Falwell’s 2014 Liberty: ‘Fundamentalist Baptist’ university?

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Here at GetReligion, the “F-word” always catches our attention.

I’m referring, of course, to fundamentalist.

It’s a loaded word that can carry a negative connotation when applied to religious groups or institutions.

The Associated Press Stylebook — “the journalist’s bible” — contains this entry:

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 brings us to a Washington Post story this week on former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell taking a part-time teaching job at Liberty University.

From that story:

McDonnell began the job this semester by giving a few lectures at the fundamentalist Baptist college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007. He will resume the lectures in the fall, making six to eight appearances per semester, said Johnnie Moore, a senior vice president at the school.

Here’s the question — actually, two questions: Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty officially Baptist?

In an email thread among your inquiring-mind GetReligionistas, editor tmatt noted:

Well, Liberty grew out of an independent Baptist church.

Also, another complication, was that Falwell proudly claimed the F-word. He would discuss the fundamentals of the faith — historically speaking — and then check them off one at a time saying, yes, yes, that’s me, yes, yes, etc. So does that still apply to the school?

That prompted this response from the former GetReligionista who raised the questions:

Very good points….though ap says to only use it when self-applied, which I don’t see the school doing anymore. Historically, maybe.

A Southern Baptist friend said he still considers Liberty a Baptist institution. Fundamentalist? Not so much.

Liberty’s own website describes itself as “the largest Christian university in the world.”

Interestingly, the Post did not use the fundamentalist label in a long report last year on Liberty’s transformation into “an evangelical mega-university with global reach.” The only reference to Baptist was at the beginning in a description of “the small Baptist school” that Falwell founded in 1971.

Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty Baptist? 

The fact that we have to ask suggests that the Post needs to apply more care — and more explanation — in using those terms.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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