Fundamentalists and other S.O.B.s

Benoid Denizet-Lewis had yet another a fascinating story in the New York Times this past weekend. This time it was about Michael Glatze, a former gay rights activist who has since renounced his past. The two used to be friends and colleagues at XY, a San-Francisco-based national magazine for young gay men.

It’s a news piece, in one sense, but written in that Denizet-Lewis style where the author is actively involved in the narration. You get the feeling you learn as much about the author as you do the subject of the piece. In this case, I didn’t actually get the feeling I learned hardly anything about the subject but I still enjoyed the piece.

Right at the beginning we learn:

Though only a year removed from Dartmouth when he arrived at XY, Michael had seemingly read every gay book ever written. While I was busy trying to secure a boyfriend, he was busy contemplating queer theory, marching in gay rights rallies and urging young people to celebrate (not just accept) their same-sex attractions. Michael was devoted to helping gay youth, and he was particularly affected by the letters the magazine received regularly from teenagers who were rejected by their religious families. “Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell!” he told me once, slamming his fist on his desk. I had never met anyone so sure of himself.

This is the first of four uses of the word “fundamentalist” in the article, none of which are defined. We’re told, for instance:

It was a good question. Had part of me come to “save” my old friend from the clutches of the Christian right? Though I don’t doubt that sexual attraction can evolve, I was skeptical of Michael’s claim of heterosexuality — and I rejected his argument that “homosexuality prevents us from finding our true self within.” Besides, I had a hard time believing that Michael’s “true self” was a fundamentalist Christian who writes derogatorily about being gay. But whatever aspirations I had about persuading Michael to join the ranks of ex-ex-gays, they were no match for his eagerness to save me.

Skip over the rather fascinating line from the author about his completely politically incorrect view that sexual attraction can change. See how we’re told that Glatze is now a “fundamentalist” Christian? The author uses the term once more and one of Glatze’s ex-boyfriends from a three-partner-relationship also uses the term.

At no time does an actual Christian use the term. I literally have no idea why the author is using the term. Is it because Glatze is now a fundamentalist? If so, the article didn’t explain that. In fact, while the piece could not better show the author’s turmoil over Glatze’s change of heart, I wish we’d learned more about Glatze himself. And maybe the author wasn’t the right person to tell that part of the story.

The article mentions that Glatze is now at a Bible school. The term “Bible school” is used seven times. But, oddly, we never learn what that school is. Because the opening paragraph mentions that the author is driving around the plains north of Cheyenne, I wonder if it’s not Frontier School of the Bible. From a look at that school’s doctrinal views, it’s clear they’re not “fundamentalist.” But maybe he’s attending a different school? I don’t know.

But what does it say about the education of a writer such as Denizet-Lewis on matters of religion? Is his vocabulary really so limited that the only word he can think of to describe someone with traditional religious views is “fundamentalist”? Really? I can’t help but think of the Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga who tmatt quoted recently:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, 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 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’.

Exactly. It’s a term that tells us nothing, really, about the subject but something about the author. And while we tend to like Denizet-Lewis’ work here and I always kind of find him fascinating, in this case it was a bit too much. Particularly for a story where religion plays such a key role, it’s important to describe those religious views rather than denigrate them.

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  • melxiopp

    See “‘Gay’-rights leader quits homosexuality: Rising star in movement says God liberated him from lifestyle” by Art Moore at WorldNetDaily for more on Michael Glatze, as well as “How a ‘gay rights’ leader became straight” by Michael Glatze himself for more.

    The New York Times also had a very intersting article on the way generally pro-homosexual psychologists are coming to see religion as well as sexual orientation and sexual identity as a valid part of a person’s overall identity. Read “Living the Good Lie” by Mimi Swartz (June 16, 2011).

  • Ray Ingles

    It’s a side point, but I asked the same question last time tmatt posted that quote, and nobody answered:

    …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

    Can anyone supply some quotes of Dawkins or Dennett using the term in this manner?

  • Mollie

    Ray, did you look? I just put “Richard Dawkins fundamentalist” into teh Google and here’s the first result.

