The Media and Christianity: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow
The more things change, the more they keep changing.
I know I got the saying wrong. It’s supposed to be, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” That things come back around eventually to what they’re anchored to.
But sometimes things — as they begin to change — lose their mooring and drift so far beyond charted waters that one wonders if they’ll ever return to the port from which they launched.
Take, for example, Christianity Today (CT). The venerable evangelical magazine launched in October 1956 with the editors (Carl F.H. Henry among them) writing unequivocally:
“CHRISTIANITY TODAY has its origin in a deepfelt desire to express historical Christianity to the present generation. Neglected, slighted, misrepresented — evangelical Christianity needs a clear voice, to speak with conviction and love, and to state its true position and its relevance to the world crisis. A generation has grown up unaware of the basic truths of the Christian faith taught in the Scriptures and expressed in the creeds of the historic evangelical churches.”
Those were the moorings from which CT set forth 66 years ago. But in recent days, one could easily be mistaken that the entity “unaware of the basic truths of the Christian faith” is not the present generation, but the magazine itself.
When the U.S. House of Representatives elected Mike Johnson (R-La.) as its speaker, CT’s first news article on the subject seemed odd for an outlet that once purported to be a clear voice for evangelical Christianity. With the headline, “Evangelical Mike Johnson ‘Raised Up’ as House Speaker,” CT let its readers know the news. This was a wire story. That means that CT staff writers didn’t draft the story. The magazine subscribes to Religion News Service (RNS), a wire agency similar to the Associated Press or Reuters that focuses on religion news. When CT doesn’t have staff or capacity to cover an item they want their readers to know about, they can pull from RNS’s bank of stories. Nothing wrong with that on its face, but it does mean that CT made an editorial decision to run that particular item from RNS and let it represent CT’s first take on the matter.
The article itself was focused on Johnson’s faith, an expected emphasis for a publication like CT. What’s unexpected is how Johnson’s faith is characterized. The piece highlights things like the fact that he “has been tied to multiple Baptist churches over the years,” and that he has written editorials in which, “he decried homosexuality as an ‘inherently unnatural’ and ‘dangerous lifestyle’ that could lead to the collapse of ‘the entire democratic system.’” It goes on to note that Johnson has “rejected many broadly held interpretations of the separation of church and state.”
The article then gives what purports to be the opposing view, but it doesn’t quite get there, as it cites a Democratic congressman and his assessment of Johnson’s Republican colleague Rep. Lauren Boebert’s (R-Colo.) unrelated statements on faith and politics. The piece concludes with three paragraphs outlining how figures in the preceding race for speaker had used religious terminology.
If the above sketch seems like something you would find in the pages of The Washington Post, you’d be right. The Post, also a subscriber to RNS, ran the exact same piece.
The article was written by a reporter formerly with the now-defunct ThinkProgress, the media outlet for the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress. And the points emphasized in the piece seem much more in line with concerns of people typically hostile to evangelical Christianity and fit much better with the Post than Christianity Today’s audience — or at least the magazine’s target audience from 1956. When it’s taken as first-order news that an evangelical Christian believes homosexuality is wrong and disagrees with broadly-held interpretations on church and state, something is amiss.
To be clear, the RNS writer was simply doing his RNS thing, so no surprises there. The puzzle is why CT chose a story by a progressive-leaning writer to cover a breaking story (that is certainly newsworthy to evangelicals!) in a manner more fitting a mainstream outlet like the Post. CT’s mission statement is, after all, “To elevate the stories and ideas of the kingdom of God.” A mission that now apparently needs the help of a progressive perspective.
In 1956, CT’s editors wrote that “…statesmen as well as theologians realize that the basic solution to the world crisis is theological.” The feeling one gets after reading CT’s news of Speaker Johnson is that this notion is now somehow quaint.
Mainstream media has quite enough sneering coverage of the “alien conservative Christian.” And if we know ourselves in light of Scripture, we already know well-enough that we’re alien. No need for The Washington Post or Christianity Today to tell us. The Apostle Peter already did:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11–12, ESV).
What does an episode like this say about the state of Christian media? And what does it mean for its future? It’s my prayer that we see a return to coverage more like the Christianity Today of yesterday, not more Christian media that echoes the mainstream. We at The Washington Stand are committed toward that end. We may not get it perfect, but that’s our aim.
The more things change, the more they keep changing. But biblical truth should be our standard — a standard where we aren’t swayed by the currents of the mainstream. If we drop our anchor in truth, we won’t drift far from the dock.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23, ESV).
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.