There goes the F-word LA Times, again


Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

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.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

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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.

  • Mike O.

    I completely agree that the AP’s guidline for using the word “fundamentalist” is best. As this blog has pointed out several times it has different meanings to different people. Even two people using the term pejoratively might not have the same definition for it.

    To quote Milhouse from The Simpsons, “I’ve said ‘jiminy jillikers’ so many times the words have lost all meaning!”

  • Jeremy

    Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists.

    You seem to be using the words charismatic and Pentecostal interchangeably. Isn’t there an important difference there too (though of course not nearly as great as that between those groups and fundamentalists)? In my limited experience, charismatics don’t insist that everyone should speak in tongues or be slain in the Spirit, but they believe that such things are a desirable manifestation of the spirit. They tend to be very open to variations in Christian practice and are often interested in ecumenism. Thus you can have charismatic Methodists, charismatic Anglicans, even charismatic Catholics.

    Pentecostals on the other hand, are much more dogmatic about the gifts of the Spirit and see them as a necessary activity for the church. Their beliefs stand out from those of other Christians to such a degree that they don’t really fit into other denominations and have to form their own. Of course, their isn’t just one Pentecostal church (there must be hundreds), but I think their beliefs are much more uniform than those of charismatics, who are able to blend their “charismaticism” (for lack of a better word) with whatever other beliefs belong to the denomination of which they are already a part.

  • tmatt

    JEREMY:

    You are right that charismatics and Pentecostals (there are several groups under that one term) are not identical. But they share many similarities that separate them from fundamentalists. Charismatics are part of the Pentecostal branch off the tree — even, to some degree, those who are part of Catholic and oldline Prot bodies.

  • Grumpy

    Forget “fundamentalists”. We need to apply to the attendees the word that really matters the most in this political context: Dominionists.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    GRUMPY:

    Please define that term and provide a mainstream URL to a definition. There might have been a few such people at the event — there were wild folks there — but not many if that term is doctrinally defined.

    It sounds like you are using a kind of political definition as a slur against mainstream evangelicals, Catholics, charismatics, etc.

    Please provide URL to a mainstream site that backs YOUR DEFINITION.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The key, Grump, is that you jump straight into political commentary. Using that word, undefined, in journalism would accomplish nothing whatsoever in terms of clarity and information.

    It would be better to cite individuals’ beliefs and to quote them — which I recommended in my post, when dealing with the people who were on the fringes of this body of people.

  • Martha

    “Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?”

    Yes, tmatt, I believe we have – and not just in the U.S.A., either.

    Of course, there’s a little bit extra to just disapproving of sex outside of marriage: there’s also being anti-reproductive health care (being anti-contraception), anti-abortion rights (remember, it’s not just a choice, it’s a right!), anti-gay marriage (with concommitant overtone of being anti-gay rights in general) and of course, for us really stuck-in-the-mud Roman Catholics, anti-divorce. Oh, and don’t forget: those who are anti-women clergy (whether as ministers/priest or bishops) and/or anti-GLBT clergy, as well!

    See? Easy definition we can all agree on! Naturally, this doesn’t cover the spectrum of whether one is pro- or anti- completely unfettered free market capitalism, guns, complementarianism or egalitarianism in marriage, death penalty, “the war on terror”, etc. but these are only piffling little details.

    Genuinely, I am afraid that the term has been reduced down to mean anything solely to do with sexual liberation – are you agin it or not?

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Another problem is that dominionism seems to be a fantasy system used to couple a fairly small and cohesive group of way-out-there people (Rushdoony, mostly) with anyone who thinks they are to vote according to the dictates of their religion. The people so accused don’t see themselves as holding common views.

    I’d just like to repeat from the latter part of the older thread that the Atlantic article on the prayer rally/meeting cites the specific scriptures quoted by Perry though it gives no context for them. (And a bit of web nerdishness: shouldn’t an online article hot-link to those passages in some reasonably well-known online bible?)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sorry, Grumpy, short Wiki citations are not going to cut it.

    We need a solid theological definition that helps us cover the people assembled for The Response, not a single sentence that you can apply to just about anyone with whom you disagree.

  • Dave

    What Martha said. It won’t be applicable if it’s one’s only conservative moral posture, but will if it goes along with a constellation I need not waste bandwidth repeating.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Interesting that the LA Times has upgraded the numbers from 15000+ to 30000+, as they published in an earlier article. There was also a claim I read somewhere that “hundreds of thousands” more watched by satellite broadcast. Sorry, I can’t find the source for that claim right now; maybe I imagined it.

    The Fort Worth Star-Telegram basically updated the pre-event article I linked yesterday, and does include a claim that the event was simulcast at 1000 locations in all 50 states. I’m not a professional journalist, but it seems like a decent article, with lots of quotes from both sides. Dave Montgomery is getting a fan letter from me. We like to encourage the Startlegram when we can. :-)

    Odd the LA Times mentioned Hagee, famously anti-Catholic, who was, apparently, at the event with Sam Brownback, famously Catholic, which dissonance was not noted. I would have cornered both of them, preferably together, and talked about that apparent dissonance. That would make a fun read.

