Chuck Smith, fundamentalism and (yes) the AP stylebook

Chuck Smith, fundamentalism and (yes) the AP stylebook October 15, 2013

Readers who have been following this weblog through the years are probably familiar with the following passage in the Associated Press Stylebook. We’ve been dealing with it since the earliest days of GetReligion’s existence (click here for one ancient example).

Yes, we are talking about the “fundamentalist” label. That’s the familiar F-word that philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once explained is a common term of emotional abuse, a semi-curse, among academics (and I would argue, far too many mainstream journalists).

To be blunt, “fundamentalist” means “sonofabitch” or in Southern slang “sumbitch.” A common variation is “fascist sumbitch.”

“(There) is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ ”

However, the AP stylebook takes a more cautious and accurate approach to this hot-button historical term. Faithful GetReligion readers should be able to recite this by now:

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, there are competing approaches in other journalism scriptures. This brings us to The New York Times and its recent obituary for the Rev. Chuck Smith, one of the most important figures in the rise of a new brand, a new style of charismatic-Pentecostal Christian faith in the second half of the 20th Century. The appropriate headline: “Chuck Smith, Minister Who Preached to Flower Children, Dies at 86.”

The top of the story, unfortunately, stacks one religious label on top of another, like someone was trying to throw journalistic spaghetti against the wall hoping that something would stick. Some of these labels are accurate and some are not.

The Rev. Chuck Smith, a Southern California minister who shepherded flower children and rock ’n’ roll into the conservative wing of the evangelical movement while building a religious organization that grew to encompass 700 congregations and hundreds of radio stations, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was lung cancer, said a spokesman for Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the flagship church of Mr. Smith’s worldwide Calvary Chapel federation.

Though lesser known than evangelical leaders like the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. James C. Dobson, Mr. Smith was influential for his liturgical innovations, for the cultivation of a new generation of prominent preachers and for the introduction of pop culture into the evangelical movement’s vernacular. His amalgam of fire-and-brimstone theology and avuncular charm made him a successful if unlikely Christian fundamentalist ambassador to the youth culture of the late 1960s. He predicted the end of the world and condemned drug use, sex out of wedlock, abortion and homosexuality while serving as pastor to a hippie tribe known as the Jesus Movement.

Yes, it doesn’t help that the Times — in one of the most common journalism mistakes of the age — turns Dr. James Dobson into an ordained minister. Click here for Douglas LeBlanc’s classic GetReligion post on that subject: “That’s Dr. Dobson to you, punks.”

At one point a decade ago, Newsweek editors made this error so many times that they needed to put this correction text in a macro for quick use:

… (We) incorrectly identified James Dobson as a reverend. He in fact has a Ph.D. in child psychology and goes by Dr. Dobson. Newsweek regrets the [error].

But I digress. Back to Smith and his trailblazing ministry at Calvary Chapel, which became the template for the soft-rock praise worship found in suburban megachurches from coast to coast. And, as the Times piece noted:

Mr. Smith’s disavowal of denominational labels — he did not call his church Pentecostal, Baptist or Assembly of God, but rather “just a Christian church” — has also been widely embraced in the evangelical world.

Now, the key is that Smith was a leader in the world of nondenominational, or perhaps post-denominational, “charismatic” Christianity — a kind of fusion of evangelical Protestantism and full-tilt Pentecostalism.

It would have been accurate to state that Smith was an “evangelical” leader. I don’t think I have ever met a charismatic leader who didn’t embrace the “evangelical” label. However, was it accurate to call Smith a “fundamentalist”?

In terms of both history, theology and culture, the answer is clearly “no.” When you draw the circles of church history, all fundamentalists are evangelicals and all charismatics are evangelicals, but — for complex theological reasons linked to eschatology — the fundamentalist and Pentecostal circles do not overlap.

What were the Times editors thinking? On one level, it could have been that Smith’s advocacy of traditional Christian doctrines on marriage, sex, etc., automatically made him, well, a “stupid sumbitch” and it really does matter what the facts are in church-history textbooks or in the Associated Press Stylebook.

