A couple of recent events have highlighted one or two of the peculiarities of the subculture of American Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity. First, Ergun Caner is suing a couple of pastors in an attempt to keep some material pertaining to his life from being published on the internet. Second, talk show host Janet Mefferd accused megachurch pastor, Mark Driscoll, of plagiarism (as noted by Collin Garbarino on First Thoughts last week). Earlier today, the pertinent material compiled by Ms. Mefferd mysteriously vanished from her website.
I do not wish to comment on the specific details of either case; but it is interesting to note that both touch on the freedom of the press or media. Caner wants to restrict information about him; and we can only speculate at this point as to why Ms. Mefferd has removed the material from her site.
These incidents prompted one friend of mine to ask the ask the obvious questions: Is journalism no longer considered a legitimate Christian calling? Or is the task of the Christian journalist simply to strengthen the hand of the vested interests?
A free press is basic to the health of democratic culture in the civil sphere because it offers one line of public accountability for those in public office. Those who perform immediate public acts should expect to be subject to immediate public scrutiny. And what is true for the culture at large is also true for its various subcultures. A free Christian press is also important for the Christian subculture: it keeps leaders and organizations accountable.
Of course, as with the mainstream media, there is the ideal and there is the reality. The ideal is a fiercely independent media seeking the truth in a disinterested and objective way. The reality is that everyone is owned by somebody. Every radio station has its sponsors. Every newspaper has its proprietor or shareholders. Every Christian organization has its theological confession and its constituent base. It is naive to think that this does not impact how these groups respond to events and seek to portray reality. And there is a sense in which they have every right to do so. The alternative—-state control—-is distinctly undesirable.
Where the situation becomes sinister is when one group attempts to police the activities of another, or where one Christian organization or leader uses their personal power or share of the market to prevent others, with whom they are not formally connected, from speaking freely and asking the hard questions. At that point, things take a very sinister turn indeed.
Some years ago (another time, another webpage), someone I know made thinly veiled criticisms of a powerful evangelical organization. The response was swift: First, he received a series of personal pleas from people at the organization, telling him to stop; then he later discovered that his boss had come under direct pressure from head office at the other organization to remove him. The truth of what he had said was not (as far as I am aware) challenged at any point. It was simply that his comments were very inconvenient from a public relations perspective. Thankfully, the boss sided with his writer, not with the external critics.
That is why the health of the Christian subcultures in our society depends to an important extent upon the freedom of the Christian press; and that in turn depends upon having plenty of public voices and different groups presenting their different perspectives without the threat of being silenced by those with power and money. I need voices that criticize me and so does everyone else who operates in the public Christian sphere. Of course, I do not like being criticized; but it is necessary for the health of public life that it be so. It would be a disaster for us all if one or two organizations or individuals came to wield such influence that dissenting voices were eliminated. If that were to happen, there would less accountability for public figures, the news would be very carefully stage-managed, and we would all be impoverished. That is one reason why the Caner case is so incredibly important and, depending on the reason for the removal of the material, why the Mefferd controversy might yet prove to be very significant indeed.
As John Milton said regarding truth: Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing. I am with Milton here: The freer the press, the less the innocent have to fear and the more the guilty need to be worried.