Breaking news: Rick Perry prays

When I first read about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming prayer event, I thought “Meh, PR event. Who cares?” Little did I realize that the media would freak out over it.

Today’s the big day, and even though Perry is not speaking at the public, it’s gained him quite the media attention. It’s hard to know why the coverage has gotten out of control.

People are protesting, but that’s a nice way for them to get automatic media attention, right? It’s specifically Christian, but it’s not paid with taxpayer money, right? Perry might run for president, but a lot of people are running for president, right? Someone please help me understand the news value of this event, because we are seeing some embarrassing media coverage come out of this.

Let’s start with NPR (bolded phrases are my own to illustrate some loaded language).

While the governor claims it’s nothing more than a Christian prayer rally, the event has touched off a holy war among critics, who claim it is Jesus-exclusive and political.

Then there’s some misinformation.

Among prominent religious leaders expected to speak: James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Um, did you miss the memo that Dobson left Focus and started his own show? Oh yes, there’s a correction at the top, but it illustrates that the reporter must be new to religion coverage.

The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes the AFA as a hate group because of its fierce anti-gay agenda.

Does the Southern Poverty Law Center actually set the standard for hate groups? What are some examples that they cite?

The Associated Press leads off with some vague description of Perry’s own religious views.

Openly and deeply religious, Texas Gov. Rick Perry organized what seemed like a slam-dunk event for a politician in a state where religion and politics walk hand in hand: He would fill Houston’s Reliant Stadium with fellow believers in a seven-hour session of Christian atonement by some of the nation’s most conservative preachers, exhorting believers to pray about the nation’s moral decline.

Um, how is he openly and deeply religious? Where does he attend church?

The gathering could give the Texas governor a chance to further demonstrate his bona fides with the Republican Party’s social conservatives, who are being aggressively courted by several candidates already in the race. Others worry a rally of Christian fundamentalism, and one involving several controversial religious organizations, could alienate independent voters and conservatives who are more focused on economic issues.

So as long as you say “others worry,” then it’s okay to go against AP style on “fundamentalism”?

Locally, the Dallas Morning News published a piece with the headline, “Rick Perry says he doesn’t endorse extremists participating in prayer meeting.” I just assume that politicians attend lots and lots of functions and don’t necessarily endorse every one of them, but I missed the expectation here. Here’s the Houston Chronicle‘s piece:

Dubbed “The Response,” the all-day event is attracting an inordinate amount of attention, not only because of the governor’s presidential ambitions, but also because of his embrace of Christian groups and leaders known for their theocratic tendencies, fringe beliefs and intolerance toward nonbelievers.

Do any of the leaders coming to this event embrace theocracy? Or is this just because they oppose gay marriage and abortion (hardly fringe beliefs)? How do they act intolerant toward nonbelievers?

Noting that Perry himself has expressed the conviction that he is, perhaps, “called” to the presidency, they contend that the prayer event is prelude to his White House pilgrimage.

The reporter doesn’t explain the context of when he said he felt “called” to the presidency or that he walked back on that statement later (referencing how he can feel called by his mother). Do these supporters back him politically, or do they just support his idea of public prayer?

Perry’s own political alliance with fundamentalist pastors has its antecedents in ties forged some years ago.

So he hasn’t come into religious ties until recently (never explained further) but he forged the fundamentalist ties some years ago? Let’s review: Associated Press style says avoid the term fundamentalist.

The only person that the reporter finds to support him is a former aide. It’s like he is trying to only do a perfunctory attempt at “balance.” Surely someone can speak to larger role of public prayer in politics?

The same paper ran a much more calm, informative piece from Kate Shellnutt* (and, if you want to follow the prayer event, follow her live tweets and liveblog). Please let us know what you find in post-event coverage, the good, bad and ugly.

Update: To be clear, I don’t think the media should ignore this event. I just think the coverage has been overblown and poorly executed. *This post has been updated to correct Kate Shellnutt’s name. My apologies.

Pod people: Breivik a liberal Lutheran terrorist?

Sorry about the headline, I just couldn’t stop myself.

Actually, I don’t think that’s a good label for this loner and his unorthodox church-of-one approach to religion.

But stop and think about it for a minute. One of the only things we know about him, religion-wise, is that he chose to be baptized into the Church of Norway, which is a mainline form of Lutheranism and a state church that, for the most part, leans to the left in unity with its government. We also know that Anders Behring Breivik, by his own admission, is not a “personal Christian” (to use the Norwegian phrase) and that he is not a very religious person, implying that the basics of the faith are not essential to his life.

So he is a Lutheran who doesn’t claim a relationship with Jesus, nor does he believe the core tenets of orthodox Christianity. That would make him, uh, a Lutheran agnostic? A doctrinal liberal?

Actually, this just shows us that (a) his church identity is national and ethnic and (b) his church identity is not based in belief, practice and experience (unless facts emerge that say otherwise). It would be wrong to call him a liberal Lutheran. It would be wrong to call him a conservative Lutheran. The f-word? Forget it.

GetReligion podcast listeners will not be surprised that the “let’s label Breivik” discussion was still on my mind when we recorded the “Crossroads” episode for this week (click here to head straight to it or head on over to iTunes).

While we were recording this, it suddenly hit me that I had better warn listeners to brace themselves, to sit down and to prepare the be shocked. Why? I needed to praise the New York Times, more than once.

Now I need to do that again. The Times is still wrestling with coming up with a fair, fact-based ID for this terrorist. Here is the top of another story that offers another take on this:

OSLO – The prime minister of Norway acknowledged … that his country had fundamentally changed as a result of the attacks on a youth camp and government complex last week, but he vowed to protect the culture of openness that is a source of Norwegian pride.

The attacks have prompted officials to start reassessing Norway’s policy on public security, which seemed defined by a belief that bad things happen elsewhere. Anders Behring Breivik, a self-described Christian crusader who has admitted to the attacks, appeared to face few obstacles when he detonated a car bomb on a busy government plaza last Friday, killing 8 people, then traveled 19 miles and took a ferry to the youth camp on the island of Utoya, where he slaughtered at least 68 people.

You can see the editors distancing themselves from the label, right?

So Breivik is a “self-described” (yes, that’s one of the only facts we have) “Christian” (Church of Norway, on the books) “crusader.” Now that last word calls up all kinds of language in his manifesto and it also points toward the nature of his violence — what he views as a necessary war with Islam.

Frankly, this is one of the better labels that I have seen in the mainstream.

Meanwhile, we have to keep waiting for some hard facts, as journalists try to see what role religion played — if any — in his man’s political war on the political doctrine called multiculturalism.

Enjoy the podcast.

Skirting at edges of faith

I love to read stories about real people.

Even better, stories about people who hit rock bottom and find their way out of the pit appeal to me.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had just such a story over the weekend — filled with color, emotion and drama, not to mention s-e-x.

The top of the 1,200-word feature:

COLLEYVILLE — Lynn Kiselstein seemingly had it all — a big house, slick car, expensive clothes and a country club membership.

A stripper at clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas, she was rolling in cash.

“At first it was fun,” she said. “I was making money hand over fist, bought a Corvette, built a house and had the wedding of my dreams.”

But the job that afforded her luxuries also led her down a path of self-destruction, causing her to lose her home, marriage, possessions and self-worth.

Now 42, Kiselstein is working in a resale store in Irving and studying for her GED certificate thanks to help from We Are Cherished, a nonprofit that helps women get out of the sex industry by providing encouragement and resources.

Now, I have written a few stories along these lines in my career. In 2002, I did a profile for The Oklahoman on a former stripper’s bumpy road to ministry. In 2006, I did a feature for The Christian Chronicle on a minister’s escape from sexual addiction. In each case, the F-word — faith — played a starring role in the person’s transformation.

As I read the Star-Telegram story, my immediate suspicion was that religion was — or should be — a key element of this piece, too.

Sure enough, we find out pretty quickly that there’s a religious tie to the “nonprofit”:

She was released from jail in February and through a friend was led to the faith-based organization that is headquartered in the Cherished House in Colleyville. The house was donated by First Baptist Church Colleyville, which also provides financial support to the organization.

“We had dinner; they greeted us with gift bags. It was amazing,” said Kiselstein, who plans to eventually attend culinary school. “From the moment I walked in, it literally felt like arms were around me, but no one was standing next to me.”

The ministry is the brainchild of Polly Wright, 38, who is a member of the church.

So, we’ve got a faith-based organization. There’s a church involved. The dancer felt like “arms were around” her. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a spiritual reference.

Nevertheless, this story — purposely or not — skirts at the far edges of faith, its religion ghosts exposed for all the world to see.

We read about one of the ministry co-founders “selling her soul” to earn a ton of money dancing. We see a reference to “emptiness in her life” but never learn precisely how she filled it. She “became a Christian.” A “God thing” led her to meet the ministry’s co-founder. But it’s all very vague and antiseptic — as if really getting religion might make the story too real.

I love to read stories about real people.

But please enlighten me on what really makes them tick, even if it’s religion.

Those fundamentalist missionaries

You know those shoes with the little “TOMS” logo on the side that hip people tend to wear? They’re kind of loafer-like but for the cool kids. There was a mini-dust-up over the weekend when the founder of the shoe organization distanced himself from Focus on the Family, you know, that organization that James Dobson founded.