  • J. Lahondere

    The second after I finished this article and two articles by Michael Glatze himself, I came here ready to submit them for review.

    There’s the whole “fundamentalist” thing which was obvious. What irked me about this article was the way the writer constantly questions the sincerity of Mr. Glatze’s decision, as well as his motives. I feel that if a reporter had included skeptical thoughts about a straight, religious man going gay, it would be deemed unacceptable.

    I’d never heard of Michael Glatze, but after reading two articles he wrote on World Net Daily, it seems that his story is much more than just, “brainwashed by the far right.” This man has a lot to say about the nature of desire and lust and sexuality, about the nature of change itself. Many of the things he expressed were poignant. It saddened me that he was basically written off as “a victim of this insane society we live in.”

  • Dan Crawford

    “You get the feeling you learn as much about the author as you do the subject of the piece.” And that is, of course, the whole point of the article. He is not a reporter – he’s an essayist with an agenda and the article is meant to demonstrate that he is both smarter and considerably more sophisticated than his poor, benighted “friend”. There is certainly very little insight about his “friend’s” thinking or religious beliefs.

  • melxiopp

    I think the article’s skeptical tone re Glatze’s ‘sincerity’ and true ‘conversion’ would have been better justified were statistics provided concerning the presumably (not demonstrated) high ‘recidivism’ rate or other negative consequences (e.g., suicide) of those ‘cured’ by ex-gay ministries and treatment.

  • Harold

    As a writing device, using the term “fundamentalist” (which is twice in quotes from subjects in the story) is interesting because it is reflecting back what the subject of the story has said. In a magazine story–especially in the kind of journalism done by Denizet-Lewis–it is probably a time that the use works. I’d be curious what the NYT style book says (as opposed to the AP, which is usually trotted out in these cases) and then how that style book is applied to magazine articles.

    My sense is that you are likely in the tiny minority of readers who doesn’t understand what the term “fundamentalist” means in the story, which underlines one of the interesting ironies of this GR pet peeve. Despite a politically correct desire to cleanse stories of this “offensive” term, it’s a term most readers understand in context. Most readers are not seriously confusing it with big-f “Fundamentalists” and it is a descriptor that is clearer than the amorphous phrases like “Evangelical” or “orthodox” or “traditionalist” or my new favorite, “confessional.”

  • Will

    Everything Plantinga said and ditto about “cult”.

    “Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell?” Now that REALLY makes sense.

  • melxiopp

    “Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell!” uses the term ‘fundamentalist’ perfectly. That is, it’s a quote, and all the ambiguity, vagary and editorializing implied in the term is apropos.

    That is, if the quote is accurate. More strictly speaking, it isn’t actually a quote, it’s hearsay based on the memory and reliability of the piece’s author.

  • Mollie


    So you know how the term is defined for this story? Do share!

  • Harold

    I think it is defined exactly as you assume it is: a “born again” protestant who takes a literal reading of the Bible. I think that’s how 95% of readers will interpret it.

  • Mollie

    Interesting. I mean, I have no idea what half of those descriptors mean, and I certainly didn’t assume that was the definition, but … interesting.

    Can you explain how 95% of readers will interpret that the same way you do?

    I’m really intrigued.

  • Harold

    Oh Mollie, now you are just being pedantic about all of this. The terms has a cultural meaning about a certain type of believer. That’s why it is a term that transcends Christianity to being used with “fundamentalist Muslims” who are people who strictly and literally apply the Koran.

    I agree that it’s probably not a term that should be used in news stories because it is often seen as a pejorative. But beyond the PC concerns, I think no one seriously confuses it with big-F “Fundamentalists” and therefore the AP’s rationale isn’t all that strong.

    In a magazine story, however, I think there can be some leeway in terms of the writer’s voice and the context of the story. Of the four time is was used, twice were in direct quotes and one in describing a way of interpreting the Bible. That doesn’t seem egrigious, especially since magazine writers doing feature pieces can have a little more leeway in their approach.

