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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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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On sex: Smart black Christians vs. you know who

Brace yourselves, GetReligion readers. I am about to do something shocking.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer careful praise for a Baltimore Sun story that focuses on the lives of two African-American believers who are have struggled with same-sex attractions. I say “have struggled” because the story focuses on two radically different people whose experiences and decisions have led them in two radically different directions, in terms of how they view the Bible and their own Christian lives.

The opening of the story sets up the framework that shapes this long news feature. The goal, quite simply, is to let two people tell their own stories. The result isn’t perfect — more on that in a minute — but it’s evidence that journalists can, by featuring candid human voices, help readers wrestle with complex issues in human life and faith.

While growing up in an African-American Baptist church, Harris Thomas was taught homosexuality is an “abomination in the eyes of God.” As a young minister, he disparaged the gay lifestyle even while secretly pursuing it. Today he heads a Baltimore church that serves gay Christians of color “right where they are.”

Grace Harley, too, grew up in a mainstream black church. She discovered the gay underground as a teen and lived as a lesbian for nearly 20 years. But God freed her from homosexuality, she says, a “blessing” she gladly recounts as a straight minister based in Silver Spring.

Both longtime Marylanders began their spiritual journeys in a similar place, as black Christians who felt strong same-sex attractions. Both faced rejection from family and community, and particularly forceful disapproval from fellow African-Americans, a group whose values have long been shaped by conservative religious thinking. But on a key question of the day, Thomas and Harley could not be more different.

As Maryland’s same-sex marriage referendum looms next month, Elder Harris Thomas, 57, the openly gay pastor of the Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore, backs “marriage equality.” The Rev. Grace Harley of Fruit of the Spirit Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., 58, opposes it. Both have arrived at their views at a steep price.

And, thus, the story wades into some of the messy details. It’s crucial to know that both of these ministers, one liberal and the other conservative, have lived lives that defy simple labels. Both could, in some sense, accurately describe their lives in terms of bisexuality, as well as homosexuality.

This is a long story for a good reason: It takes time to let these two people tell, and interpret, their stories. (By the way, I should mention right up front that I happen to know the reporter — Jonathan Pitts — whose byline tops this report and I know a bit about how he works. He is a solid interviewer with a long, long attention span.)

So what is my problem with this story? Simply stated, the story falls into an easy trap when talking about issues of scripture and sexuality. Once again, readers are offered the simplistic notion that the modern church is divided into camps of “biblical literalists” — simple code for “fundamentalists” — and more nuanced believers who have spent some time in a seminary and, thus, have grown to accept modernized teachings on sexuality. Thus, readers are told:

African-Americans have deep spiritual roots in the evangelical tradition of Christianity, a broad school of faith incorporating the Pentecostal, Baptist and African Methodist traditions, among others, and stressing biblical authority. Evangelicals tend to read Scripture literally, religious historians say, and at first glance, the Bible seems to leave little room for tolerance of homosexuality.

Later, there is this kicker, care of the Rev. Cedric Harmon, an “African-American pastor who is co-director of Many Voices, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for same-sex marriage within the black church.”

First, Harmon says, black preachers were among the first African-Americans who could read, and their interpretive skills were rudimentary. Second, slaveholders abused black sexuality so badly, it took hundreds of years for their descendants to develop a healthy sense of self. As they did so, he believes, a culture developed inside and outside the church that scorned behaviors that might be seen as aberrant. He wonders whether African-American men adopted a culture of machismo at that early stage.

“Literal readings can lend themselves to condemning and ostracizing interpretations,” Harmon says. “Now that many of us have gone to seminary and studied those scriptures, that language has begun to lessen a bit. But that doesn’t diminish the intensity of what many people have gone through.”

In other words, there are smart people on one side, people who have gone to seminary, and on the other side there are, well, macho biblical literalists who have never been to school.

This is a very poor and simplistic way to describe the viewpoints of biblical scholars who — in a variety of traditions, Catholic and Protestant — keep clashing in these debates. The Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, I might add, offers very deep resources when it comes to finding articulate, informed, academic voices on both sides of this debate. Where are the conservative scholars? This story, in other words, reduces 2,000 years of orthodox Christian doctrine on human sexuality to one form of Protestant literalism.

The journalistic goal, of course, should be to do justice to the theological viewpoints on both sides. This story does a good job of accurately quoting the voices of these two ministers — the stakeholders in this feature — but falls short when it comes time to quote experts who are asked to frame and explain what these stories mean.

So I can offer some praise to the Sun for letting these two believers tell their stories, in their own words. The problem is that the story slips back into a familiar, simplistic journalistic rut when it comes time to explain the bigger picture. The result is yet another warped portrayal of a very complex debate.

This was a good try, but one that failed to take seriously the sources of the beliefs of people on both sides of these painful stories.


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