News Service 2000 Commentary
by David Aikman
When an obscure peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, offered himself as a candidate for the democratic nomination for the presidency in 1976, the only surprising part of his Renaissance-style resume (farmer, businessman, nuclear engineer, naval officer, etc.) was the listing of the profession “Christian” along with all the others.
What did he mean, inquired the bemused but curious Washington press corps that had been unleashed upon this particular candidate? Southern Baptist, okay, but Christian? Was this some new church denomination?
When Carter obligingly explained that he was a “born-again” Christian – the quotation marks are still obligatory in the nation’s major newspapers – the curiosity turned to bafflement. What strange beast was that? A snake-handler, perhaps, or something to do with Billy Graham? In capital cities around the world American foreign correspondents confessed to their Japanese friends that they, too, couldn’t understand what a “born-again Christian” was.
Jimmy Carter, as everyone now knows, survived this first bout with the provinciality of the nation’s major newspaper reporters. In fact, he enjoyed the last laugh by winning a decisive majority among the nation’s evangelical voters in the 1976 general election, even though his margin of victory nationally was a razor-thin two percent.
But there was little for most of us to smirk about. At a time when, according to the pollster George Gallup, some 40 million Americans described themselves as “born again,” the term was obviously as unfamiliar to most American news reporters as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
In a vague effort to push the concept of a large, grass-roots American evangelical community out of sight and mind, therefore, much of the media resorted to the safe old standby term for people of religious conviction: they were “fundamentalists.” The word, with its unmistakable odor of uncouthness and fanaticism, had the useful effect of consigning evangelicals to the category of the unreportable: what they believed somehow shouldn’t be taken seriously; and anyway, they were all rather tedious.
America’s “fundamentalists,” however, wouldn’t conveniently go away. Having supported Jimmy Carter, they then demonstrated an annoying unpredictability in 1980 by deserting him in droves to vote for his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. And they kept growing. A 1985 Gallup testing of evangelical Christians found that the 40 million, in less than a decade, had grown to some 90 million. Other studies confirmed the findings: 94 percent of Americans believed in a personal God, 40 percent or more attended church weekly, and by every other criterion, America was a far more religious country in the 1980’s than it had been for decades.
All of these developments were barely noticed by the American media. Even such tell-tale signs as a consistent growth in American missionaries being sent overseas, failed to alert the vast majority of the nation’s reporters to the unique phenomenon taking place in their midst, namely, one of the most dramatic nationwide increases in evangelical Christian belief for nearly a century.
Overseas, of course, the rapid growth of Christian churches in the Third World escaped notice altogether on the part of the stars of investigative journalism. It was not until the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the U.S. hostage crisis, and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s export of his radical Islamic views that consciousness began to dawn. Something, obviously, was afoot within Islam. Of course, it must be fundamentalism!
The failure to observe at all, not to mention to analyze and explain, the rise of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. over a period of two decades must constitute one of the great modern blind spots of the American journalistic mind. It is a failure sadly paralleled by the inability of Western reporters during the same period to grasp the scope of the Khomeinyist Islamic revival, or the dangerous reverberations of a renascent Islam, even among Muslim communities around the world not belonging to the minority Shi’ite sect of Islam dominant in Iran.
Finally, there is a third media failure in the category of modern faiths, that of not explaining how the 20th century’s great secular religion, Marxism, has continued to attract Third World adherents when its economic tenets have been universally demonstrated to be false.
This singular media blindness has had all sorts of unpleasant consequences, and not just among American evangelicals who have had to endure the many prejudices – born of ignorance – that swoop around the public marketplace. Americans as a whole, have been short-changed by those whose job is to report the news and analyze events around the world. They have been kept in the dark about one of the great stories of the century, the emergence of a growing, perhaps mortal competition among the world’s great religions for the ultimate loyalties of mankind.
Why has the U.S. press failed so conspicuously to do justice to this phenomenon? An ordinary explanation would be ignorance. But the fact is that the ignorance is at least partly wilful. Survey after survey of the U.S. media has confirmed one overwhelming fact: U.S. reporters tend to be overwhelmingly secular in their worldview, they tend not to respect religious faith in general, and they for the most part espouse a system of values that is inherently hostile to the traditional Western values handed down in the Bible.
In a well-known survey of 216 leading U.S. journalists conducted in 1981 by sociologists S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, 54 percent of the respondents thought adultery was not wrong, 75 percent considered homosexuality an acceptable life-style, 86 percent seldom or never went to church or synagogue, and 90 percent thought that abortion was an inherent right of women.
If those figures are frightening for Christians, they are likely to be even more strikingly skewed away from traditional values today than 6 years ago. Of course, the recent string of scandals and internecine squabbles within the evangelical community has not made the task of reporting sympathetically about it any easier. In fact, U.S. news organizations have at times displayed open hostility towards any Christian organization with a high profile and explicit evangelical positions, tarring much of Christendom with the opprobrium earned by only a small part of it.
In so doing, some journalists have departed from one of the first principles of their professional code of ethics: keeping personal likes and dislikes out of the business of reporting. They have, though, departed from a more important principle as well: being curious about life, and open-minded enough to ask a lot of questions. In theory, that’s what journalists are supposed to do all along.
Is there a Christian solution to this? Yes, there is. But if it is simple, it is not easy. For years, Christians have been content to drift along with the changing fashions of trendy whims of the general populace. They have been confident that there isn’t too much difference between Christian and non-Christian standards and behavior in private life and society.
That confidence is utterly misplaced in today’s climate. If God’s people are not to be completely swamped by the evolution of much of modern culture into barbarism and neo-paganism, then they must fashion the instruments of their own cultural expression, including their news media, for themselves. Otherwise, they will be unable to accomplish the very first thing, to discern the signs of the times. This refashioning includes, in a manner of speaking, re-inventing journalism, and applying to it the biblical standards evangelical Christians demand of their own and other Christians’ private lives.
Little by little, in such outstanding locations as CBN University’s journalism program, or in the Communications program of Youth With a Mission, this is being done. But until journalism as a whole has been significantly redeemed from its present sunken worldliness, one of the great stories of the millennium – how more people than ever before are finding Christ – is going to be lost to the world at large.