  • melxiopp

    I wouldn’t narrow the definition to “born again”, but I agree that most Americans understand fundamentalist to mean a ‘Protestant who reads the Bible literally’. Yes, there are a billion shades of mutually anathematizing differences that can be found within that umbrella definition, but from outside of that world the genus makes sense. More broadly, the term refers to traditional cultural norms with traditional, religious justifications. Thus, one can find Muslim, Hindu, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Protestant, Jewish, etc. fundamentalists – even if there are other terms within each faith group that better identify their culture or sub-cultural or sect’s beliefs.

    In short, while the Modernist vs. Fundamentalist battles of early- to mid-20th century American Protestantism have a history of their own, that fight (and the terms used) has been used as a metaphor to explain the broader phenomenon of modernization and globalization relative to religious and cultural values.

    Where GetReligion is right is in the unthinking use of the term when it signals the author’s bias against ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘traditional’ beliefs and norms, i.e., when it is used as a kind of polite slur. But, that’s primarily a problem in true journalism where objectivity is the goal, not in magazines, columns, opinion, etc. where everyone understands what the term signifies – about both the one referred to and the one referring.

    (FWIW, the LCMS is a fundamentalist church to everyone but WELS, ELDONA and the CLC. The LCMS is not, however, a Fundamentalist church associated with the specific history of the the Niagara Bible Conference (1878–1897) and the a collection of twelve books on five subjects published in 1910 as The Fundamentals.)

  • Mollie

    Wait, so the LCMS is a “fundamentalist” church even though it doesn’t even fit Harold’s definition of “a “born again” protestant who takes a literal reading of the Bible.”?

    I’m so confused.

  • Dale

    Harold wrote:

    The terms has a cultural meaning about a certain type of believer. That’s why it is a term that transcends Christianity to being used with “fundamentalist Muslims” who are people who strictly and literally apply the Koran.

    That doesn’t fit with the definition you just gave of “fundamentalist”:

    a “born again” protestant who takes a literal reading of the Bible.

    So a “fundamentalist” is a Protestant and a Muslim? A “literal reading” of the Bible is also an empty phrase. Every reading of the Bible is “literal” in some sense, and even the staunchest Fundamentalist recognizes the use of other literary devices, like allegories and parables, in Christian scripture. So what the heck does a “literal” reading of the Bible mean?

    Then there’s the completely bogus assertion that Protestant and Islamic scriptural hermeneutics have some kind of meaningful commonality, other than that they offend against liberal orthodoxy, and are therefore to be condemned.

  • Will

    The “Biblical literalist” is a straw man.

    In the literature on the “rapture question”, I repeatedly find exchanges on these lines:

    “WE follow the plain sense of Scripture, while YOU adopt a metaphorical, spiritualizing hermeneutic!”
    “You are being just as metaphorical, only about different parts!”

    Also consider Mark Shea’s retort to a confrontational “question” about “taking the Bible literally”. “Which part?” left his interrogator nonplussed.

  • Harold

    That doesn’t fit with the definition you just gave of “fundamentalist”

    I was asked to explain how Denizet-Lewis was using the term in his story, which is about Christians.

    I’m so confused.

    Can I suggest Martin Marty’s work on “fundamentalism” where he articulates a meaning that is consistent with what melxiopp and I are referring to? It’s not like this is a new discussion.

  • tmatt


    And don’t forget the fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Muslims and all the others.

    All we are doing here at GR is asking people to use this historic term in an accurate manner, in the manner recognized by the Associated Press Stylebook. It’s a journalism thing.

    Even a specific Protestant approach to the Bible — “biblical inerrancy,” a term with at least five or six definitions — is only ONE PART of the actual doctrines that define fundamentalism.

    Please see:

  • Harold

    in the manner recognized by the Associated Press Stylebook. It’s a journalism thing.

    As my parents, lifelong journalists used to say over dinner, the AP style book is not a book of laws, but a book of guidelines and suggestions. Journalism is much broader than alleged “rules” in the AP style book. As I’ve said, I’d be curious what the NYT style book says, and then how the magazine applies those guidelines. I appreciate that as an academic training journalists, you want them to view the style book as inerrant and unyielding. But that’s not how journalism is practices in the real world.

