Falwell’s 2014 Liberty: ‘Fundamentalist Baptist’ university?

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Here at GetReligion, the “F-word” always catches our attention.

I’m referring, of course, to fundamentalist.

It’s a loaded word that can carry a negative connotation when applied to religious groups or institutions.

The Associated Press Stylebook — “the journalist’s bible” — contains this entry:

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.

That brings us to a Washington Post story this week on former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell taking a part-time teaching job at Liberty University.

From that story:

McDonnell began the job this semester by giving a few lectures at the fundamentalist Baptist college founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007. He will resume the lectures in the fall, making six to eight appearances per semester, said Johnnie Moore, a senior vice president at the school.

Here’s the question — actually, two questions: Is Liberty fundamentalist? And is Liberty officially Baptist?

In an email thread among your inquiring-mind GetReligionistas, editor tmatt noted:

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Yes, that Virginia gubernatorial candidate has layers

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In one of my favorite scenes in the original  “Shrek” movie, the title character explains to Donkey that “there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.”

“Example?” Donkey responds.

“Example … uh … ogres are like onions,” Shrek says, holding up an onion that Donkey sniffs.

More of the dialogue:

Donkey: “They stink?”

Shrek: “Yes. … No!”

Donkey: “Oh, they make you cry?”

Shrek: “No!”

Donkey: “Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.”

Shrek (peeling an onion): “No! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.”

I’ve used this analogy before, but too many newspaper stories lack layers. The main characters are 100 percent heroic or totally villainous. They are cardboard cutouts, fitting an easy storyline. Unlike onions (and ogres), they don’t have layers.

But Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, certainly has layers, as portrayed this week in a 3,000-word, front-page profile by the Washington Post. 

I was impressed by the newspaper’s effort to get religion — to see Cuccinelli’s personal actions and political positions through the lens of his Catholic upbringing and experiences:

Gonzaga, the Jesuit high school in a scruffy part of Washington’s inner city, is where Ken Cuccinelli II says he became the man he is. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia emerged in part in John Hoffman’s social justice class in 1986, when the teacher pressed the boys to look beyond the facts of poverty and inequality and examine the structures that shape people’s lives.

Cuccinelli came into that classroom as a kid from the suburbs who showed great spirit — he was the guy inside the school’s eagle mascot costume — and had a bit of a temper, but he was nobody’s idea of a rebel.

His parents had insisted that he leave the Fairfax County public schools and commute from McLean to the private Catholic school because, as his father put it, “Fairfax is not the real world.”

At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli would be with boys of different races and classes, guys from Anacostia on scholarship and kids from Chevy Chase who’d never known hardship.

Now, a liberal teacher with a beard so long the boys called him “ZZ Hoffman” assigned them readings by Karl Marx and asked them to imagine how society might be different if the world were constructed of, say, Nerf.

Suddenly, ideas could be as exciting as football. The boy who would become a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general embraced his church’s strict rules about right and wrong, and also absorbed a responsibility for those in need.

After a second telling anecdote — this one from the candidate’s time at the University of Virginia — the Post notes:

A quarter-century after those formative chapters in Cuccinelli’s life, those who watched him closely find him a more complex and thoughtful figure than the caricature of a hard-line social conservative might allow. But of those interviewed for this article, none said they would vote for him.

The Post provides this background on the faith of the candidate’s parents:

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Taking a legal walk in a church’s non-religious woods

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include:

* The church is a growing nondenominational Christian group. In other words, an independent congregation with little or no access to national church-state lawyers.

* Neighbors are worried about the church’s expanding facilities and the impact on traffic.

* Tax officials want more revenue. Duh.

* There is some question about whether some of the land is being used in a way inconsistent with the church’s non-profit status (think concerts, athletic events, food festivals, etc.)

At the moment, The Washington Post is covering a pretty typical battle in nearby Prince William County. The top of the story is very straightforward — then hits the key snag in the case.

Behind New Life Gainesville church in western Prince William County, there’s a gravel path that leads to a thick grove of tall pines and rippling streams.

As far as New Life leaders are concerned, that land is part of their church and should enjoy the same tax-exempt status as the building that holds the arched-ceiling chapel. But county officials have a different view: They say the woods aren’t used for religious purposes and should be taxed. When the county sent a $1,000 property tax bill, church leaders were not happy.

“Giving glory to God … is not taxable,” said Pastor Mike Hilson, who recently joined New Life Gainesville, formerly Fireside Wesleyan Church.

Prince William officials say that taxing some land owned by religious institutions is nothing new and that they are simply following state law, which mandates that only land that is “exclusively” for religious use is tax-exempt.

