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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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So, The Los Angeles Times posits that this popular evangelical writer is a fundamentalist

So, The Los Angeles Times posits that this popular evangelical writer is a fundamentalist

As a rule, GetReligion doesn't pay attention to editorials, commentaries and reviews for the simple reason that our purpose is to focus on the good and bad in mainstream religion news coverage, with a strong emphasis on the word "news."

Besides, it's hard to critique matters of accuracy, bias and balance in forms of writing in which authors are free to speak their minds, as columnists or commentators.

However, even it comes to writing about movies -- whether we are talking about news or commentary -- The Los Angeles Times is not just another newspaper. It matters what kinds of labels the La La land newspaper of record pins on real people who work in the public square.

So here is the top of the Noel Murray review of the new movie "The Case for Christ," which is based on the journey that former Chicago Tribune legal-affairs reporter Lee Strobel made from atheism to Christian faith. The headline on the review: " 'The Case for Christ' prioritizes drama over evidence."

Lee Strobel became a fundamentalist Christian hero thanks to his 1998 book “The Case for Christ,” chronicling how his dogged research into Jesus’ resurrection helped convert him from atheism. Director Jon Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird’s film version emphasizes Stobel’s personal drama over his academic investigation, which makes for a watchable movie but thin theology.
Mike Vogel plays Strobel, who at the start of the 1980s was an award-winning Chicago journalist with a happy marriage and a bright future, until his wife, Leslie (played by Erika Christensen), found God. Anxious to get their life back to the way things were, he started interviewing scholars in various disciplines, hoping that by presenting Leslie with the facts, she’d back down.

Veteran GetReligion readers will not be surprised that it was the word "fundamentalist" that caught my attention, after clicking on a URL sent in by a reader on the West Coast.

There are two ways to read the "fundamentalist" clause in the lede.

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