  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie –

    Ray, did you look? I just put “Richard Dawkins fundamentalist” into teh Google

    Wait, Dawkins is there specifically responding to the claim that he is a “fundamentalist atheist”. He’s using a variant definition because the accusation he’s responding to used it! I can’t find an example of him referring to ‘fundamentalism’ in a generic sense except as a response to people using the term in exactly that fashion.

    I can find comments of Dennett referring to “Darwinian fundamentalism” – but again, he’s responding to that specific accusation. I suppose you might prefer that they refer to the AP stylebook when correcting their opponents, but I can’t understand the idea that it’s a moral or intellectual failing not to do so.

    Basically, I cannot find an example of them using ‘fundamentalist’ in the ‘sumbitch’ sense that doesn’t involve them responding to accusations of being a sumbitch!

  • michael


    Mollie understands perfectly what fundamentalist means in this context: someone who believes things that I,in my sophisticated enlightenment, find so detestable and stupid that I needn’t be bothered thinking about them. That is why it can be employed wily-nily where it would otherwise make no sense.

    The only quibble I have with GR’s pet peeve is that this now seems to be the predominant cultural meaning of the term. It therefore strikes me as a bit quixotic to insist that the term be used in its historically correct sense…though in general I am all for tilting at windmills. For my part, though, I find it helpful when the media misuse it because it reveals either the journalist’s animus toward his subject or that his mind is on auto-pilot.

    These are useful things to know.

  • Mollie


    As I wrote earlier, it’s a term that tells you more about the user than the subject. But really, unless you’re talking about its actual definition, it’s only use is pejorative. And we’re generally against the use of pejoratives when describing religious views.

  • melxiopp

    English isn’t French, there isn’t a single word for every single, hard and fast reality. “Fundamentalist” has many meanings and shades of meaning, only one of which is the historic meaning of the term in American Protestantism. Perhaps at one point in time the term had a chance of being narrowly defined in this way, but no longer. The term has broadened in meaning well beyond this – and around the world – using Fundamentalists as a cipher for the broader fight between modernism/globalization/etc. and more traditional, conservatives cultural and religious values. Part of it is that beyond the shrinking borders of American Protestantism the differences among American Protestants doesn’t look to be all that much – at least within the hazy boundaries between Left and the Right in American Protestantism. With the decline of American Protestantism in the US, there are more and more on the outside looking in on such things, which is part of why a term that once had a specific theological meaning has taken on connotations beyond that earlier, narrower term. Thus, atheists, agnostics, liberal and modernist Protestants who arguably won the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, especially if they are from overseas and especially if they are from more liberal, less traditional sectors of those faith groups see conservative-to-reactionary, traditional American Protestants as pretty much the same, i.e., fundamentalists.

    There’s no arguing with demographics (and it’s implications on sociology, and terminology).

    The same can be said applied to the various differences in the way biblical “literalism” is understood. To most on the outside of those debates, it’s a difference without a distinction – whether that’s right or wrong. The analogy would be arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether to cross oneself with two fingers or three. Within context, these differences may be significant; but from the outside looking in, well, it looks silly and much ado about nothing.

    I noted in my comment that I thought “born again” didn’t actually fit the definition of fundamentalist, in a Christian context. It’s too narrowing. However, the LCMS fits the rest of the definition – apart from any quibbling over what “literal” literally means.

  • CarlH

    Did I just miss a link to the original story being discussed? While it’s only a quick search away, for those still looking, here it is:

    My Ex-Gay Friend

    Personally, I found the other missing religious aspects of the story much more annoying about the article than the fuzzy use of the word “fundamentalist.” And I’m surprised that, given the subject matter, there hasn’t been a lot more commentary about those. On the other hand, I am afraid that, for a lot of those for whom the “cultural meaning” of the term is just fine and dandy, the term itself as they use and understand may well be enough to answer (or simply dismiss) all of those other questions–making the use of the term all the more aggravating for the rest of us.