That’s interesting. So the issue isn’t that the church is using the land in any way that violates its non-profit status. The growing congregation is not, at this point, using the land at all. So if the church held regular prayer walks through the grove it would suddenly become religious?

Late in the story, the Post team notes another relevant wrinkle in this case:

Both sides in the Prince William debate agree that for-profit ventures on church land — such as a cafe or rental housing — should be taxed. But leaders at New Life Gainesville say the woods behind their church do not bring in any revenue. And because the land is in a protected rural area, the church cannot divide off the taxed land and sell it.

“The idea we’re going to throw a Starbucks back here is kind of ridiculous,” Hilson said.

County officials say they are simply following existing laws at the local level. Meanwhile, Virginia leaders are concerned about clarity in the state’s laws.

The Post also quotes a local-level expert, who rather predictably notes the following:

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Pod people: A little GetEducation for GetReligion

In the 1990s, before I became a religion writer, I covered education for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s daily newspaper. I wrote numerous stories on the school choice movement, from vouchers to magnet schools to charter schools.

In 1999, I won a two-month travel fellowship from the Education Writers Association to investigate school choice in Oklahoma City and other cities nationally. I teamed with The Oklahoman’s database editor Griff Palmer, now with The New York Times, on that project, which won a Dallas Press Club Katie Award for best series in the Southwest’s major metro dailies. I also reported on the findings at EWA’s national convention in Atlanta in 2000.

I bring up my (ancient) education reporting background because of my recent post titled “WPost: Virginia law highlights stupidity of home-schooling.” In that post, I characterized as “lousy journalism” the Post’s 2,500-word report on a Virginia religious exemption that allows families to opt entirely out of public education.

I opined:

The Post takes the absolute worst-case scenario — a family that goes the home-schooling route and apparently flubs it — and uses it as the overarching lens through which to view the issue. That’s unfortunate. And biased. And bad journalism.

My post sparked some interesting discussion, some of it predictable — such as a home-schooling opponent who entirely missed the point — but some of it thoughtful.

I appreciated this comment from regular GetReligion reader Ray Ingles:

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Capital punishment, abortion and a Catholic politician

YouTube Preview ImageThe Washington Post’s front page today featured a long profile focused on the faith and religious underpinnings of former Virginia Gov. — and current U.S. Senate candidate — Tim Kaine.

The top of the 2,700-word story:

It’s not unusual, on an election-year Sunday, to find a white candidate in a black church. But Tim Kaine, swaying this month to the gospel groove at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in a poor Richmond neighborhood, wasn’t on the campaign trail. He was taking a break from it at his home parish.

“How you doing, brother?” said Peter Thompson, 53, a lean black man in a green fedora, hugging the round-faced Kaine on the church steps.

The part-time Pizza Hut cook and the former governor have known each other since Kaine joined the church almost three decades ago. “We helped start the Men’s Group together,” Thompson said.

Kaine, 54, and his wife, Anne Holton, made their way into the cool bright sanctuary, stopped by friends every few feet to swap Sunday greetings and family news. The Kaines were married in 1984 at St. E’s altar. All three of their children were baptized at its font.

For Kaine, religion saturates both life and politics. A former missionary in rural Honduras, he talks frequently of how Catholicism informs his views on race and poverty and his deep embrace of cultural diversity, which he hails as “God’s rich tapestry.”

It’s a meaty, fascinating story.

The Post provides a gripping, emotional account of the Democratic candidate’s attempts to balance his personal religious convictions against the death penalty and abortion with political pragmatism and the will of the people.

Except that the story fails to include the voices of any conservative Catholic theologians who might critique the following:

Instead Kaine took his feelings straight to voters, casting his opposition to both capital punishment and abortion as strict articles of Catholic faith. But he emphatically pledged that he would uphold laws permitting both.

Kaine’s pitch neutralized both issues, and made him a hero to Democrats fighting to win back Bible voters. But his victory also set him up with a case of moral self-doubt that haunts him still.

Abortion was easier. Kaine has straddled the issue, as many Democrats do, by abhorring abortion but leaving the decision up to each woman. Unlike capital punishment, abortion cases don’t routinely land on a governor’s desk.

The Post does not make clear that the church hierarchy views the death penalty differently than, say, abortion or euthanasia. As I understand it, one’s position on capital punishment is more of a matter of individual conscience, while a Catholic politician at odds with the church on abortion could be denied Holy Communion. Mollie did an exceptional job of explaining this in a 2009 post.

So what do church leaders say about Kaine’s approach on these life issues?

Just asking.


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