I do not think of myself as a Christian journalist. I want to be a journalist who is a Christian.
Those are very different things to me, and I jealously guard the distinction. But the death of America’s foremost theologian of Reformed Christianity, Timothy Keller, and a new book about the hard collisions between faith, politics, and journalism by one of my industry counterparts, Jon Ward, are pushing me off my perch.
I feel so strongly about the vocational order of things that I wince at mentioning my beliefs here—not because I am ashamed of my faith, but rather because I do not wish to dishonor it. If I trade on my spiritual life, I turn something sacred, eternal, and intimate into a career strategy. And, worse, my all-too-human failings in public life could become a hindrance to the faith of others.
Doing so would also tend to close the eyes and ears of news consumers looking for political analysis and insight.
There isn’t anything I’m doing that couldn’t be done as well or better by a person of a different faith or of no faith at all. I want the best parts of who I am—a Christian, a father of beloved sons, a partner to an amazing woman, a brother, a friend, an American—to inform and guide my work. But that work has to stand on its own. I can’t wrap myself in those things and ask you to read these words through that filter. Indeed, my job requires that I recognize how who I am, for good and for ill, affects my own perceptions, and then do my best to control them.
And if what I worship and adore is really worthy, then those things will encourage this kind of honesty and mercy.
A journalist, especially in a free, pluralistic nation, owes his or her audience the best effort to portray the world as it is. That means developing the capacity to look at things through the eyes of others and eschewing feelings of superiority and contempt, faults which strong beliefs often encourage. But being a Christian demands that I seek to be humble; and there is no humility in imagining that there is only one way to look at anything. My analysis must start with the understanding that I might be wrong and then proceed with care.
So today, as a journalist who is a Christian, I have to look at my strong disdain for the voguish identity–based coverage that so often occludes reality and insight in the name of, heaven help me, authenticity. How does my desire to keep my identity out of the story limit the stories I am willing to tell? That’s certainly true for the ones that relate to my faith, which is a problem when Christianity and politics collide as they do now, to the detriment of both.
Keller, who died Friday at the age of 72 after a long affliction with pancreatic cancer, was a great thinker and marvelous teacher. He spoke plainly, but was informed by deep scholarship and intellectual rigor. He wrote for seeking nonbelievers and the devout with equal fluency and love.
What made Keller a singular figure in the church, however, was his rejection of the dominant trends in the church itself. When American Christianity in the 1980s was defined by a move toward non-denominational megachurches in the sprawling suburbs, Keller went the other direction, figuratively and literally. He embraced his Presbyterian heritage and moved from rural Virginia into the heart of New York City.
When the religious world demeaned mainstream Protestantism as weak and dead, he practiced it with doctrinal adherence and spiritual joy. When the secular world scorned Evangelicalsm as a cult of white suburbanites and hicks, he brought it to the city and administered it with mercy and erudition.
Keller succeeded wildly in his adopted city, but more importantly became an inspiration, example, and teacher to pastors and congregations around the country that wanted to reject the false choice between a rootless, unaccountable, theologically dubious faith that was alive with the Holy Spirit or a frigid, secularized, aloof community of quasi-believers for whom church was primarily a social gathering.
Keller helped millions of American Christians reclaim a faith that was connected to its past but alive in the present, accountable to a denomination but not isolated from other believers or closed off to the unchurched, of sound teaching but not academic. It was a quiet revival that charted, if you will forgive me, a via media between the extremes. I thank God for Keller and his ministry and was saddened by his death.
I was not saddened for Keller. His final words, spoken alone to his wife, Kathy, were these: “There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.” And I believe he meant it. But I am saddened for those of us left here in this anguished moment for American Christians, who will proceed without his wise counsel.
As Keller was leading his quiet revival, the Evangelical movement he took to the city became increasingly unwell in the suburbs. What had begun in the Jesus Movement and the Billy Graham Crusades of the 1970s on the premise of opening up the teachings of Christ to a changing world was closing itself off. The goal to evangelize—literally to share the good news—was being replaced by a new kind of Evangelicalism, disconnected from its noble history of the movement of the same name. Instead, it was a kind of loosely affiliated denomination of its own, one that was increasingly self-centered. While there were profound and sometimes even wild differences in the theologies of their churches, they were united by one thing: political ideology. To be a white Evangelical in America almost always meant aligning with the Republican Party.
In his new book, Testimony, veteran political reporter Jon Ward shares a highly personal account of what happened when the Evangelical movement into which he was born and by which he was raised became political, starting in the 1980s and 1990s.
Devout, new-wave Christians had once shunned politics as a sordid, worldly distraction from the things of the kingdom of Heaven and the more important work of spiritual warfare. Ward’s family’s congregation first began to engage with politicians around the issue of abortion. That gave way to the fight over same-sex marriage and anxieties about religious persecution. Then came the Internet, the Tea Party, and the resurfacing of apocalyptic beliefs that melded the works of Satan with those of a “new world order.”
Like so many Christians from the very beginning of the faith, some of the people who Ward grew up around as a preacher’s kid from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and the men he had worshiped with as a young adult, came to conclude that they needed to enlist the power of the government in achieving God’s aims on Earth. If these are the end times, then shouldn’t Christians battle Satan’s power by any means necessary? Politicians and media personalities exploited this trend, casting their secular messages in eschatological terms and playing up dark conspiracies.
And that is how a faith based on radical self-sacrifice and unconditional love came to be identified with the corrupt, arrogant, cruel person of Donald Trump and a political movement soaked through with fear, anger, and resentment. They were like believers 1,700 years ago who threw in with Constantine and the sanction of Rome, and so many others since then who ignored Jesus’ profound rejection of political power. They wanted the same thing as the crowd in Jerusalem that had demanded his crucifixion: A God of earthly, not spiritual dominion.
Ward chose as his title the word used by Christians for sharing the story of their own faith. The greatest Protestant hymn is an example, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” One’s testimony is their personal story of coming out of the darkness and into the light. Ward’s book does that, but for his journey out of a movement that had turned in on itself and made a false idol out of politics and power. Seeing it from the outside as a political journalist allows Ward to understand what he otherwise might have missed, but having lived it from the inside gives him a temperance and kindness that many critics of the movement lack. Along the way, Ward found a more nourishing Christian faith and a more thoughtful way to cover politics.
My own story is at times similar, but different in significant ways. I grew up in both the Evangelical movement and the mainstream church, and despite some youthful desire to be a religious radical, I have always felt more at home with traditional worship. It was there in the pews among the frozen chosen of a Presbyterian Church that I, as a young man, found the faith that I was abandoning, helped along by a bluegrass-picking pastor.
But I felt the flush of recognition again and again in Ward’s story, most certainly in the discomfort of living between two worlds. Indeed, Keller was instrumental in my finally learning to be at peace with occupying that space: to be a Christian first and foremost, but in my work to always be a journalist who is a Christian, not a Christian journalist.
After all, a journalist, like a Christian, is supposed to be in the world, but not of it.