    Bishop Yanta is also an interesting character, having written a stern letter protesting President Obama at Notre Dame.

  • Daniel

    In fact, Fundamentalists of my acquaintance will generally call themselves “Fundamental”, leaving the -ist off; journalists who make reference to this branch of Christianity should probably leave the -ist off as well to make proper use of the term. In other words, adherents do not so much proclaim themselves as believing in “fundamentalism,” as identify themselves as being members of a Fundamental church! Thus any user of this word “fundamentalist” in general usage is more likely to get it wrong than to get it right!

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com matt

    I heard NPRs coverage of the event on my way to church this morning. I thought it was informative and interesting. I liked that they interviewed participants in the stands.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Matt:

    URL please for that NPR report?

  • Cliff M.

    To respond your claim that the AP stylebook offers “wise and historically accurate advice” re: fundamentalism:

    Good thing historians don’t have to live by this AP rule. There are many noted historians who believe that “fundamentalist” can and should be used sometimes to describe even those who do not self-identify as “fundamentalist.”

    Historians, including evangelicals like George Marsden often use the term in a rather generic way and prefer the term “separatist fundamentalists” to refer to those individuals and groups that likely self-identify as “fundamentalist”

    Marsden sometimes uses the language of “fundamentalistic” to refer to those “militant” evangelicals – like Southern Baptist leaders – who are not separatist fundamentalists.

  • Jerry

    Sorry, Grumpy, short Wiki citations are not going to cut it.

    Terry, there is no post by Grumpy with a wikipedia citation in this topic. If you removed that post, you should have not replied as you did because it’s confusing at best.

    There are 749,000 web pages that turn up on a search for Dominionist (dominionism). And the Wikipediapage is quite extensive which adds to my confusion which resulted from the reply without the original post.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    I spiked it because he took one snippet of the Wiki post out of context, to fit his vague, political, meaningless concept of the term.

    The Wiki site does include some of the specifics needed for discussion.

    As you know, GR does not believe that discussions of religious issues and religious terms is best served by turning them into vague, mushy political discussions.

    As I said, there may have been one or two Dominionists at The Response. I do not know. I do know the LAT piece offered no information that would justify that label, defined in terms of religious doctrines (in other words, information related to the beliefs of people who actually are Dominionists).

    The LAT piece, as stressed, clearly abused “fundamentalist.” There was no need to add another layer of abused vocabulary.

    Also, I am on the road — as everyone knows — and have limited access to wifi, etc. As I said, comments threads may suffer just a bit due to this.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CLIFF:

    I know Marsden’s work. I am absolutely positive that he does not use “fundamentalists” to describe Catholics, charismatics and mainstream evangelicals.

    Also, WHICH SBC leaders are you talking about? They are not all alike, you know. Some fit historic definitions of “fundamentalists.” Many do not.

    Clarity is a journalistic virtue.

  • Cliff M.

    In Fundamentalists and American Culture, Marsden writes that “In the South, in Holiness and Pentecostal movements, and in immigrant denominations, pietistic traditions were often reshaped by fundamentalist example and influence.

    He argues that “fundamentalistic” remains a useful adjective to describe many groups “touched by the fundamentalist experience” who now reject the “fundamentalist” label.

    Marsden goes on to emphasize that separatists (who he describes as being mainly “dispensationalists”) were only one wing of the fundamentalist “movement”

    More from Marsden:

    Even though “evangelicalism” represented a broad and diverse coalition, most of those who used “evangelical” as their primary self-identification were from groups that had some direct fundamentalist heritage. Such “card-carrying” evangelicals, as we may call them, included a more militant or “fundamentalistic” wing, which typically emphasized the inerrancy of Scripture, and perhaps premillennialism, as among the tests of the faith, but were not strict ecclesiastical separatists as were those who actually called themselves “fundamentalists.”

    …It would be more accurate to say that the Religious Right as a political movement has attracted many separatist fundamentalists and “fundamentalistic” evangelicals. “Fundamentalistic” is here used in about the same way as “fundamentalist” was used in the 1920s: as referring to a broader coalition of militant evangelical Christians drawn from all sorts of denominations.

    Surely there are instances (not this one) when using “fundamentalist” or maybe even “fundamentalistic” is the more historically accurate way of describing an individual or group who does not self-identify as fundamentalist?

    Historians recognize clarity as a virtue too.

  • Richard H.

    Also, though it’s a “minor” point, the bit about Joel is botched: “… the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited…”

    Joel is a person, and a prophet. The Book of Joel is a book of prophecy, and since it is short, it is traditionally called a “minor” book of prophecy, or Minor Prophet. But there is nothing minor about the person Joel.

    So it could have been correct to say “the Book of Joel, a Minor Prophet which he cited…” or “the book of Joel, named for the prophet whom he cited…”

    But what was written makes no sense.

  • katy

    Here are the links . …

    Taken down after input from the sender.


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