Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News

May 23, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

The readings for today’s sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

In 1987, I traveled — as a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News — to Graham’s North Carolina mountain home. I went to talk with him before he came to Denver for what was already being hailed as one of his last crusades.

During these interviews, I asked him a kind of inside-baseball question: “What does the word evangelical mean?”

The world’s most famous evangelist replied: “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too… You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

In fact, Graham said this word had become “so blurred” that he no longer knew what it meant. When pushed, he said an “evangelical” is someone who believes the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. He also stressed the centrality of the resurrection, and the belief that salvation is found through Jesus alone.

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

Thus endeth the first reading.

Our second reading on religion, language and journalism comes from a soul-searching memo by Keller entitled Assuring Our Credibility.” [PDF]

The New York Times editor stressed the importance of improving religion-news coverage. As he discussed the work of an in-house committee [PDF] that had been listening to the newspaper’s many critics, Keller wrote:

We must… be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word ‘moderate’ conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of ‘religious fundamentalists’ to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.
Thus endeth the second reading. Our final reading is from the AP Stylebook, which wisely defines the word “fundamentalist” in this way:

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.
And all the people said: “Amen.”

So what is the connecting theme in these three readings?

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible — in clear, historical terms — to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word “church” mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word “Church” mean to a Roman Catholic? A “bishop” in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define “marriage.” Define “sin.” Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. Thus, I believe that many of the tensions that exist between journalists and the religious believers we cover are rooted in the reality that Keller briefly addressed in his memo.

Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It’s hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “fundamentalist.” One person’s “moderate” is another’s “liberal.” The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

Last year, The New York Times pinned the “fundamentalist Christians” label on a list of scientists and philosophers that included Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Orthodox Christians and others. They were all “fundamentalists”?

What would the Stylebook say?

Labels are inevitable in the coverage of hard news on deadline. But I think it’s safe to say that if labels must be used, our goal should be to let people label themselves. Then, our goal as reporters is to describe the issue being debated and quote people as they describe what they believe.

The goal is to get the quotes right. And to get the words right.

End of sermon.