  • Fr. Jonathan

    Leaving the fundamentalist question aside for the moment (which, admittedly, is hard to do), what I found strangest about the piece is what Mollie only touches on, namely that it’s hard to tell whether this is a news piece or something else. It was in the Times magazine, so presumably there is some space here for more of a Feature-y kind of feel, but even within that there are presumably limits. It’s hard to tell at times whether this is a piece about one particular man and what he has gone through in his own evolving understanding of sexual identity, or about the author of the piece in his own understanding of the same topic, or about the “ex-gay” movement in general, or about something entirely different. I found the piece fascinating, and I think there’s a story here that was worth telling, but I would have liked a little more of a sense of direction. What is the point of the piece? Who is the audience? What was the writer hoping to achieve by telling this story in this particular way?

  • tmatt


    MZ is a busy lady.

    Thanks for catching that. I fixed it.

  • carl

    ‘Fundamentalist’ now refers to ‘One who believes that there exists a knowable revealed Truth to which all men at all times are subject.” It offends modern minds because it asserts that truth is both knowable, and revealed. It contradicts the modern dogma that each man is free to define himself according to his own will. By that definition, the LCMS is certainly a Fundamentalist church. All legitimate Christians are ‘fundamentalist’ by this definition. Those who are so labeled are stigmatized as arrogant and ignorant according to the the criteria listed above.



  • David Rupert

    It is amazing how the term ‘fundamentalist’ is thrown around like the word ‘terrorist.’

    Big Differences…

  • Dave G.

    The terms has a cultural meaning about a certain type of believer.

    Yes it does, and the thing I notice? It is hardly ever used in a flattering way.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: I wouldn’t narrow the definition to “born again”, but I agree that most Americans understand fundamentalist to mean a ‘Protestant who reads the Bible literally’

    ‘Reading the Bible literally’ is a very ambiguous phrase, because the Bible isn’t one book. I would say that I accept the Gospels as literal history, more or less, but I don’t take the same view of, say, the Book of Genesis or the Book of Deuteronomy. And I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. Does someone like that qualify as a fundamentalist?

    Incidentally, many Christian groups found their faith on tradition as much as on the bible, which means that ‘reading the Bible literally’ isn’t really a phrase that’s very useful in trying to elicit what they believe.

  • Bram

    The word “fundamentalist” does indeed reveal more about the person using it than it reveals about those persons against whom it is used. What it reveals is that the user is himself or herself a fundamentalist — only a left-liberal or a secularist or an atheist fundamentalist (of whom there are many) instead of, say, a Christian fundamentalist (of whom there are very, very few).

  • tmatt

    It does help, however, that the AP Stylebook is historically accurate, while Harold’s approach is sloppy and, in the end, intellectually incoherent.

    I vote for fewer labels and more use of information and quotes about and from those being described.

  • Maureen

    The Bible is written with letters, so it’s all literal.

    Chinese Bibles, now, you gotta take them syllabarically.

  • Ray Ingles

    Mollie – Guess what? I got hold of a copy of “The God Delusion” and checked the index. Dawkins has a section about ‘fundamentalism’ – lowercase – and he defines the term right away as, effectively, ‘scriptural literalist’:

    “Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a Holy Book, and they know in advance that nothing will budge them from their belief.”

    This certainly doesn’t conform to the A.P. stylebook… but neither does it conform to Plantinga’s contention that to Dawkins it means “anyone who believes there is such a person as God”.

  • Robert


    If you don’t take Genesis to be a literal history, then the gospels don’t make any sense. And I would submit that taking the Torah as literal history is definitely required of a fundamentalist. I’d add that all of the Jews that were looking forward to the coming of Messiah when Jesus started His public ministry definitely took the Torah as being a literal history.

  • Lori B.

    I, too, was going to submit this story, because there is so much more to the religion angle that I wanted answered. However, I assumed you’d tell me it was not a real news story and instead was an essay or opinion piece. Who knows what this piece is, other than fascinating both for what it says and does not say about the subject and the writer. Maybe the NYT should define for us what they consider news and what they consider a feature story, which brings me to the debate over defining words.

