GetReligionLast week, Godbeat cop Terry Mattingly celebrated the season by giving thanks that the Los Angeles Times had reported that the Methodist pastor convicted of officiating at his gay son’s same-sex wedding was now facing a choice between “loyalty to church doctrine, or loyalty to his son.” Doctrine, yes!

Ah, but the Times nevertheless showed a pro-SSM bias by calling Rev. Frank Schaefer “the latest poster child in the fight between reformists and traditionalists.” The problem? Mattingly’s Merriam-Webster defines “reform” as improving someone or something “by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.,” thereby proving that “the editors at the Times are acting as theologians, saying that there is a good theology at work in the Schaefer trial, a theology of “reform,” and a bad theology that wants to defend faults and errors that are in need of “reform.”

Commenting on tmatt’s critique, Deacon John M. Bresnahan of Holy Family Parish in Lynn, Mass. offers this by way of explanation:

For our culture is rooted in the Protestant Reformation thus any policy position that can be wrapped in the word “reform” or “reformation” has already gone a great way in swaying the debate in favor of those who co-opt those words for their point of view.

Clearly,  if the mainstream media are going to take a disinterested approach to the news, they must eschew all use of “reform” and its cognates when it comes to religion. Let “reformed theology” be “Calvinism” and let Reform Judaism be “Protestant Judaism.” As for the Reformation itself, how about “The War Between the Sects” or “The War of Protestant Aggression” or (my favorite) “The Late Christian Unpleasantness”?

On the other hand, maybe it would be better to investigate whether “reformist” (the specific word in question) is really a signifier of approbation. Go to Google’s N-gram Viewer and type in “reformist.” Then start hitting the links to Google books at the bottom. What you’ll find through history is a lot more negative and neutral use of the term than positive. Revolutionaries in particular deploy “reformist” with contempt, and so do conservatives, as in this acidic paragraph of Edgar Allen Poe’s:

The modern reformist Philosophy which annihilates the individual by way of aiding the mass; and the late reformist Legislation, which prohibits pleasure with the view of advancing happiness, seem to be chips of that old block of a French feudal Law which, to prevent young partridges from being disturbed, imposed penalties upon hoeing and weeding.

As it happens, “reformer” signals approbation in a way that “reformist” does not, so I say three cheers for the Los Angeles Times, its editors, and, oh yes, Tina Susman, the actual writer of the story, for selecting le mot juste.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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