Define fundamentalist, please

Few hot-button, "fighting words" are tossed around with wilder abandon in journalism today than the historical term "fundamentalist." The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service's style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... 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."

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." For "progressive" Catholics, in other words, Pope Benedict XVI is a "fundamentalist" on sexuality.

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, 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.' "

This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.

The Orthodox side of Judaism now consists of "ultra-conservatives," "traditionalists," "ultra-Orthodox" or "fundamentalists," depending on who defines the terms. There are "fundamentalist" Hindus, as well. In Islam, journalists keep trying to draw lines between "Islamists," "Muslim radicals," "fringe groups" and a spectrum of other undefined doctrinal camps including, of course, "fundamentalists."

This confusion makes it hard for researchers with good intentions to shed light on news events in complex cultures. Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

"Egyptians hold diverse views about religion," stated the report. "About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative "fundamentalism" definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood's surging role in Egyptian life -- a group long classified as "fundamentalist" in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty's "Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon" in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for "fundamentalist," Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of "very conservative Muslims," according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn't a "fundamentalist" in the context of Egypt today.

"For our Egypt survey, the term 'fundamentalist' was translated into Arabic as 'usuuli,' which means close to the root, rule or fundamental," he explained. "It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. ... So that's the word that we used."

God hates almost everyone, saith Phelps

The true believers from Westboro Baptist Church carried their usual battery of offensive signs on March 10, 2006, as they staged their fateful protest near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. One contained a stick-figure cartoon of two men having sex. One proclaimed "Thank God For Dead Soldiers" and another "God Hates You." During the demonstration these signs faced what the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and his family call the pro-America "pep rally" that greets them wherever they go -- throngs of counter protesters, journalists, military veterans and police.

"We're not picketing the funeral," stressed attorney Margie Phelps, in a standing-room-only showdown with student journalists at the recent College Media Convention in New York City. "We're picketing the pep rally."

That may sound like a trivial detail, but it was central to the legal and, at times, theological arguments that unfolded when the Snyder family's lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This led to a sweeping 8-1 ruling on March 2 in favor of Phelps, his family and their tiny independent congregation in Topeka, Kan.

When arguing her case -- both to the high court and the young journalists -- daughter Margie Phelps stressed that a key point in the Westboro message is that the "you" in the slogan "God Hates You" was not a reference to Matthew Snyder, alone. The central idea of their protests is that God hates all sinners who have not repented and embraced their church's hellfire-and-brimstone view of America's moral decay.

When Phelps discussing those facing God's wrath, she included just about every imaginable religious and political group. While Westboro is best known for its conviction that America is speeding toward judgment day because of its acceptance of gay rights, her conference remarks also included nasty shots at Jews, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Pentagon officials, among others.

Most of the students cheered her critics, mocked her stabs at humor and jeered her attempts to justify her beliefs. Yet the crowd remained rather quiet when, in a taped dialogue with First Amendment Center leader Gene Policinski, she repeatedly noted America's long heritage of protecting the free speech rights of dissenters.

"The Christian in me could barely sit still and listen to Phelps twist the Bible. ... Yet almost paradoxically, the American journalist in me felt a little bubble of pride," said Rebecca Young of the University of Dayton, in an essay posted online afterwards. "As angry and upset as I was at the ideas espoused, I was proud of a profession and a country that acknowledges their freedoms don't just exist when it's convenient."

To understand Westboro and its beliefs, stressed Margie Phelps, it helps to know that the church's tactics have evolved during the past two decades and the 45,000 protests it claims to have staged at a variety of public events, including about 800 funerals.

For a decade, the central message was that America needed to repent and turn away from sin. But as the death toll kept rising in Iraq, she said Westboro's leaders concluded that, "It's too late now. ... This nation is doomed." Above all, they were infuriated when many of the funerals for the fallen turned into patriotic rallies.

"We watched as the politicians, the media, the military, the citizenry and the veterans used the occasion of these soldiers' deaths to publish a viewpoint," said Phelps, describing the First Amendment arguments she used before the Supreme Court. "And we said, 'We don't agree with your viewpoint. God is not blessing America. It is a curse that that young soldier, the fruit of your nation, is lying in there in that coffin.' ...

"That is not a blessing of God. ... The soldiers are dying for your sins."

The bottom line, concluded Margie Phelps, is that Westboro Baptist simply "joined that public debate" on public sidewalks, while following all existing laws that govern public protests. Now, national outrage about the court decision has strengthened the convictions of the Phelps family.

"These are desperate times, calling for desperate measures and we are going to get these words into your ears," she said. By focusing on military funerals, the leaders of Westboro Baptist "know that we are hitting three of your biggest idols -- the flag, the uniform and the dead bodies. ...

"We are going to finish this work. The Lord God Jehovah has our back."

God hates most sinners, saith Phelps

The words of the fifth Psalm are not for the faint of heart. "Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness. ... The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity," warned the psalmist.

Obviously, says the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, this passage teaches that God hates the evil liberals who run the Southern Baptist Convention, along with legions of other Americans.

