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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WWROD? Another stab at defining the word ‘evangelical’

Long ago, I asked the Rev. Billy Graham a question that I really thought he, of all people, would be able to answer.

The question: What does the word “evangelical” mean?

As I have reported several times, the world’s most famous evangelist tossed the question right back at me:

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

So, a few months ago, I asked the Rev. Rick Warren — one of today’s most high-profile evangelicals — the same question. And his response?

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren. …

(Cue: audible sigh)

Needless to say, this is an issue that has been discussed many times here at GetReligion, where we continue to argue that — damn the postmodernism, full speed ahead — journalists should attempt to use words precisely. On the religion beat, words with links to history and doctrine really matter. Words have meanings.

So, how are journalists supposed to know what “evangelical” means, since it is almost impossible to avoid using it these days?

This is a battle and, lucky for us, the other day someone asked this question to Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling, over at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

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Missing some fundamental facts on Obama and faith

A week or so ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about the survey research indicating that secular and self-proclaimed liberal Americans are much more likely to be prejudiced against Mormon political candidates than are evangelical Protestants, the very folks that everyone has been worried about during the Mitt Romney campaign. That column opened like this:

With the White House race nearing an end, it’s time for America’s political pundits to face that fact that millions of voters will in fact be worried about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith on Election Day.

Many will be offended by what they believe are the intolerant, narrow teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on marriage. Others will be worried about Mormonism’s history of opposing abortion rights.

“There really is a large group of people in America who won’t vote for Mitt Romney for president because he is a Mormon,” noted Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, in a recent Institute on Religion and Democracy lecture. “It’s a very large group and there is a name for them — liberals.”

So the column opened with a well-known conservative political insider, who is also a conservative Anglican, making a conservative point based on survey research that digs into the biases of religious and secular liberals. Do the math and add up the number of times the word “conservative” is used in that sentence.

Days later, I started getting response emails from readers from coast to coast (since one of my email addresses is attached to the bottom of my columns in most newspapers). I received a higher rate than normal that Monday.

Each and every one of these emails — every SINGLE one of them — accused me of attacking Mitt Romney while, of course, taking part in the great mainstream-media conspiracy to hide the fact that President Barack Obama is (wait for it) a Muslim.

Against my better judgment, I responded to a few of these emails by citing the facts that I have written about many times here at GetReligion.org and in other columns — that Obama made a public profession of faith and, at a time never precisely confirmed by the congregation, was baptized by a clergy-person in one of America’s most theologically liberal Christian denominations. Along with his family, he was active in that Christian congregation for many years. He has made numerous public professions of his liberal take on the Christian faith since then.

People responded by saying (a) he’s lying or (b) that members of the United Church of Christ — a liberal national denomination that continues to include some quite conservative local congregations — are not real Christians.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people in conservative-church pews and pulpits cannot grasp the fact that Obama is a liberal Christian. Yes, he may be so doctrinally liberal that, when it comes to eternal questions, he believes that there are no ultimate differences between Christians, Jews, Muslims and everybody else — but he is certainly not alone in believing that. The leaders of many denominations believe that. Legions of seminary professors agree with him.

In oh so many ways, Obama is a perfectly normal liberal Protestant Christian.

However, as recent Pew Forum research made clear, the world of liberal Protestantism is no longer at the heart of American life. The old mainline is now on the sideline, to the left of the mainstream. That does not mean that oldline churches are not important or worthy of balanced, nuanced coverage.

This brings me to a recent piece at the CNN Belief Blog called “The Gospel according to Obama“? At one point, that headline read: “Is Obama the ‘wrong’ kind of Christian?” The whole point of the piece is that Obama is a Christian progressive and part of the old mainline Protestant world. Thus, readers are told:

When Obama invoked Jesus to support same-sex marriage, framed health care as a moral imperative to care for “the least of these,’’ and once urged people to read their Bible but just not literally, he was invoking another Christian tradition that once dominated American public life so much that it gave the nation its first megachurches, historians say. …

Obama is a progressive Christian who blends the emotional fire of the African-American church, the ecumenical outlook of contemporary Protestantism, and the activism of the Social Gospel, a late 19th-century movement whose leaders faulted American churches for focusing too much on personal salvation while ignoring the conditions that led to pervasive poverty.

No other president has shared the hybrid faith that Obama displays, says Diana Butler Bass, a historian and author of “Christianity after Religion.”

“The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.,” says Bass, a progressive Christian. “He’s a different kind of Christian, and the media and the public awareness needs to reawaken to that fact.”

There is much to criticize in that passage and in the article as a whole, but the key is this: The CNN team seems to have assumed that today’s mainline Protestantism is essentially the same, doctrinally, as the mainline Protestantism of the late 19th century. Also, there continue to be all kinds of people who, for example, would frame health care as a biblical imperative yet disagree with Obama and modern Christian liberals on a host of other issues, including doctrinal matters that can be framed in creedal terms.

Later on, the CNN team strives to contrast Obama and the believers who support him with — you got it — the world of 20th century Christian fundamentalism. It’s crucial that the article defines the “social Gospel” in ways that appear to contrast it with the beliefs of people who supported, and continue to support, conservative stances on basic Christian doctrines and moral teachings. Thus, readers learn:

The Social Gospel, though, sparked a backlash from a group of pastors during World War I. They were called fundamentalists. They published a pamphlet listing the “fundamentals of the faith:” Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, Adam and Eve. But the fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion during the “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925. John Scopes, a high school science teacher, was tried for violating a Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution.

Though Scopes lost, fundamentalist Christians were mocked in the press as “anti-intellectual rubes,” and a number of states suspended pending legislation that would have made teaching evolution illegal, says David Felton, author of “Living the Wisdom: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.” The trial drove fundamentalists underground where they created a subculture, their own media networks, seminaries and megachurches, he says.

That’s close, kind of.

The big problem, of course, is that the original “fundamentals of the faith” documents were crafted in that hotbed of anti-intellectualism — Princeton Theological Seminary. They were signed by Anglicans, Presbyterians and others in mainline churches. The purpose was to defend Christian basics, in terms of doctrine, not to reject ministry to the poor. Many did reject, and continue to reject, any belief that ministry to the poor can replace or exclude evangelism and the concern for eternal salvation. Basic, mere, Christianity is a both/and proposition in which it is heresy to deny either side of that equation.

Thus, a GetReligion reader who sent us the URL for this CNN story noted:

Some interesting stuff on President Obama here, but then they totally butcher the history of the development of fundamentalism (and completely misunderstand what fundamentalism was pushing back on among liberalism — that is, not the good works but the rejection of Christ as God), the background of Christian charity works stretching into the First Century, and so forth. Also worth note: they don’t bother to interview any but the most easily caricatured conservative voices, and typically go out of their way to make evangelical believers look like downright rubes. …

This is a real missed opportunity, because so many evangelicals might benefit from seeing how President Obama could share their faith while differing from them. Instead, it ended up being just another chance to rag on evangelicals.

*sigh*

Precisely. This CNN story has some fundamental flaws.