Paul was called to look at and write about some rotten stuff at times, and so are journalists
It’s been more than six months since my last installment, but we’ve had a busy political year in which, happily, I could just be a journalist. This year’s campaign reminded me of the time I strayed from my lane in 2000 and became involved with George W. Bush’s presidential campaign—but, as I noted in our June 2 issue, by the end of 2001 compassionate conservatism seemed dead in the water, and I could get back to the WORLD lane again.
Let me explain about lanes. “Callings” may be a better name, but the football season is still going and some fans remember how Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 14 tied a National Football League record with a 108-yard kickoff return. Jones took the kick in the end zone and initially went up the middle of the field. One member of the kickoff team saw an opportunity to tackle Jones early, so he headed to intercept Jones near the 10-yard line—but Jones veered to his right and ran into that vacated hole.
Had the ambitious tackler stayed in his lane, no touchdown. Kickoff team players learn they must be disciplined. Paul similarly instructed Corinthians, Ephesians, and others to stay true to their God-given lane assignments (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4).
What was WORLD’s lane? As part of my refocus on WORLD early in 2002, l went back to basics, looking at what our journalistic predecessors had concluded when they read the Bible and sought their lanes. They started with Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” They believed that “all” means “all,” and that put them crossways with the reigning job description of a journalist during the 16th and 17th centuries: Make the king and royal officials look good.
A brave New York editor, John Peter Zenger, pioneered a new approach for journalists in 1735 when he criticized a corrupt royal governor who stole from Indians and from other colonists. Zenger did it because he was a Christian whose first allegiance was to the objective truth of the Bible—and he did not back down even when jailed. When a jury refused to declare him guilty, he returned to editing.
The year after the Zenger case, Virginia Gazette editor William Parks also exposed corruption, including the stealing of sheep by a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Threatened with prosecution, Parks used the Zenger defense of truth-telling: When he produced court records showing the accusation to be accurate, prosecutors dropped the case against him.
Christian journalists increasingly saw exposing corruption as part of their calling. As residents of the 13 colonies began to view themselves as Americans, Samuel Adams wrote in the Boston Gazette, “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly TERRIBLE to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS.” Isaiah Thomas, editor of the Massachusetts Spy, wrote that, without a free press, Americans would have “padlocks on our lips, fetters on our legs, and only our hands left at liberty to slave for our worse than Egyptian task masters.”
George Wisner, editor of America’s circulation-leading New York Sun during the 1830s, was a Christian who understood, “The abundance of news is generally an evidence of astounding misery, and even the disinterested deeds of benevolence and philanthropy which we occasionally hear of owe their existence to the wants or sorrows or sufferings of some of our fellow beings.” Wisner ran moral tales concerning the consequences of seduction, adultery, and abandonment, and wrote that he had received “much complaint” from some readers—but he thought naming names of moral offenders was an important deterrent.
All these Christian editors understood that we need to become aware of our own corruption to see God’s grace, and if we make readers aware of sin we do them a service. They were aware of Matthew 18’s injunction concerning personal offenses—“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault …”—but emphasized that those were private offenses (“sins against you”) rather than instances of community-affecting corruption such as stealing from the temple treasury.
This distinction was even evident in the title of the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. A news publication, Christian editor Benjamin Harris pointed out, should emphasize public occurrences, not private affairs, unless those affairs have public ramifications. A minister’s adultery, for example, affects a congregation much more than the waywardness of a regular congregant member. For people in public positions who are supposed to model virtue and elicit trust, every offense has public ramifications.
Having done my Bible and history homework, I gave our star reporter Lynn Vincent (she has since gone on to ghostwrite and co-write three best-selling books, including Sarah Palin’s autobiography) the green light to proceed with a story that would hit our cover in March 2002 as “Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Protestant Problem.” The inside subhead was, “As sexual scandal rocks the Roman Catholic church, Protestants face a lurking sex scandal as well. Will churches and national organizations take biblical steps to prevent further shame?”
The story began, “Sometimes the truth is unpleasant. No one enjoys discussing the lives shattered when shepherds turn out to be wolves. But Paul told the Ephesians: Do not merely shun the ‘unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.’ Though the apostle concedes it is disgraceful even to speak of wicked things done in secret, he adds that exposure drags dark deeds into the light, waking ‘sleeping’ believers that they in turn might walk wisely.”
Lynn continued, “A disturbing pattern of sexual exploitation is afoot in some churches, including churches that generally teach biblical truth. As God told Cain, sin is always crouching at the door, making it essential for both church leaders and members to understand the problem and its warning signs, if they are not to fall into nightmares like these. …” Lynn then named names and provided detail about three Protestant leaders, including one pastor who quoted Scripture to assure one woman that God approved of their sexual contact.