Phelps also believes that God hates the pope and plenty of other religious leaders who are called "conservatives," "traditionalists" and even "fundamentalists" in public debates about faith, morality and culture.

Southern Baptists are too liberal? Yes, that's why activists from the independent Westboro Baptist congregation in Topeka, Kan., like to picket major SBC meetings carrying those now familiar signs with slogans such as, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "God Hates America," "Thank God for AIDS" and, of course, "God Hates Fags."

With Westboro Baptist, up is down and down is up.

It may take months for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the First Amendment puzzle that is the clash between Phelps and Albert Snyder, the grieving father of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder. A Westboro Baptist team held a protest near the Catholic funeral of Snyder's son and church leaders also posted a website screed claiming that the divorced father raised his son to "serve the devil." A Maryland court gave Snyder $5 million, but the award was overturned.

Behind this pain and grief is a thicket of legal and journalistic thorns.

This is a case in which the mainstream press has spilled oceans of ink attacking Phelps' flock. Nevertheless, the core facts provoked the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 21 news organizations to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church's right to hold legal protests and for journalists to cover them. News executives are especially worried because the protesters complied with all restrictions imposed by civic officials, including moving their demonstration away from the church. Snyder saw their hateful slogans in news reports and on the Internet.

This is case in which scholars have struggled to find a way to defend the free speech and religious liberty rights of Westboro believers, as well as the religious liberty and privacy rights of grieving family members.

In a reluctant defense of Phelps, a New York Times editorial quoted Justice Felix Frankfurter: "It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people." I once heard a church-state scholar put it this way: "Your religious liberties have been purchased for you by believers with whom you wouldn't necessarily want to have dinner."

What about the American Civil Liberties Union? After all, in the 1970s this organization backed the right of neo-Nazis to march through Skokie, Ill., a small community that was home to a large number of Holocaust survivors.

In a court brief backing Westboro Baptist, "we pointed out that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech guarantees that no one can be found liable for merely expressing an opinion about a matter of public concern, regardless of how hurtful those opinions might be," noted Chris Hampton, a leader in ACLU efforts to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes.

The goal, she added, is to protect First Amendment principles that have been "essential to the advancement of civil rights, including the civil rights of LGBT people. Allowing Fred Phelps to speak his mind may be difficult, but chipping away at one of the fundamental principles on which our country was founded is far, far worse for all of us in the long run."

This is, of course, precisely the kind of liberal thinking that Phelps condemns out of hand, even when voiced by religious conservatives. According to his reading of Psalm 5 and many other scripture passages, Phelps believes that God hates what he calls "kissy-pooh" sermons that refuse to proclaim that God never, ever forgives homosexuals and many other sinners.

The Westboro website once warned preachers who claim that God will forgive those who repent, no matter what: "You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God's decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites!"

"That's Bible preaching," Phelps told Baptist Press, in a 2003 interview about his beliefs. "You tell [people] that God loves everybody? You're lying on God."

Define 'evangelical' -- please

Ask Americans to rank the world's most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.


So you might assume that the world's most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: "What does the word 'evangelical' mean?" If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that 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."


This was true in 1976 when a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter shocked the press by saying he was "born again." It's just as true today, as Beltway insiders dissect those Nov. 2 exit polls saying that 23 percent of the voters in the presidential election called themselves "evangelicals" or "born again Christians."


Establishment pundits agree that armies of "evangelical" voters have returned an "evangelical" president to the White House to pursue an "evangelical" agenda -- whatever that means.


Long ago, Graham stressed that this term must be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.


"I think there are evangelicals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches," he said.


The journalism Bible basically agrees. The Associated Press Stylebook notes that "evangelical" once served as an adjective. Today it is a noun, referring to a "category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. ... Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief."


The problem is trying to agree on the "doctrinal absolutes" that define evangelicals. Yet journalists must wrestle with this issue in order to grasp what happened, and what did not happen, on Nov. 2, according to pollster George Barna.


A new survey by the Barna Group claims that "born again Christians" -- who cast 53 percent of the votes in this election -- backed George W. Bush by a 62 to 38 percent margin. Meanwhile, "evangelical" voters backed Bush by an 85 to 15 percent margin.


What's the difference? In Barna's system, all "evangelicals" are "born again Christians," but not vice versa. In his polls, true "evangelicals" are a mere 7 percent of the voting population, while other "born again Christians" make up an addition 31 percent.


The difference between these groups is crucial for those studying the politics of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.


For Barna, evangelicals affirm that "faith is very important in their lives today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today."


"Born again" Christians are those who believe they have "made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important" in their lives and that they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and "accepted Jesus Christ" as savior.


Thus, "evangelicals" are defined by specific doctrines. "Born again" Christians are defined by personal, often vague, spiritual experiences and feelings.


This can affect what happens in voting booths.


"In my experience," said Barna, "journalists use 'born again' and 'evangelical' interchangeably. ... As for assigning conservative perspectives to either the born again or evangelical segments, keep in mind that the born again constituency is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and many of the social views of that group have more in common with atheists and agnostics than they do with the more conservative evangelical constituency."