Alvin Plantinga

Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Forget politics and focus on faith: Thinking about that 'evangelical' puzzle again

Every now and then a columnist faces a writing challenge that requires a call to the copy desk asking what is or what is not appropriate language in a family newspaper.

Believe it or not, this even happens to folks like me who cover religion.

Consider, for example, this passage from one of my “On Religion” columns back in 2011 about debates — in journalism and in academia — about the meaning of the much-abused Godbeat f-word, “fundamentalist.”

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.' "

Now, in the Donald Trump era, similar arguments have raged about the meaning of the word “evangelical.”

As a rule, journalists have — #DUH — attempted to turn “evangelical” into a political word, as opposed to a term linked to specific doctrines and church history. Many evangelical leaders have attempted to point reporters to the work of historian David Bebbington, who produced a short, focused set of four evangelical essentials. Here is one version of that:

Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

'Evangelical' is not a political word? Since when, in the minds of political elites?

Please trust me on this. If you were a journalism graduate student in the early 1980s -- especially someone like me who already had worked through two degrees combining history, religion and journalism -- then you knew all about Francis FitzGerald.

So, yes, I devoured her famous 1981 piece in The New Yorker -- "A Disciplined, Charging Army" --  about a rising, but then obscure, figure in American life -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I recognized that it had some of that "National Geographic studies an obscure tribe" vibe to it, with Falwell and his supporters seen as the heathen hosts who were coming to sack Rome.

But the reporting in the piece was fantastic. I used it as the hook for a paper in a graduate seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled, "The electronic tent revival: Computers in the ministry of Jerry Falwell."

FitzGerald was interested, kind of, in the faith and history of Falwell -- a man who was already blurring the line between an unrepentant Protestant Fundamentalism and the emerging world of the new Evangelicals. But mainly she was interested in this new threat to her world and the existing political order.

Remember that famous quote from philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, the one in which he quipped that:

... (A)mong 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 brings us to this weekend's think piece, which is a Neil J. Young review at the Religion & Politics website of FitzGerald's recent book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America." The headline on the review states the obvious: " 'Evangelical' Is Not a Political Term."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

CNN on 'fundies,' ordinary believers, evangelicals or, heck, somebody out there in voting booths

CNN on 'fundies,' ordinary believers, evangelicals or, heck, somebody out there in voting booths

The politics team at CNN recently produced a major story about religion and politics, one so long and so serious in intent that a loyal GetReligion reader wrote me a note saying that he was confused and thought this had been produced by Al-Jazeera English.

The story is about the Religious Right, which means that by unwritten journalistic law it should have fit into one of two pre-White House race templates. If you have followed coverage of religion and politics at all, you have seen these two templates many times.

No. 1 argues that the power of the Religious Right is fading (because America is growing more diverse and tolerant), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.

Template No. 2 argues that the power of the Religious Right is as strong as ever (the dangerous quest for theocracy lives on), which will create major problems for the Republican Party.

You can see the basic approach in this long, long report by scanning the epic double-decker headline:

Fear and voting on the Christian right
A wedding chapel went out of business because its evangelical owners refused to host a same-sex wedding celebration. Conservative Christians are on edge -- and they could sway the presidential election.

Clearly the goal in this story was to tell the story of some soldiers on the front lines in the First Amendment wars, offering the wedding-chapel owners tons of space in which to offer their views. Some GetReligion readers were impressed with that. Others, however, were troubled for reasons that we'll get to in a moment. Pay attention for the fine details here in the overture:

They called her a bigot, a homophobe, even a racist, which was strange, because the two gay men were white and so was Betty Odgaard. The angry people on the Internet told Betty she would die soon, that her death would be good for America, and then she would probably go to hell.
Betty had other ideas about her final destination, but she agreed it was time to go. "Take me home," she prayed, without effect. Revenue kept declining. Two years passed. One night this summer, just after the Görtz Haus wedding chapel closed forever, she and her husband sat in the basement and thought about the choices they'd made in the name of God.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is the 'New Atheism' any different from old atheism?

Are there any substantive differences between traditional atheism vs. what is called “New Atheism”? Or is the term used just to describe a bunch of popular books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.) coming out at once? Who coined the term “New Atheism” and can it be described as a new philosophical movement (or reframing of an old one)?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Marco Rubio and the media's curiously inconsistent approach to science

I wonder if any of our readers have read Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I’ve been reading the reviews and they’re fascinating. The New Republic review says Nagel, a devout atheist, has “performed an important service with his withering critical examination of some of the most common and oppressive dogmas of our age.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy