The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

Another win for vague “fundamentalism”

I have been mulling over a Los Angeles Times story about Iran for several days. I get stuck on something like this every now and then. I used to work on a copy desk.

Once again, I am upset about that troublesome word “fundamentalist” being used in a way that leaves it totally undefined. Here, for example, is the headline for the online version of reporter John Daniszewski’s report from Tehran: “Iran’s Runner-Up Puts Fundamentalists in Race.”

Then we have the first two paragraphs.

TEHRAN — From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country’s supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.

Forget the outcome of the election for a minute or other recent developments. Just focus on the words. It would appear that “reformers” is the doctrinal word that is the mirror image of “fundamentalists.” Yet “fundamentalist” is defined, by context, as someone with a “fierce attachment to Islam.”

What am I missing? So, essentially, anyone who is unusually devoted to Islam is a “fundamentalist” and some who is not all that devoted is a “reformer”? So the word “fundamentalist” is bad, since it is against reform. Reform is good, since it involves a lack of strong belief in the historic doctrines of a particular faith?

“Fundamentalist” Catholic vs. “reform” Catholic? “Fundamentalist” Protestant vs. “reform” Protestant? “Fundamentalist” Anglicans vs. “reform” Episcopalians? This has all kinds of implications, doesn’t it?

So the goal of American policy — or at least the reporters covering it — is to prevent the rise of “fundamentalists” in the Islamic world and to encourage the “reformers” who are not as devout? What do Islamic religious leaders think of that? Maybe we don’t want to know the answer to that question.

Meanwhile, let us again meditate on these fading words 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.

UPDATE: Election results are in. He won.

Newsweek takes a stab at Intelligent Design

DNA.jpgIt’s time for another one of those posts that begins with a disclaimer.

One of the hot Godbeat stories right now is the free speech controversy involving the science establishment and the rowdy band of intellectual rebels who promote what they call “Intelligent Design.” I have not written about this much because, for more than a decade, the patriarch of this movement — Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson — has been a friend. As a result, I have only written a few columns on the subject and then only in cases when the focus of the story was very narrow and I ran the ideas past my editor first.

As a rule, the mainstream press divides these “evolution” wars into two camps.

On one side are the real scientists in the evolution establishment. It is interesting to note that many in this camp call themselves “theistic” evolutionists, even though this implies some role for a God or gods in creation. Thus, they do not believe that, in a classic statement of Darwinian orthodoxy: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process which did not have him in mind.” In a strict academic battle, the term “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron.

On the other side are “Creationists” who sell fake science. They range from true fundamentalists to, strangely enough, people who believe in the gradual evolution of species over time, but believe there is scientific evidence — the kind that can be studied in a lab — that this process was too complicated to be random. These people want to see reporters draw a line between “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.”

On one level, this is a debate about a issue that has not been addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook, but may need to be. On another level, it is simply an issue of trying to offer fair and accurate coverage of two conflicting points of view in a complex and heated debate. It is hard to write news stories that warriors on both sides are going to embrace as accurate, as opposed to favorable. The goal is for leaders on both sides to be able to read a story and say, “My words and point of view were reported accurately.” The goal is a fair fight.

Reporter Jerry Adler’s “Doubting Darwin” feature in Newsweek gets many parts of this debate right. It contains lively quotes from the usual suspects who say the usual things. But major problems arise, right in the lead:

When Joshua Rowand, an 11th grader in Dover, Pa., looks out from his high school, he can see the United Church of Christ across the street and the hills beyond it, reminding him of what he’s been taught from childhood: that God’s perfect creation culminated on the sixth day with the making of man in his image. Inside the school, he is taught that Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years from a series of predecessor species in an unbroken line of descent stretching back to the origins of life. The apparent contradiction between that message and the one he hopes someday to spread as a Christian missionary doesn’t trouble him. The entire subject of evolution by natural selection is covered in two lessons in high-school biology. What kind of Christian would he be if his faith couldn’t survive 90 minutes of exposure to Darwin?

This is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that this local United Church of Christ must be a very, very unusual congregation in this most liberal of all oldline Protestant denominations. These are not churches that are known for cranking out young six-day Creationists, or even missionaries, for that matter.