I knew upon reading her story draft that trouble loomed, so it was also time for a quick review of what we had done during the decade since 1992, when I first became involved in editing WORLD. We had critically investigated plans to nationalize healthcare and pass out needles to drug addicts while harassing Christian anti-addiction programs. We had exposed Fidel Castro’s license to kill and Chinese Communist use of U.S. technology to force women into aborting their children. We had opposed the Clinton administration when it booted Christian homeless missions from the federal surplus food program, but we had also criticized corporate welfare and crony capitalism. Such efforts had rarely brought “cancel my subscription” notes.
It was different, though, when we exposed evangelical leaders who used ghostwriters without acknowledging them, pastors who were silent about abortion, ministries that refused to disclose their finances, Christian counselors who preferred psychobabble to the Bible, and popular Christian musicians who dished out sugar rather than sprinkling salt. We covered the breakdown of Promise Keepers and the attempts to make the New International Version conform to some aspects of feminist ideology. Each time we absorbed some subscription cancellations, but each time we received support from old readers and some new ones as well.
Twice we thought it necessary to explain ourselves. When we exposed a popular Christian radio personality, we ran a print cover: “It’s easy to be critical of people outside our own family. We do that often at WORLD. Our week-to-week news coverage leads us regularly to report less than favorable things about people who make no bones about being unbiblical in their lifestyles, in their theology, and in their politics. But what happens when that same reporting leads us to negative information about someone known as an evangelical?”
Later in the decade, we criticized a hugely popular pastor, Charles Stanley, when he moved toward divorce while continuing to preach. WORLD publisher and founder Joel Belz acknowledged, “A number of readers have argued that we had no business mentioning the story at all.” Joel, though, stood by the decision to publish: “It is a clear biblical principle that to whom much is given, much is required. ... Such people are to be ‘above reproach.’”
Keeping those precedents in mind, I published Lynn’s story of clergy sexual abuse and wrote a column explaining why: “Reporting on evil is always difficult, because we’re well aware of Paul’s injunction to the Philippians: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8). That’s our goal. We also know, though, that Paul thought and wrote about sexual immorality in Corinth, idol-worship in Athens, legalism in Galatia, hypocrisy in Jerusalem, and many other false, dishonorable, unjust, and impure practices.”
I went on, “Was he breaking his own rule? No. Imagine a family going to the beach on Saturday, or to church on Sunday, and driving by garbage heaps on the way. Should parents and children be depressed? No, they should concentrate on what is lovely. That’s the goal, so as not to drown in the sewage of the world. But the world will be a better place if a newspaper columnist on Monday describes that garbage dump and insists that it be cleaned up. Paul was called to look at and write about some rotten stuff at times, and so are journalists.”
My conclusion: “As we wondered at times whether we should take the easy out and drop this story on clergy sexual abuse, we were also heartened by what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them’ (Ephesians 5:11). … Actions exposed by the light become visible, and that’s how evildoers are pushed to change lives.”
Keeping that in mind, in 2002 we kept criticizing the left in stories like “Sex, lies, and audiotape: Undercover tapes reveal that Planned Parenthood may be aiding and abetting statutory rapists.” But that year we also criticized the Bush administration for its inertia in fighting sex trafficking. In 2003 we published a cover story headlined “It’s not about hate, it’s about debate: A U.S.-based Muslim public-relations group works hard to silence critics of Islam.” But we also knocked the Bush administration for hassling Teen Challenge groups and ineffectively emphasizing bednets rather than insecticides in fighting African malaria.
I also began covering examples of Christian compassion abroad: first in Chile, Japan, Cambodia, and India, then in Communist China and Cuba, then at 20 African sites. We expanded and started ways of recognizing exceptional effort through our Daniel of the Year, Book of the Year, and Effective Compassion awards. Mindy Belz reported from hot spots such as Sudan and Iraq, and we also were at the worldview front lines reporting on Darwinism’s slow meltdown.
Coverage of those flash points was worthwhile, and it also gave us credibility when we reported critically about popular evangelical figures Pat Robertson, Alabama Judge Roy Moore, Ralph Reed, and others. As always, our exposure of some Christian problems led to some canceled subscriptions, but we thought it important to have cover stories like the one late in 2007 that grilled “Our pork: How Christian groups are joining the Washington feeding frenzy.”
By that time, though, I was embarked on a mission that could win a “least likely to succeed” award.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.