    Although some think arguing over words is pedantic or a futile exercise in debate, I would beg to differ. Words and their meanings are important and should not be taken lightly. And from what I understand, the historic Christian church has always thought this. I’m fairly certain that view comes from words such as, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    I am tired of words being hijacked to be used for an agenda, which is one reason I am teaching my children Latin, English grammar, and eventually rhetoric, so they will know what words mean and how to use them. But then again I’m a homeschooling mom, so obviously I’m a “stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of [the secular world]’.

  • melxiopp

    Does the AP Stylebook also limit terms such as ‘saboteur’ and ‘luddite’ to only their “historically accurate” examples? I don’t think so. Those terms, like fundamentalism, have taken on additional life beyond their original, historical meanings. No longer does ‘luddite’ solely refer to “a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution and taking its name from Ned Ludd.” Neither is ‘saboteur’ limited 15th century when workers in the Netherlands who would throw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the wooden gears of the textile looms to break the cogs, fearing the automated machines would render the human workers obsolete.

    The fact that the term fundamentalism, like ‘saboteur’ and ‘luddite’, has taken on negative connotations vis a vis ‘modernists’ or ‘liberals’, etc. is the real problem with the term. The problem isn’t that it’s being used in an historically inaccurate way, it’s that it is sometimes/oftentimes used without considering the negative connotations it can carry.

    The way around this connotation is to qualify any use of these terms – i.e., terms by conservatives about liberals as well as terms by liberals about conservatives. For instance, “Glatze has become what many we spoke with in the gay community call a ‘fundamentalist Christian’”; “Glatze strenuously disagrees with those in ‘liberal Christian’ communities who advocate homosexuality as normal.” The real way around it is to do essentially what this article did, which is quote those who use the term. An objective reporter/journalist should attempt to avoid the term apart from quotes, or to use it in a way that admits to its slippery usage (not unlike the loaded term “cult”).

    In fact, it’s the unselfconscious, loaded overtones of words that are the problem, not the fact that the term is historically inaccurate. For example, within certain sectors of Eastern Orthodoxy, one could be called nothing worse than a ‘modernist’ or an ‘innovator’, or ‘western’. Being called a ‘fundamentalist’ or a ‘traditionalist’ doesn’t carry the same connotations in differing contexts (and in differing assumptions about what the network, magazine, paper or author ‘really believes’).

  • Julia

    Catholics have given up fighting for the original meaning of “scandal” which has been in use over a thousand years in the Church. But we still retain its technical meaning in our own writings for our selves.

    Words change their meaning in common usage.

    I can sometimes guess the the age of the person who writes a particular cross-word puzzle. Often, to a person my age, the clues are off a bit, revealing the person doesn’t know how to use the particular word in a sentence (by my lights).

    My favorite transformation of words is when they take on the opposite meaning. Prime example: SANCTION
    Used to indicate approval of a proposed action; also used to indicate punishment for not following the rules.

    Then there’s the amazing FLAMMABLE and INFLAMMABLE.

    English is fluid – check out Chaucer and Shakespeare. Many of the words they used have moved on.

  • Julia

    Then there’s the problem of a progression of words that, one by one, take on negative connotations requiring new words.

    Most obvious is the pregression of words describing folks with less than “normal” IQ. Idiot, moron and imbecile were technical terms. Then came retarded which seemed to be a nicer term, until that became an insult.

    Watch. We keep seeing new terms every few years as health professionals try to stay ahead of the descriptor turning ugly. Currently people are challenged, not disabled. I wonder how long challenged will remain neutral.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: And I would submit that taking the Torah as literal history is definitely required of a fundamentalist

    Good thing I don’t claim to be a fundamentalist, then.

    Re: I’d add that all of the Jews that were looking forward to the coming of Messiah when Jesus started His public ministry definitely took the Torah as being a literal history.

    Maybe so, but what they expected of a Messiah wasn’t what they got, was it? Jesus fulfilled the Jewish prophecies typologically, not literally, which is in itself a good argument for reading the Old Testament typologically. In any case, the early Christians came from a variety of different origins, not simply Jewish, and took a wide range of views about the Old Testament.

    None of which is really the topic of the thread, of course.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: English is fluid – check out Chaucer and Shakespeare. Many of the words they used have moved on.