This lead also gives the impression that leaders of the ID movement do not want schools to offer traditional lessons about evolution. This is not the case. If anything, the “teach the controversy” model advocated by Johnson and his associates want to see educators expand their lessons to include some of the hot and even bitter debates inside some of the various Darwinian camps. The goal is to discuss the kinds of gaps and puzzles that scientists get to talk about in places such as China, where no one has to be afraid of raising the God question at all.

This leads to another key point. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone inside the big ID tent — there are lively debates and disagreements inside this flock, as well — say that public schools should teach anything that is not rooted in open debate about the interpretation of traditional scientific research. Even if ID thinkers proved that the information contained in DNA codes was too complex to have been the product of a random, materialistic process, this would not prove in a scientific sense that any kind of higher power was involved. The goal is free speech about scientific issues in the public square.

Here is an example of a faith statement that cannot be proven in a lab: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Of course, the televangelist who made that statement was Dr. Carl Sagan. Traditional religious believers have also been known to make similar statements that cannot be nailed down with data. This is not the stuff of public-school textbooks.

I could make a few more observations about Adler’s fascinating report, but let me conclude with this. Near the end, one parent is quoted as saying: “I don’t know what to believe. … I just want my child to go to heaven.” Adler writes: “Well, so does the pope, but the Vatican has said it finds no conflict between Christian faith and evolution.”

Once again, this raises questions. For, you see, that is not what Pope John Paul II said. Here are some of the crucial quotes from the pope on this issue:

“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. …

“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.”

Note that the pope said theories — plural. There are conflicts within these theories. Most of all, John Paul clearly rejected the position that creation was the result of — to cite one wording — an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process … that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” This is a problem, since this is how the National Association of Biology Teachers has defined evolution.

A scientific theory, according to John Paul, only “proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts. When it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised.”

Amen. Journalists need to get their quotes right, if they are going to cover these debates. It is time to update some of our language and many of our stereotypes.

Creeping Fundamentalism XII: Private-school sins

HardlyboysLet me join the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc in praising the 1,400-word essay by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times that used the word “fundamentalism” 15 times without veering into the cheap-shot territory that earns reporters a note in our Creeping Fundamentalism files. Let all the people say, “amen,” or “bravo,” or whatever.

At the same time, I hereby move to nominate another story for Creeping Fundamentalism status, even though it is rather old by now. It’s from the Dallas Morning News and it did not show up on my radar earlier, in part, because it was in the hard news pages and not in the religion section. That says something about how hard it is even make a dent in reading all of the major stories that are out there that we need to read while chasing our ghosts.

Reporter Kent Fischer’s story ran under the headline “Gay student forced to leave school.” But before we look at that report, let us turn once again to that familiar passage in the Associated Press Stylebook.

There you will find this wisdom: “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.”

Let me note a few interesting word choices in this story. First of all there is the lead: “Three weeks ago an 18-year-old honor student at Trinity Christian Academy was cruising toward graduation. He had already been accepted to a prestigious university, and the final months of high school seemed a mere formality.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I would have avoided the word “cruising.”

Fischer’s story notes that the anonymous student — since named in reports in gay media and elsewhere — was a varsity athlete, thespian, journalist and student leader at a “fundamentalist private school.” However, he was forced out of school when administrators learned that he had created a website for young gays and lesbians to chat, hook up and exchange photos. Then, in “a matter of days, the student, who is gay, went from prized student to sinner outcast.”

We are told that he violated the student code. We are not, however, given the part of the code that he violated. Perhaps the school declined to provide this text. If the school does not have a fully detailed code that clearly states moral teachings for its students, then the school is really asking for trouble. Here is the money quote:

Today, the student attends high school in Plano, and students, teachers and administrators at Trinity Christian are left debating whether forcing the withdrawal of a popular lifelong student was the “Christian” thing to do. The case also shines a light on the moral culture clash with which private fundamentalist schools are increasingly wrestling.

The other use of the f-word is when Fischer notes that: “Those who work with gay teens say the expulsion of gay students from private fundamental school is quite common.” It seems there is something missing from this sentence. It could have been “from a private fundamental school” or “from private fundamentalist schools.” It’s hard to tell.

