Calvin the Fundamentalist and other General Synod myths

Monday’s vote by the General Synod to allow women bishops has put the Church of England onto the front pages of the world’s press. News reports and commentary from around the globe have weighed on this development giving voice to a variety of opinions. Some of this reporting has been quite good, most of it average, while a few pieces have fallen short.

The Huffington Post‘s piece contained two errors of note. At the end of the piece the article confused the numbers for the Church of England for the wider Anglican Communion. A correction subsequently noted:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that the Church of England has 80 million members in more than 160 countries. Those are the figures for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

A minor slip, but the second raised questions as to whether the Huffington Post followed the debate, or recycled information it had gleaned from second hand sources. The article stated:

Like the vote that year, more traditional Anglicans, including evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, argued in front of the synod that having women as bishops would go against the teachings of Jesus. If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles, some of the traditionalists said.

By my reckoning, of the almost 100 speakers in the day, only one (lay delegate Jane Bisson from the Diocese of Winchester) raised the issue: “If Jesus intended women to be among the top church leaders, he would have had a woman among the Twelve Apostles.” The overwhelming majority of voices opposed to the change in church teaching couched their arguments around the Apostle Paul’s teachings on “headship” and the role of women in church assemblies — with arguments from tradition running second. Check for yourself.

Summarizing the arguments against women bishops along the “Jesus intended” line does a disservice to the debate in Synod and across the church. Painting the opponents of women bishops as Biblical-literalists is lazy reporting.

An otherwise excellent news analysis piece in The Guardian also makes this error — but this time John Calvin is the “fundamentalist” in question.

Calvin was not a fundamentalist. The Guardian Style Guide does not contain an entry for “fundamentalist.” However, as noted many times here at GetReligion, the Associated Press Stylebook makes this observation:

 “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.

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

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:

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Chuck Smith, fundamentalism and (yes) the AP stylebook

Readers who have been following this weblog through the years are probably familiar with the following passage in the Associated Press Stylebook. We’ve been dealing with it since the earliest days of GetReligion’s existence (click here for one ancient example).

Yes, we are talking about the “fundamentalist” label. That’s the familiar F-word that philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once explained is a common term of emotional abuse, a semi-curse, among academics (and I would argue, far too many mainstream journalists).

To be blunt, “fundamentalist” means “sonofabitch” or in Southern slang “sumbitch.” A common variation is “fascist sumbitch.”

“(There) is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ ”

However, the AP stylebook takes a more cautious and accurate approach to this hot-button historical term. Faithful GetReligion readers should be able to recite this by now:

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.

Alas, there are competing approaches in other journalism scriptures. This brings us to The New York Times and its recent obituary for the Rev. Chuck Smith, one of the most important figures in the rise of a new brand, a new style of charismatic-Pentecostal Christian faith in the second half of the 20th Century. The appropriate headline: “Chuck Smith, Minister Who Preached to Flower Children, Dies at 86.”

The top of the story, unfortunately, stacks one religious label on top of another, like someone was trying to throw journalistic spaghetti against the wall hoping that something would stick. Some of these labels are accurate and some are not.

The Rev. Chuck Smith, a Southern California minister who shepherded flower children and rock ’n’ roll into the conservative wing of the evangelical movement while building a religious organization that grew to encompass 700 congregations and hundreds of radio stations, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was lung cancer, said a spokesman for Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the flagship church of Mr. Smith’s worldwide Calvary Chapel federation.

Though lesser known than evangelical leaders like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. James C. Dobson, Mr. Smith was influential for his liturgical innovations, for the cultivation of a new generation of prominent preachers and for the introduction of pop culture into the evangelical movement’s vernacular. His amalgam of fire-and-brimstone theology and avuncular charm made him a successful if unlikely Christian fundamentalist ambassador to the youth culture of the late 1960s. He predicted the end of the world and condemned drug use, sex out of wedlock, abortion and homosexuality while serving as pastor to a hippie tribe known as the Jesus Movement.

Yes, it doesn’t help that the Times — in one of the most common journalism mistakes of the age — turns Dr. James Dobson into an ordained minister. Click here for Douglas LeBlanc’s classic GetReligion post on that subject: “That’s Dr. Dobson to you, punks.”

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An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

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BBC: Another generic, mysterious ‘honor killing’ (updated)

This time the bloody honor killing took place in a public place, for all to see — outside the Lahore High Court. The short BBC report noted:

Police said 30-year old Farzana Bibi died on the spot after being attacked with bricks and sticks. Her father handed himself in, but police say her brothers and former fiance, who also took part in the attack, were still free. …

Farzana Bibi’s parents accused her husband, Muhammad Iqbal, of kidnapping her, and had filed a case against him at the High Court. However, she testified to police that she had married him of her own accord. Police said the couple had been engaged for a number of years.

Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:

Under Pakistani law, the victim’s family is allowed to forgive the killer. However, in many cases family members are themselves responsible for the killing.

And what legal system forms the foundation of Pakistani law? What, for example, has been the root cause for the headline-generating Pakistan cases in which believers in a minority faith, usually Christianity, are accused of apostasy against the faith at the heart of the nation’s government and culture?

(By the way, the Associated Press included — in its lede — another detail BBC missed or omitted, the fact that Bibi was pregnant at the time she was murdered.)

There is no need to dwell on the Islamic element of this crime and it would be wrong to suggest that all Muslims in Pakistan, and elsewhere, practice, accept or ignore “honor killings.” In fact, a Washington Post report on this same crime did an excellent job of including the essential details. For example:

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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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NYTimes offers labels-free look at key free-speech fight

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

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.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

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Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘fundamentalism’

When it comes to religious terms, you would be hard pressed to find a word more misapplied by the media than “fundamentalist.”

As your GetReligionistas have stressed a gazillion times, that is why the term has its own cautious entry in the Associated PRess Stylebook:

“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.”

Alas, whenever this term is used by the media, you can be assured that it’ll have almost nothing in common with its original meaning.

Here’s how we got the term: In the early 1900s a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism — including the mainstream Protestant churches — in reaction to liberal theology and the form of Biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. A series of articles was written and collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals which was intended to outline the key doctrines, the “fundamentals”, of the Christian faith. The movement eventually moved away from its intellectual roots, though, and by the end of World War II it had receded from the culture at large.

Nowadays, though, the term “fundamentalist” has become synonymous with just about any strict conservative stance in any religion or ideology. Once again, it pays to remember that the AP stylebook notes that it has “taken on a pejorative connotations” and advises avoiding it unless a group applies it to themselves.

Unfortunately, that suggestion is rarely followed and the label is applied in seemingly contradictory ways. Take, for example, the title of a report an ABC New’s Nightline: ‘Modern Polygamy: Arizona Mormon Fundamentalists Seek to Shed Stereotypes.’

The story contrasts a group of “1,500 fundamentalist Mormons” living in Centennial Park, Ariz. with another group of nearby polygamists, “the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followers, or FLDS, the group led by self-described prophet Warren Jeffs.” There’s no indication the Centennial Park polygamists call themselves fundamentalists so why use the term to compare them with a group that does?

The “stereotype” referred to in the title is that Mormon polygamy is repressive to women:

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