    That’s all well and good, Julia, but the problem with the word ‘fundamentalist’ is that it’s meaningless. It can mean entirely different things depending on who’s using it, and it’s impossible to tie it down as a reference to one particular group of people. It means, really, nothing more than ‘someone more conservative than me, theologically’, which is why it’s useless.

  • Mollie


    Keep the discussion on media coverage please.


  • Dan

    I’ve spent my share of time interacting with both conservative (is that word ok?) Christians and the gay community. The author of the original article uses fundamentalist in a sort of sloppy fashion I would say, but then I hear lots of conservative Christians talking about gays in equally sloppy caricatures. Maybe everyone could sit down and figure out at least how to characterize each other. Is that too much to ask?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I am tired of words being hijacked to be used for an agenda

    It’s also known as “framing the debate”. Partisans do it all the time, and journalists shouldn’t be partisans.

    Of course, “fundamentalists” is a partisan term, and while I’ve never met a thinking person, religious or non-religious, politically liberal or conservative, or whatever, who didn’t have certain fundamentals to which they adhere and for which they will argue to the death, the common usage is against religious people. As some have noted, it’s pejorative, which is to say, it’s used to frame the debate.

  • H. E. Baber

    In current usage “fundamentalist” is both so vague and so ambiguous that it should probably be avoided altogether.

    When I was in college there was a Baptist minister from town who lead a Bible study for a little group of students. We called them “the fundamentalists” even though we had no idea about the history of the term and it never occurred to us that it implied Biblical literalism. I, at least, didn’t realize that anybody was a Biblical literalist.

    What did we–who grew up to be NYTimes readers and, some of us, journalists–mean by “fundamentalist”? Something like non-liturgical, emphasize the Bible, call their clergy “pastors” or “preachers” rather than “priests” or “ministers,” have various puritanical preoccupations and special, stringent moral rules, including no drinking.

  • Mollie

    Note to Frank:
    Your comments aren’t being deleted because you disagree with anyone but because they’re riddled with profanity and slurs.
    Take those out and keep on topic, and we’ll be happy to post your comments.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Something like non-liturgical, emphasize the Bible, call their clergy “pastors” or “preachers” rather than “priests” or “ministers,” have various puritanical preoccupations and special, stringent moral rules, including no drinking.

    Wouldn’t a better term for those folks be ‘Evangelical’?

    I agree with you that the term ‘fundamentalist’ should be probably retired, since it can mean everything, or nothing.

  • H. E. Baber

    Mebbe. But I’m not so sure that all, or even most, evangelicals are teetotalers. Moreover in the loose and popular sense in which we used “fundamentalist” Mormons would qualify. The problem is that there simply isn’t a word to characterize the group that the NYTimes writer meant to pick out–roughly socially conservative non-liturgical Protestantish people–which would include Mormons and Pentacostals, who aren’t evangelicals. Maybe a word should be made up. Or an acronym: SCNLPs.

  • melxiopp

    The need for such an English language term is the void “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” has been filling. The term is still hazy, and sometimes contradictory and nonsensical, but then again, so is American Protestantism.

    The terms are roughly defined in society as ‘socially conservative Protestantish people, which would include Mormons and Pentecostals.’ Liturgical is only a term of import to those already in the Christian and Protestant world. As many “liturgical Christians” note, most non-liturgical churches simply end up with their own tradition of nontraditional liturgy – just like ‘non-denominational’ quickly becomes a denominational signifier.

    Any negative connotations are usually not the fault of the terms, but of the way in which authors use them. Since there’s really no such thing as an objective observer – especially not in a magazine piece – yes, the term says as much about the author. But, so what? The source must always be considered.

  • melxiopp

    I would add that when the term ‘fundamentalist’ is used it is used by analogy with the historical definition and the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. The term is again used by analogy when applied to non-Protestant religions where the developing definition – again, still hazy, and sometimes contradictory and nonsensical just like religion often is – is something like ‘socially conservative religious people’ of a certain faith, e.g., fundamentalist Catholic, fundamentalist Muslim. In a religious context there is often a conservativism of theology and practice, too.