Either way, the report offers no indication whatsoever that the word “fundamentalist” has any specific content of meaning. This is interesting, in a newspaper published in Dallas, a city in which there are more than a few Baptists and other evangelicals who know the precise meaning of “fundamentalist” and probably would have answered their telephones. Maybe they were busy.

The News report does contain some useful information about this high-profile issue in private schools. First of all, a gay-rights lawyer does note that the private school was acting within its legal rights. He does not, however, note that this “freedom of association” for members of religious groups is precisely the same right that would protect, well, gay and lesbian groups. Religious groups have a right to define and defend their doctrinal and moral standards — especially when a student and his or her family signs the document.

Readers are also told about a national network that lobbies on behalf of gay students trapped in religious schools. We are not told about any corresponding groups on the other side of the issue, other than Christian-school professionals. It also would have been nice if Fischer had noted, when describing how school administrators declined to discuss aspects of this case, that they could not discuss these matters without violating privacy laws.

One more comment on this “fundamentalist” school. Its website shows it is backed by accreditation groups that are not, as a rule, associated with true “fundamentalist” or “Bible school” groups. Also, I could not help but notice that the school has a football team and a marching band. It is my observation that truly fundamental, separatist schools rarely draw a large enough student body to maintain competitive programs in sports and the arts. They tend to be small fortresses. I suspect, in fact, that many, many of the students at this school are from families that are not very conservative, when it comes to church practice. This tends to create interesting social problems.

But that is another news story. If the Dallas Morning News decides to cover it, I hope the reporters and editors that work on it will avoid making fundamental errors.

Fundamentalism with a human face

grim preacher.jpgLaurie Goodstein of The New York Times has written a 1,400-word article that uses the word fundamentalism 15 times–and never in a way that qualifies her report for GetReligion’s Creeping Fundamentalism file of hysterical or misleading stories.

Goodstein has achieved something that really shouldn’t be so difficult for reporters who set their mind to it: Remembering one of the wisest sentences in The Associated Press Stylebook (“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself”).

These paragraphs by Goodstein are the best summary I’ve seen in a very long time in the major media of how fundamentalist is used too loosely in American discourse:

After the American presidential election in November, some liberal commentators warned that the nation was on the verge of a takeover by Christian “fundamentalists.”

But in the United States today, most of the Protestants who make up what some call the Christian right are not fundamentalists, who are more prone to create separatist enclaves, but evangelicals, who engage the culture and share their faith. Professor [Martin] Marty defines fundamentalism as essentially a backlash against secularism and modernity.

For example, at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C., students are not allowed to listen to contemporary music of any kind, even Christian rock or rap. But at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical school, contemporary Christian music is regular fare for many students.

Christian fundamentalism emerged in the United States in the 1920′s, but was already in decline by the 1960′s. By then, it had been superceded by evangelicalism, with its Billy Graham-style revival meetings, radio stations and seminaries.

The word “fundamentalist” itself has fallen out of favor among conservative Christians in the United States, not least because it has come to be associated with extremism and violence overseas.

To be sure, Americans sometimes apply the word too loosely to Muslims or Hindus, and it would be a huge mistake to insist that fundamentalism inevitably leads to violence. Maybe someday journalists will find as clear a definition of fundamentalism as seems to prevail in some academic circles. For today, thank God for Laurie Goodstein’s clear example of how good work can be done.

Who is a liberal? Yin and yang at GOP convention

rudy2004It’s political convention time again and, once again, it is time to offer kudos to two of the best sites in terms of the religious language and symbolism of this media event. As with the Democrats, the yin and the yang of Republican God-talk is being served up by Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman and Christianity Today blog maestro Ted Olsen.

Yesterday, Olsen offered up a lively contrast of the activities of the various “non-partisan” groups on the religious left and the religious right. (Another AP Stylebook aside: Why does it look strange to leave “religious right” lower case, yet “religious left” looks strange upper case?) The headline on this blog report was a classic: “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Ad Hominem Attacks.”

Don’t miss the coverage of the Family Research Council fortune cookies being handed out in New York. And there is this especially concise commentary on President Bill Clinton’s non-partisan sermon at Manhattan’s cathedral of the lifestyle left, Riverside Church:

Kevin Madden, spokesman for the Bush campaign, told the New York Daily News, “It’s astonishing that anyone would use a church pulpit to launch a baseless attack containing nothing but false accusations.”

