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Thy will be done

Radicalism | With opportunity in academia and media came great challenges and great satisfaction. Part nine of a pilgrim's slow progress

Issue: "2009 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 19, 2009

"Not my will, but Thine." That "Thine" at the end makes the phrase smell fusty, like something in a grandmother's hope chest. But so many of the good things that I've experienced represent God's overruling of my will.

Left to myself in 1974, on the rebound from my Communist days, I probably would have become a secular libertarian. Left to myself in 1976, until God sent love into my life in the person of Susan, I might have become a libertine. Left to myself at the DuPont Company from 1978 to 1983, I probably would have resigned in frustration several times, instead of learning to rewrite efficiently and not take it personally when others killed phrases I thought were darling.

My first six years at the University of Texas at Austin developed well as the journalism department's specialist in journalism history suddenly left: That allowed me to teach history courses rather than classes in public affairs. I seized the opportunity and started cranking microfilm and fingering crumbling newspaper pages. If that opening hadn't come I probably would not have learned that Christians had edited most early American gazettes and magazines, and might not have started thinking about how Christians could become a journalistic force again. The result of this research was a popular book titled Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, and my eventual linking up with a new magazine called WORLD.

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"Not my will, but thine." The publisher delayed putting out Prodigal Press for a year, and my frustration grew. I was trying to compile a tenure file: That's where professors typically display all their books and articles. The tenure process is a mysterious one and I had no mentor, so I naïvely thought it would be good for me to show the senior journalism professors that I could write a popular book. I now know that if such a strongly Christian book had been in my file, the tenure vote would never have been 7-0 in my favor. As it was, congratulations abounded: I had survived hazing and was now a member of the tenured fraternity.

Membership had its privileges: Journalism Quarterly, a venerable academic journal, made me its book-review editor. Membership had its requirements: Genuflect to the left. My journal editing career ended after one distinguished professor demanded to choose the reviewer for a book he had written that depicted the Revolutionary War as a class struggle, the 1950s as purely a "reactionary" decade, Ronald Reagan as evil and Communists as good, etc. When a laudatory review unsurprisingly resulted, I agreed to run it only if JQ would run my critical review of the book beside it. The JQ editor said no. I was soon an ex-book-review editor.

I did not mourn that dismissal because it gave me time to edit what became known as the Turning Point Christian Worldview series. One of the 16 books in the series examined international poverty, and meetings in connection with that book taught me that it was not helpful for the United States to turn million-dollar bills into paper airplanes and toss them into Africa. Material offerings without worldview change did not work. Was domestic poverty-fighting similar?

Not my planning, but others': A Heritage Foundation executive who had read my writing on philanthropy offered a fellowship that would allow for research at the Library of Congress on the history of American poverty-fighting. Susan, never sold on Texas, welcomed the chance to move to the Washington area: She'd spent summer vacations at her grandparents' house in Silver Spring, Md. We rented a house near what we called Grampyland; Susan hoped that a one-year fellowship would turn into something permanent. We put our oldest son in a Christian school and homeschooled the next two, taking advantage of all the free Washington museums.

The Heritage Foundation gig began wonderfully. I could sit in the Library of Congress-statues overhead, soft-light-diffusing lamps making reading romantic-and fill out slips of paper requesting books. An hour later they would come back to me for leisurely reading. No heavy lifting. No wandering through stacks searching. And, I realized after a month, no sense of the reality of poverty-fighting a century or more ago.

Only when I started wandering the stacks, literally blowing dust off books and records that had languished in anonymity for decades, did the reality of the 19th-century war on poverty sink in. Those records showed that Christian charities helped to change the lives of millions. They showed how a homeless man might come to a mission looking just for material sustenance, three hots and a cot-and there he would find spiritual food that he did not even know existed. They showed how an abandoned single mom, desperate to find a way to control her children, would stumble across a way to control herself.

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