10 years of GetReligion: Labels, labels, labels, labels!

It is my understanding that there was some kind of Jerry Springer-esque debate last night between young-earth creationist Ken (hello dinosaurs) Ham and Bill (The Science Guy) Nye.

Let me state up front that I am not terribly interested in what either man had to say.

However, I am curious to know if any of the thousands of religion-beat pros who live and move and have their being on Twitter can answer the following questions:

(1) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “creationist” defined? Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

(2) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “evolution” defined? If so, was the process described as being “mindless, unguided, and without purpose or goal” or words to that effect?

Also, was anyone involved in the debate whose viewpoint resembles the following?

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

And also:

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

These words, of course, were spoken by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Which simplistic term commonly used in mainstream articles about these debates — “creationism” or “evolution” — is best used to describe this soon-to-be-official saint’s perspective on God, man and creation? Which label, as commonly used by way too many journalists, deserves to be stuck on the forehead of John Paul the Great?

If there is one thing that your GetReligionistas do not like, at all, it is the degree to which the mainstream press accepts the use of vague, simplistic labels. Want to imply that you accept someone? Then call them a “moderate” (like that crucial New York Times self study noted). Want to imply that someone is stupid? Then you know what F-word to pin on them.

This works with all kinds of labels — political, cultural and religious. Does the term “conservative” or “right wing” imply that a person is racist? As in:

In the world of social media, that infamous MSNBC tweet led to the whole #MyRightWingBiracialFamily phenomenon linked to this Super Bowl ad.

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This dust-up led veteran religion-beat pro Cathy Grossman to opine:

That’s the problem with labels. Words such as “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Ultra-orthodox” and “Fundamentalist” have all been torn from their original anchors in meaning. Once they signified a coherent political viewpoint or a specific understanding of religious doctrine. Now, those words are thrown about as epithets.

To call a Christian a Fundamentalist today — even a person who believes in the five religious fundamentals that gave the term life — requires a note from your editor to justify use of the new F-word. Orthodox Jews who follow every letter of Torah law will still object to being called Ultra-Orthodox because it has political, cultural or social connotations.

Far from any ideological or theological front, why should anyone be branded, politically or in any other way, for their cereal choice?

I don’t know, at this point I think I would accept use of the term “fundamentalist” when applied to people who actually embrace the Protestant doctrines that historically have fit under that doctrinal umbrella. Then again, one could always follow the wise advice in the Associated Press Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. … 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.”


It also helps when journalists seek out a variety of voices to take part in some of these debates, instead of settling for straw-person match-ups between the likes of Ham and Nye. I don’t know about you, but I’d appreciate it if the authorities at CNN or somewhere else in the mainstream media pulled of this broadcast.

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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.

  • tmatt

    WOW. It’s hard to write a post on journalism coverage of creation issues and get no responses at all.

    • Darren Blair

      At the time this was posted I was just getting back from an extended shopping trip that left me well behind on everything else today.

      One of my nieces wanted a specific My Little Pony figure for her birthday (Zecora the Zebra), and it took me several hours and visits to shops in three cities to finally find one (everybody had the other figures from her case assortment, but just not her).

      This was after spending part of last night going online to determine if the figure had even been released in the first place, as 9/10ths of the product stocked locally consists of the main six characters.

      I do believe that I put more effort into hunting down that one pony than half the religion writers at the NYT do on their articles.

    • RayIngles

      Disqus logins haven’t been working very well for me for a couple weeks now.

      Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

      6 literal 24 hour days and 6,000 years and humans coexisting with dinosaurs and fire-breathing dragons(!) is Ken Ham’s entire thing. So yeah, ‘creationist’ works pretty darn well. Ken Ham uses the label himself, so it meets your A.P. usage criterion handily.

      Why ask if you’re not interested?

      It also helps when journalists seek out a variety of voices to take part in some of these debates

      The media didn’t arrange this debate.

  • Julia B

    I watched the debate and don’t know what to make of it. That’s really unusual for me. It just seemed like people talking past each other. I then went to YouTube to watch some of the edited atheist take-downs of creationists and then the edited diatribes by the creationists. I just think they have different views of reality.

    The Cheerios commercial was a real test of people’s perceptions – who was going to like it and who was going to hate it. Reminds me of the stuff I get from friends on FaceBook. People are so easily put into separate boxes.

    I am a member of two different FB pages for folks who grew up in East St Louis, IL. One is mainly black folks and the other is mainly white folks. We read each other’s pages and sometimes post on the other FB page. It turns out both groups have people who like pig snoots – shocker to the black folks. Also turns out that many of the black posters have done well in life which defies white expectations based on what they thought as kids growing up. It’s kind of a sociology experiment and I wish a sociologist would watch and write a book about it.

  • Julia B

    To answer one of your direct questions – No, I never heard a definition of “creationist” or “evolution.” And I kept thinking – Why get side-tracked onto the 6,000 year old earth business.? Is that the most important issue in this battle about “creationism”? It might be more interesting to see a debate that included reference to Ong’s theories on “orality” and why the Iliad and the Bible were finally written down the way they were. Also – was the Bible dictated word for word as the Muslims think the Koran was? Why is this always portrayed as a science v religion problem? Maybe there’s more to it than that. Was the Old Testament, in particular, written as history as we think of it? When were histories begun to be produced as we think of them now? Etc. etc. etc. Lots more could be said about all this beyond science v. religion.