Oh, come on. Bill Clinton accuses Republicans of only following nine of the Ten Commandments and of bearing false witness, and the best response you can come up with is that he’s misusing a pulpit?

On the other side of the aisle, sort of, Waldman has really come out of the blocks smoking in his convention blog. Some of the commentary is especially interesting in light of our recent discussions here at on the meaning of religious labels such as “fundamentalist.” Apparently, these kinds of issues are hotly discussed among the members of God’s Own Party. Check out this anecdote from the almost-Libertarian front lines:

Went to a party thrown by the estimable conservative magazine National Review. Spoke to a woman wearing an “I Only Sleep with Republicans” button.

“Hey, I thought Republicans advocated abstinence before marriage,” I said.

“That’s conservative Republicans,” she said.

Who says they don’t have a big tent?

There’s more. Political conventions are, these days, about as spontaneous as discussions of the morality of abortion in a meeting of the Political Science department at the University of California at Berkeley. In other words, most of the speeches and texts are carved in stone long before the spotlights are turned on.

But perhaps it is hard to make some of the Republican Party’s religious voices seek the soft, non-offensive hymns of the party elite. Many of our readers would be interested in the online dialogue that is taking place between Waldman and Dr. Marvin Olasky of World magazine about the policy implications of George W. Bush being “twice born,” while John Kerry has only been “born once.” This is one of those cases where the views of the two men should be read — instead of turned into quickie headlines.

And here is another choice Waldman anecdote from the pre-prime time podium action at the convention.

When I read the prepared text of the speech by Mississippi congressional candidate Clinton LeSueur, I saw the line “The foundation of this great nation is faith,” and thought there was nothing controversial in that. Chris Suellentrop at Slate listened to the actual speech, in which LeSueur declared instead: “The very foundation of this country is Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ.”

Go ahead, Cosmo and company, serve up your favorite one-liners about Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, I haven’t been paying that much attention to the convention for reasons that are obvious for anyone who can tune in the Weather Channel. Does anyone know how to put up metal hurricane shutters?

What I have seen so far has — surprise! — raised more questions for me about the way the mainstream media use certain loaded words. This time around, I am wondering what the word “moderate” means when applied to members of the Republican Party who are pro-abortion rights. As they march to the platform, commentators are noting that their presence is an attempt by the GOP to reach out beyond its “conservative” base and reach “moderate” voters.

I am confused and want to ask this question. If abortion on demand is the “moderate” position, what is the “liberal” position? For years, polls seem to indicate that the public is divided three ways on this most painful of issues. On one side is a camp of people who do not want to limit abortion in any way, even when dealing with the partial-birth procedure that some Democrats have compared with legal infanticide. On the right are the conservatives — fundamentalists, even — who want an outright ban with few, if any, exceptions. In between is the great muddy middle in the electorate that favors some legal restrictions.

But in public media, “moderate” means pro-abortion-rights — period. Those who favor any legal limits are “conservatives.”

Help me out here. Who are the “liberals”? What is the “liberal” position on abortion? Has anyone seen this perfectly honorable political term used lately, in the context of political issues linked to a debate about morality and culture?

The ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

ap_styleFundamentalism is like neoconservative. Its just a buzz word that lets the left know they are allowed to dislike someone. Nobody out there can really define neo-conservative. Similarly few people, especially on the left, can tell me what the central tenents of Fundamentalism are. When people start calling Catholics “fundamentalists”, then you know they don’t have a clue.
Posted by: Jeff the Baptist | August 27, 2004 02:10 PM

Amen. Preach it Jeff.

This issue of “experts” nailing the label “fundamentalists” on the foreheads of innocent people just drives me nuts as a religion writer. I remember decades ago, just as the Religious Right was springing to life in the wake of Jimmy Carter, reading a mainstream media reference to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “fundamentalist stance” on nuclear arms control. Say what?

So many people use this word as an all-purpose way of saying that someone is stupid. Fact is, I have met brilliant people who, accurately, could be described as Christian fundamentalists. And they don’t handle snakes. Some of them hold doctrates from presitigious academic operations in Europe and other smart zip codes.

The bottom line: When used in a Christian context — and you can make a case that this is the only context in which to use it — the term “fundamentalist” has specific doctrinal and even historical content.

