Columnists > Voices

Looking down, looking up

Politics and muckraking are necessary but not sufficient

Issue: "Double trouble," Oct. 21, 2006

Should the bad news about our current political campaign, which features confused Republicans floundering and out-to-sea Democrats foundering, lead evangelicals to give up on politics? No, since life-and-death issues of national security and judicial appointments remain-but this month's debates about deviance should serve as a reminder that politics won't save us.

This bad news is coming on the centennial of a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt that defined a new form of journalism. Roosevelt referred to John Bunyan's description, in Pilgrim's Progress, of "the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward." TR then defended the reporting genre he called muckraking: "We should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed."

Wisely, though, Roosevelt noted that muckraking is necessary but not sufficient: "The man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil."

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The most famous muckraker of them all, Lincoln Steffens, proved that. Born in 1866 (hence his Great Emancipator name), Steffens co-founded American Magazine as a major muckraking vehicle in 1906, and died in 1936. We can easily recall from the present his crucial dates: born 140 years ago, at his peak 100 years ago, died 70 years ago. But we should also see how, step by step, he embraced evil.

Steffens started to go wrong as a student at the University of California during the 1880s, when professors "could not agree upon what was knowledge, nor upon what was good and what evil, and why." Over the next several decades he came to believe that man is naturally good and acts poorly only when corrupted by his surroundings. He explained this religiously: Once, discussing the biblical fall within the Garden of Eden, he said the culprit was not Eve, Adam, or the snake-"It was, it is, the apple."

Steffens traveled to Moscow in 1919 and loved Lenin's attempt to transform the social environment. In 1921 he uttered his most widely quoted sentence: "I have been over into the future, and it works." (That line was often misquoted as, "I have seen the future and it works.") Ten years later, when publishing his bestselling autobiography, he offered a new definition of sin: "Treason to Communism." While Stalin was killing millions of his countrymen, Americans were reading Steffens' declaration that "Russia is the land of conscious, willful hope."

Steffens, not looking up, moved from moral antinomianism to muckraking to support for murder. He praised the Soviet plan to "lay out consciously and carry through ruthlessly [a program] to arrange the conditions of social living . . . to adjust the forces of economic life." He overlooked millions of Moscow-decreed deaths. He did not deal with spiritual forces.

I've done some journalistic muckraking of my own, and WORLD does some when needed. When I wrote books on the history of abortion in America or about Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, people asked me about the psychological effect of spending so much time wallowing in woe. People ask the same when our reporters cover bad news or even when our reviewers sit through foul movies.

What we try to remember, and what Lincoln Steffens tragically never learned, is that man's sin points ever more emphatically to our desperate need for God's grace. Bad news makes the Good News shine ever more brightly. We look up so we have the strength to look down, and we look down so we appreciate all the more what is above.

Lincoln Steffens, transfixed by muck, believed that changing our social environment would fix the basic problem. He thought that if only the right people attain power, man's wisdom can save us. He and other secular muckrakers were and are wrong. We can be God's hands in saving some lives by working and voting for candidates who oppose evildoers and defend the innocent. But only God changes hearts, saves souls, and determines outcomes.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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