Some time back, a writer for a major American newspaper wrote a story about an openly gay United Methodist minister who lost her church over her sexual orientation. The reporter wrote the minister was in danger of being “excommunicated.”
The Catholic Church excommunicates; the Methodist Church does not.
However, excommunication is not the issue, but that a reporter for a major newspaper should be confused about an important issue separating Catholics from Protestants.
But her mistake underscores what is too often the news media’s dreadful ignorance on matters of religion — especially the Christian religion.
That ignorance becomes concerning when religion permeates a presidential race, as we are now witnessing with so many Republican candidates embracing Christian beliefs.
Foremost among those is Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, but also an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, having pastored churches in Arkansas and Texas.
As a Southern Baptist, the former governor is a fundamentalist Christian. That means he believes in the inerrancy of scripture, that the Bible is literally true — from Genesis to Revelation. That when the Bible says God created the world in six days, that’s what it means. And if it says, as it does, that God rested on the seventh day, well, God rested on the seventh day.
The national news media, however, does not identify Huckabee as a “fundamentalist,” but rather as an “evangelical.”
All fundamentalists may be evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Evangelicals believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as do fundamentalists, but beyond that creedal covenant there exist vast differences — from instant baptism to the second coming of Christ.
Many evangelical Christians opposed the war in Iraq from its inception, but few fundamentalists. Many evangelicals believe issues of social justice are critical to the church’s witness; few fundamentalists share that commitment.
There are evangelicals who believe global warming requires immediate preventive measures by government, but many fundamentalists think the danger spurious.
There are evangelicals who are pro-choice and fundamentalists who believe abortion is murder. There are evangelicals who believe sexual identity is DNA determinative, while fundamentalists deem it damnable.
There are evangelicals who believe God’s redemptive grace is open to all people, and fundamentalists who believe it’s available only to those predestined by God for salvation (as John Calvin argued in the “Institutes of the Christian Region”).
To the mainstream news media, evangelicals and fundamentalists are the same, a merging of the two identities that began after 9/11, when the word “fundamentalist” took on a new and frightening meaning, and fundamentalist Christians opted for the more inclusive term of “evangelical,” with the news media’s willing consent.
In that transition, profound historical, cultural, social, political and theological differences, barely acknowledged before, were lost.
But fairness requires an admission that nothing is simple about the complexity of Christianity, especially in America.
A study by Global Christianity at Massachusetts’ Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, places the number of Christian denominations worldwide at more than 33,000, but the majority exist in one place: the United States.
In these myriad denominations, there are churches that believe in baptism by immersion and those that believe immersion unnecessary; churches that feature rock bands and those that believe musical instruments ungodly; churches whose members speak in tongues and those who worship in silence; there are churches that feature liturgy and those that have no formal order of worship.
There are clergy who wear colorful vestments and those who deliver sermons in polo shirts, chinos and flip flops; there are Christians who worship in great cathedrals and those who worship in storefronts adjacent to topless bars.
No one can grasp such varieties in one religion. No one can wholly know their histories or by what means their theological differences arose or by what circumstances such separations came about or how intense such divisions remain — but an acknowledgment of that by the news media would be helpful, beginning with defining “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.”
While members of the news media are often clueless, so too are many Christians. Their knowledge of the history of the Christian Church is remembrance of things past — as in Sunday school past (it has been said many Christian laypeople think the Epistles are the wives of the Apostles.)
And, yes, people say a candidate’s religion shouldn’t matter, but if it matters to them, shouldn’t it matter to us — and shouldn’t it also matter to the news media?