However, this is not to say that the obit is without merit. I particularly liked this lengthy passage:

Outside Calvary Chapel, he was probably best known for the people he mentored. Those who went on to lead large evangelical organizations of their own included Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, a network of several hundred churches; and Kenn Gulliksen, the founder of a church movement called Vineyard, who introduced Bob Dylan to evangelical Christianity, which Mr. Dylan embraced in the 1970s and early ’80s. (Mr. Gulliksen is often referred to as “Bob Dylan’s pastor.”)

It was Mr. Smith’s simple teaching style and easygoing manner, mainly, that drew members of the Jesus Movement to his church in 1969, after his own teenage children had introduced him to movement followers they had befriended at the beach. One was Lonnie Frisbee, a self-described mystic and prophet who became prominent in the movement. With Mr. Frisbee as his liaison, Mr. Smith was soon holding mass baptisms in the surf at Corona del Mar, dunking longhaired men and women in the Pacific by the hundreds. Some called them “Jesus freaks,” a phrase Time magazine used in a 1971 cover article about the movement.

“It looked like no congregation anyone had ever seen before,” Mr. Laurie wrote in his 2008 memoir, “Lost Boy.” “Barefoot hippies sat on the floor, praising the Lord, while old ladies in hats smiled, shrugged and sang their hymns.”

That said, someone needs to write a correction — or two (because of that all-to-familiar Dobson error).

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6 responses to “Chuck Smith, fundamentalism and (yes) the AP stylebook”

  1. “When you draw the circles of church history, all fundamentalists are
    evangelicals and all charismatics are evangelicals, but — for complex
    theological reasons linked to eschatology — the fundamentalist and
    Pentecostal circles do not overlap.”

    This isn’t clear to me. Regarding eschatology, Smith was an outspoken premillenialist, and I’ve never heard that fundamentalists cannot be premillenialist. As someone who was raised in Calvary Chapel and remains sympathetic, though now an evangelical of a different stripe, it’s not clear to me that “fundamentalist” is an entirely inappropriate term, except (as you rightly point out) for the word’s pejorative connotations. In fact, I would argue that “Pentecostal” is a less applicable term to Smith than is “fundamentalist,” as he always clearly argued against core Pentecostal practice such as incorporating “gifts of the Spirit” as part of the main worship service (they affirm the gifts, but prefer to practice them in more intimate settings).

    • The key word is “dispensationalist.” True fundamentalists, as defined in church history, deny the modern reality of speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts of revelation at the heart of charismatic life.

      • Smith was most certainly a dispensationalist, and (as you correctly observe) he was most certainly not a cessationist. I’ve never heard that all dispensationalists must be cessationists (nor that all fundamentalists must be dispensationalists, but that’s less relevant because Smith was certainly the latter), and I’d be interested to know if there is a reference on which you are relying for that statement. In my Calvary Chapel-issued Scofield Study Bible (the classic dispensationalist reference), the notes on 1 Corinthians 12 through 14 focus on how the spiritual gifts operated in the early church, with no comment on whether or how that operation may continue to modern times. Furthermore, there is no comment on the cessationist proof-text in 1 Corinthians 13:10. This seems to indicate that either view is consistent with classic dispensationalism.

  2. I wondered whether you were going to comment on the curious usage “Mr. Smith” for a credentialed minister, but since you didn’t, I will. Smith was outspoken in his belief that it was inappropriate to address any Christian minister as “Reverend,” and preferred to be addressed as “Pastor Chuck.” The Times’ initial mention of him as “The Rev. Chuck Smith” grated on me slightly, but I thought it was a nice compromise between Smith’s own principles and the appropriate formality that they then transitioned to “Mr. Smith” rather than “Rev. Smith.”

      • In that case, Smith probably would have objected to the initial “Rev.”, but that doesn’t mean the Times shouldn’t have used it anyway.