I’m an Atlantic fan, subscribing to the magazine and reading much of its web content, but I was fairly embarrassed to read this sloppy Atlantic Wire post on the debacle. It should be a basic aggregation of what all happened and who all is involved, but the post distracts with strange choices of words.

For background purposes, my Christianity Today cover story on the organization’s shift away from politics apparently prompted sites like Jezebel to ask why the shoe company is partnering with an “anti-gay, anti-choice” organization. The TOMS founder then distanced himself and Focus responded. With my reporting role, I take no position on TOMS and Focus and keep my opinions out of the discussion over who should have done what. Our job here is to spot good and bad journalism when it comes to religion.

The overarching story is pretty interesting, especially since TOMS’s founder is a Christian and Christians seemed to have a growing interest in the concept of shoes being sent to children for each pair sold. Unfortunately Rebecca Greenfield apparently takes her reporting cues from Jezebel when she writes her round-up.

The problems begin with the headline: “TOMS Wearers vs. Right Wing Christian Missionaries.” Since when would Focus on the Family be described as missionaries? The description missionaries doesn’t make any sense, since it’s usually used to describe religious groups sent into an area to do evangelism. Would employees of some Mormon organization be called missionaries, simply because Mormons send missionaries? It’s pretty unclear where the description missionaries originated.

The next problem is a basic mistake: she misspells Focus President Jim Daly’s name. Journalism 101. But we should also take a look at the loaded language in the rest of the post. I’ve bolded specific phrases.

In a statement posted on both Jezebel and his blog, he denied the partnership with the organization and expressed his regrets for speaking at their event, claiming he didn’t know the full extent of Focus on the Family’s anti-progressive beliefs

…Those against TOMS affiliation with the group are disappointed in the company for aligning itself with am extreme right-wing group. Mycoskie claims he didn’t know the extent of Focus on the Family’s fundamentalist beliefs.

…And even if they hate gays and science, shouldn’t they be able to do some good, too? They seem to be coming out ahead so far, if only because they, unlike TOMS, haven’t made any obvious PR blunders.

It’s hard to pin down an appropriate description for people, since “conservative” doesn’t always cut it, but apparently Focus is anti-progressive and extreme right-wing? That’s what we called loaded. And fundamentalist? Readers of this blog know that using “fundamentalist” is just…wrong, at least according to AP style. Finally, if you oppose gay marriage and don’t believe evolution happened, you hate gays and science? Regardless of what you believe about these things, that’s a stretch.

Again, I’m not defending anyone involved since we look closely at the words journalists use to cover religion. But The Atlantic could do better, even in aggregating.

Putting some info into ‘radical’

Once upon a time, it appeared that most mainstream journalists had rallied around the use of the word “Islamist” to describe the brand of Islam that has been linked to violence and terror around the world.

The key was that this was a version of Islam that was framed almost exclusively in terms of political power and the crushing of religious minorities, including, often, minorities and dissenters within Islam.

Alas, other journalists preferred to adapt the f-word from American Protestant history — that would be “fundamentalist” — to conflicts on the other side of the world involving believers who would never identify themselves with this term (while speaking languages that rarely if ever include a comparable term).

Some journalists liked the word “militant,” yet when using it they often fail to offer any hints whatsoever what these militants are choosing to be militant about. Ditto for the word “extremist.”

Now, it appears that “radical” Islam is on the rise. Here is the top of a typical Washington Post use of this new and, to my mind, unimproved label:

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said … that it had arrested a high-ranking army officer on suspicion of connections to a radical group, a rare public acknowledgment of possible ties between members of the country’s military and the extremist organizations it is battling.

The arrest comes amid rising concern that Pakistan’s military is penetrated by Islamists who are sympathetic to insurgent groups that have declared war on the state. Last month, heavily armed fighters stormed a naval base in Karachi, an attack widely suspected to have required inside help.

Actually, that reference contains more than one of these common and almost always meaningless buzz words.

So what content can readers cling to? The key is that the arrested radical insurgent Islamist extremist — one Brig. Ali Khan — is committed part of another organization with a specific political goal:

Khan allegedly was working with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical group that calls for the overthrow of governments in Muslim lands and the installation of an Islamic caliphate. The group claims to be nonviolent but has been tied to militant organizations and is banned in Pakistan.

That’s all the reader is going to get, when it comes to attaching any factual content to this cloud of vague terms.

So here is my question: How many ordinary newspaper readers understand the meaning and the significance of the pivotal term “Islamic caliphate”? I mean, other than Glenn Beck listeners? A little dose of laugh-to-keep-from-crying irony there.

This is a term with precise content. Period.

At this point, all the Post team really needs is a tiny dose of history and one or two sentences of content about practical issues in daily life — treatment of women, blasphemy laws, status of religious minorities — to do the brave, rare thing, which is printing content and not mere labels.

