and “awfully good”, and Stanhope responds “You do mean ‘terribly’?” and “Remember, the substantive contains the adjective. The good contains terror, not terror good.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I daily expect to read about “Republicans’ fundamentalist budget cuts” and “Microsoft’s fundamentalist marketing strategy.”

  • Bram


    I related it to the journalism issue — I thought very clearly — by asking why the media are quicker to use the terms I listed in describing religious people than they are to use them in describing irreligious or anti-religious people like Andres Serrano, who seems worthy of being described in terms of the sort that I listed if anyone does.

  • http://getreligion.org Terry

    I am coming to this debate late, so apologies. A little bit of research, for example in Le Monde would have thrown light on some of the questions asked here. In an article published on 18th April, ‘Qui Sont Ces Catholiques Integristes Mobilises contre le Piss Christ?’ the newspaper reported that a big demonstration was called by the Civitas Institute. I quote (in my translation from the French): ‘The Civitas Institute presents itself on its website as “working towards political and social reconquest, with the intent of rechristianising France’. The interesting thing to me is that one of the directors of the movement is Abbe Regis de Cacqueray, who is a leading member of the FSSPX (Priestly Frathernity of St Pius X)which is the main Lefebvrist association of priest. Now, the article does not go on to say that it was young men from this movement that did the damage, but they have a track record of militant action, such as the time they seized a church in Paris near the Sorbonne, forcibly taking it over with the help of well built young men in leather jackets (I am trying not to use the word thugs here). So, in conclusion, the actions points to traditionalist Catholics out of communion with the Catholic Church itself, who want to see a union of throne and altar, or at least nation and church. The ‘integrist’ reference may be in French terms almost as damning as ‘fundamentalist’ in America, because the integrationist movement in the past (eg Action Francaise) was antisemitic and xenophobic. Anyway you can find the article here: apologies that I do not know how to do a hyperlink shortcut:

  • http://getreligion.org Terry

    For integrationist above, please read integriste. My apologies for the slip. Integrist is, confusingly, the opposite of integrationist. Integrationist means bringing different races and cultures together. Integrist means making society one interlocking whole, with a common political, economic, and moral heritage, each reinforcing the other.