But, first, may the journalists in our midst draw swords (this is an evangelical or fundamentalist cultural reference) and open their copies of the bible of deadline journalism. I refer, of course, to the Associated Press Stylebook. There you will find the following passage of authoritative material:

“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.”

In addition to that last sentence, it is important to note that AP takes the history of the word seriously.

The vague words in this reference are “strict, literal interpretations of Scripture.” I get the impression these days that there are legions of journalists who think that applies to anyone who clings to all of the Ten Commandments. True “fundamentalism” is a product of the early 20th Century, which means it certainly is not a word to describe people who are defending basic Christian doctrines and sacraments. Someone is not a “fundamentalist” simply because they believe in a creedal doctrine such as the Second Coming of Christ or that salvation is through Jesus alone. It is bad journalism to use the term in such a context.

So who were the first “fundamentalists”? You’d be surprised. Some of them were Anglicans and Presbterians and others mainliners who, today, are considered intelligent life forms by journalists. An essay posted at the simple — but informative — website called “Believe: Religious Information Source” notes:

Fundamentalism is a term popularly used to describe strict adherence to Christian doctrines based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. This usage derives from a late 19th and early 20th century transdenominational Protestant movement that opposed the accommodation of Christian doctrine to modern scientific theory and philosophy. With some differences among themselves, fundamentalists insist on belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the vicarious and atoning character of his death, his bodily resurrection, and his second coming as the irreducible minimum of authentic Christianity. This minimum was reflected in such early declarations as the 14 point creed of the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and the 5 point statement of the Presbyterian General Assembly of 1910.

A key phrase in that paragraph is “some differences among themselves.”

Whereas centuries of Christian believers had believed in, again, the Second Coming, different schools of thought among fundamentalists took this belief off into highly specific and often ideosyncratic directions. You can end up with mysterious symbols in the Book of Revelation turning into — literally — a prophecy of how many Israeli fighter jets can dance on the head of the Antichrist if the United Nations votes to do this or that. Classic Christian theology is often left behind.

Once again, the “Believe” site notes:

Two immediate doctrinal sources for fundamentalist thought were Millenarianism and biblical inerrancy. Millenarianism, belief in the physical return of Christ to establish a 1,000 year earthly reign of blessedness, was a doctrine prevalent in English speaking Protestantism by the 1870s. … The name fundamentalist was coined in 1920 to designate those “doing battle royal for the Fundamentals.” Also figuring in the name was The Fundamentals, a 12-volume collection of essays written in the period 1910-15 by 64 British and American scholars and preachers. Three million copies of these volumes and the founding of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919 gave sharp identity to fundamentalism as it moved into the 1920s.

It is also hard to talk about what “fundamentalists” believe about issues in moral theology, such as abortion or the sinfulness of sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Once again, the greatest minds of Christendom had addresses these issues over and over for nearly two millennia before the BIRTH of a movement called fundamentalism. Those interested in seeing examples can dig into various sites on the writings of the early Church Fathers (who were not all male).

There is this famous passage, for example, from the teachings of the “Didache.” It is certainly conservative. It is certainly traditionalist. But it is not — in any accurate sense of the word — “fundamentalist.” Fundamentalists did not exist in 70 A.D.

“The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1-2).

Creeping Fundamentalism II: Define “evangelical.” Give three examples

One of the hardest words to define in American religion is “evangelical.” Does the word have doctrinal content? Is it defined only by emotion and experience? In the mid-1980s, Billy Graham told me that he had no idea what that word meant to most of the people who were using it.

Clearly, the press stuggles with this, too. For some, an “evangelical” is a fundamentalist with a good PR agent. Along that line of thinking, a friend sent me a fascinating reference from U.S. News and World Report.

“Bush’s natural flaws are coming to the surface,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “He believes the public wants a president who is steadfast, who’s unbending about his principles. But the public really wants someone who’s realistic, and Bush seems to have unrealistic goals — on the economy, on Iraq. The public actually prefers someone who shifts course if it’s warranted.”

Adds Dallek: “It’s not that Bush is a liar. It’s that his judgment is not good. What you’re dealing with here is a guy who rushes to judgment, who is driven by evangelical principles.”

[Read more...]