So here is my question: In the context of Pakistan, what issues are key (other than the life-and-death debates over blasphemy)? In other words, if you were going to use the word “radical” in this way, what small doses of factual material would you use to define that term?

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.

Pod people: Talkin’ about the f-word

First of all, my apologies that this Crossroads podcast is arriving several days late. You see, some key members of your GetReligionista team have spend quite a bit of time on airplanes in the past week or so heading hither and yon (seeing snow on the ground as I went through the Denver airport really brought back some high-altitude memories for me).

So this is, truth be told, last week’s podcast — when the events in Egypt were much more fresh.

Still, I hope that you enjoy some additional discussion on the whole “what does fundamentalist actually mean” theme. This really is an important topic, especially when it comes to the interesting and important information in that recent Pew Research Center poll on religious and political attitudes in Arab Spring Egypt. Click here for the GetReligion post that opened that discussion.

Anyway, my interest in the poll led me to seek some clarification from the people behind this survey. As you will see, they chose to use an Arabic term in the survey that they — when jumping to English — translated as “fundamentalist.” It is a term that some Muslims have begun using when referring to “radicals” on the ultraconservative side of Islam.

But what groups fit under this umbrella? What are the doctrines associated with this term? Does anyone know? Not that I can discern.

So here is the end of my Scripps Howard News Service column — Define fundamentalist, please — that followed up on on the overarching issue, which is the cloud of acidic fog that now surrounds the word “fundamentalist.” This long slice focuses on the actual Pew data:

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report.

“About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances meshes easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life – a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for “fundamentalist,” Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of “very conservative Muslims,” according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn’t a “fundamentalist” in the context of Egypt today.

“For our Egypt survey, the term ‘fundamentalist’ was translated into Arabic as ‘usuuli,’ which means close to the root, rule or fundamental,” he explained. “It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. … So that’s the word that we used.”

Oh, one other fun point about that column and this podcast.

In the column, I decided to use a classic quote from the great Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in which he offers a blunt view of what “fundamentalist” now means in the context of elite academia. For the wire service, this meant warning editors that my column contained the mild curse “sumbitch.” Why? Here’s Plantinga, in a longer version of the quote that I used:

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’.

On the podcast, enjoy my ex-Southern Baptist preacher’s kid reluctance to mangle the pronunciation of “sumbitch.” It’s not an academic word that I am used to using. Cheers.

When French fundamentalists attack

The photographic image accompanying this post is not the work of Andres Serrano with which newspaper readers would almost certainly be familiar. However, I cannot seem to convince myself that I need to put a copy of that infamous work of modern religious or anti-religious art on this website on Good Friday. Sue me.

However, as you will see, this quiet picture of a nun — entitled “The Church” — is also at the heart of a Guardian story that serves as yet another perfect lesson in how not to use the word “fundamentalist” in a news report.

Here is the top of this hot-button story from the world of art, to provide some context:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion.

Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon.

The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year. It also marks a return to an old standoff between Serrano and the religious right that dates back more than 20 years, to Reagan-era Republicanism in the US.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The attack was illegal and, while the work offends a great many people (including me), in a free society the solution to disputes about private (as opposed to tax-payer funded) art is supposed to be more freedom for other artists, not violence. That said, I would say that some protesters at this exhibit — not the attackers — were onto something when they muttered that the museum would not appreciate it if they offered to create a similar work of art by immersing a copy of the Koran or “The Diary of Anne Frank” in a container of urine.

However, the journalistic point for me is, once again, the use of a doctrinal label from Protestantism in the context of a dispute between a liberal, sort-of-Catholic artist (see this 1991 interview with Serrano) and other Catholics who are offended by some of his work. What precisely is a “French Catholic fundamentalist”?

Another point: What do journalists actually know about the doctrinal beliefs of the attackers, as opposed to the Catholic traditionalists behind the other protests? Do we know if there is a organizational link at work here? And if we are dealing with violent Catholics offended by the profaned image of the crucifix, why attack this other image of the nun (other than the identity of its creator)? What, precisely, is the doctrine at work here?

One more time, for the record, here is the Associated Press Stylebook’s wisdom on when to use and when not to use the loaded “fundamentalist” label, which has turned into a meaningless linguistic club with which to pound a wide variety of believers (not just Protestants who hold the doctrines linked to the term):

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.

Then again, perhaps the journalists behind this report simply could control themselves as they did their work. After all, the online version of this article now ends with the following oh-so-sweet correction. Folks, you just can’t make this up:

This article was amended on 19 April 2011. The original referred to the Senator Jesse Helms as Jesse James. This has been corrected.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

IMAGE: Andres Serrano, The Church (Soeur Jeanne Myriam, Paris), 1991


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