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Few news consumers would be surprised that the journalists at Baptist Press frame their coverage of controversial moral and cultural issues in a way that supports the doctrines affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock of believers.

After all, this is a denominational wire service that is funded by a doctrinally conservative body. The wider world of Southern Baptists (and often former Southern Baptist) is complex enough that it also supports a second wire service — the Associated Baptist Press — that affirms what is usually a more doctrinally liberal, oldline Protestant view on social issues.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that, when framing the decision by Judge Clark Waddoups to strike down a key section of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, the Baptist Press team used several quotes from moral conservatives. In turn, it is not surprising that these sources linked this event to the “slippery slope” argument that says once a culture starts redefining a concept like marriage, it is hard to stop. Here’s a typical passage:

Defenders of the biblical and historic view of marriage said the decision undermines the institution and provides more evidence that its redefinition will be more expansive than just incorporating same-sex relationships.

“Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing,” Russell D. Moore said in a statement released Dec. 14. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life,” Moore said. “Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children.”

Later in the report, the Baptist Press report included related several quotes from the Waddoups text and from defendant Kody Brown, who is featured with his four wives in a television reality show called “Sister Wives.” That’s pretty much to be expected, since the BP staff includes quite several scribes with mainstream news experience.

However, here was the voice that I found especially interesting in this context:

Jonathan Turley, lead counsel for the Browns and a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., connected the homosexual and polygamy causes in his reaction to Waddoups’ opinion.

“[P]lural families present the same privacy and due process concerns faced by [the] gay and lesbian community over criminalization,” Turley wrote.

“The decision affects a far greater range of such relationships than the form of polygamy practiced by the Browns,” he said. “It is a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.”

Bravo. It gladdens the heart of your GetReligionistas to see hints of intellectual and cultural diversity, even in copy from a denominational wire service.

Why bring this up? Other than in our “Got news?” posts, GetReligion rarely digs into the offerings of advocacy journalism sites.

Well, in this case it is interesting to contrast the Baptist Press piece with the coverage of the same decision that was offered in The New York Times.

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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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