Evangelical magazine news rarely draws mainstream attention. Last year’s New York Times coverage of the split between Marvin Olasky and World was a notable exception. It was a well-worn narrative: The magazine had been “conquered by Trump.” The launch of World Opinions, a new section on the magazine’s website, by co-editors Nick Eicher and R. Albert Mohler was ostensibly a manifestation of this hard right turn.
As usual, the facts are more complicated than the story suggests. Senior reporter Sophia Lee resigned in Olasky’s wake, but she also contradicted the Times narrative on her way out, tweeting that despite the “terrible” headline, World magazine “had not gone MAGA.” It was further confirmed at the time that funds were not being diverted to the opinions page from the magazine’s straight reportage arm, which Olasky was deeply concerned to preserve.
Nevertheless, in a new retrospective essay, Olasky maintains that the past year has borne out his concerns. He laments the shift in priorities between the “old World” and the new “Culture-War World.” Where old World covered scandal around a figure like Madison Cawthorn, new World hasn’t touched his latest shenanigans. Where old World toed an establishment line on the pandemic, new World has run stories that Olasky frames as playing to evangelicals’ “anti-vaccine prejudice.” And stylistically, where old World prided itself on “understated prose,” new World columns “toss hand grenades” at the left. Old World was “conservative on some issues,” but it also covered topics such as homelessness and poverty, which Olasky implies would be intrinsically out of place in “Conservative World.” Given that Olasky himself writes compellingly on homelessness for the Discovery Institute—the conservative think tank where anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo first got his start documenting the gamut of homelessness and poverty issues—it’s not clear why he thinks this.
But the whole conceit of an op-ed page contradicts Olasky’s framework for “biblically objective journalism.” He defers to the Bible as the only “objective” source on matters it directly addresses. But on those topics the Bible does not directly address, he believes any human opinion is automatically “subjective.” Hence, he concludes that op-eds in these spheres are not the purview of Christian journalism.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t directly address a plethora of topics, including economics, immigration, gun control, contemporary American race relations, and pandemic protocol. Presumably, these are all topics on which Olasky doesn’t want American Christians to remain disengaged. He accuses “new World” of “speak[ing] authoritatively on questions where the Bible allows differences of opinion,” yet he still prides himself on the way “old World” did just that on the pandemic, despite all kinds of objective evidence that many reasonable people’s concerns about vaccines, masks, and social distancing were far from “paranoid.”
Olasky can be justly proud of World’s many achievements in the sphere of old-fashioned, pavement-pounding journalism. There’s room to lament the decline of something unique. There’s room to lament the death of the “long read,” the overwhelming demand for bite-sized bursts of news. And it would indeed be unfortunate if worthy stories are now being suppressed for political reasons, as he claims. (Though he doesn’t specify in the essay exactly who would have benefited from The Further Adventures of Madison Cawthorn, in Forty Parts.) But in its aim to shape and guide reader opinion on contentious issues, “new World” is not the radical departure from “old World” that Olasky claims it is.
Fundamentally, the rift between Olasky and World represents a clash of visions—one suited to a neutral-world context, as Aaron Renn would put it, and the other suited to a negative world. In a reply to a student letter, Olasky clearly locates himself in “neutral world,” rejecting “Flight 93-style” conservative rhetoric and holding out faith in the “common grace” to be found even among one’s political opponents. This presupposes a cultural context where the world outside the church is by and large fair-minded and tolerant, willing to disagree with Christians in good faith. Sadly, we can no longer take such a world for granted. James Wood’s critique of Tim Keller’s evangelistic philosophy also applies to Olasky’s journalistic philosophy. Both men flourished in a socio-political landscape that no longer exists. The point in critiquing them is not to say that there is never a time and place for “winsomeness,” or that Christians should not will the good of their enemies. It is simply to recognize that we do, in fact, have enemies.
But, contra Olasky, this tragic vision of our political reality as American Christians isn’t in tension with neighborly love. We still can and should welcome opportunities to invest in our communities and befriend people regardless of their politics. It is perfectly possible to see a hostile politician as an “enemy” while drinking tea with the Democrat-voting cat lady next door. It is perfectly possible to see a militant activist as an “enemy” while befriending the lonely gay recluse who just needs someone to talk to. To understand the culture war is not to abandon the people inhabiting the culture. It is to love them all the more.
This is where World Opinions seeks to situate itself: precisely in that Protestant commentary market gap where incisive cultural analysis and neighborly love intersect, and the cultural falsehoods that lead our neighbors astray are clearly exposed for what they are. This is certainly my own goal as a contributor. It is precisely because not all Christians have the disposition or the calling to be culture warriors that wise volunteers are so needed. This is necessary work, and further, it is work that can be undertaken “objectively”—not because there is a Bible verse for everything, but because God has revealed himself by the light of nature as well as Scripture. Indeed, this is the source of that very “common grace” Olasky emphasizes. By this light, the Christian can walk forward with confidence, seeking the good of the individual and the nation alike.
Bethel McGrew is an essayist and social critic.
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