Cards on the table. I’ve had a long and, well, uneven relationship with Christianity Today (CT), generally regarded as the flagship magazine of white evangelicalism.
Founded by Billy Graham in 1956 as a response to Christian Century, Christianity Today aspired to be in the vanguard of evangelical thinking on theology, politics, and social issues. The initial issue trumpeted evangelicalism’s “relevance to the world crisis.”
Occasionally, the magazine approached that goal. Too often, it has settled for mediocrity and for reflecting a perceived consensus.
As an old editor friend of mine used to say in a mock portentous tone, “Christianity Yesterday.”
I was both an employee and a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the late 1970s when the seminary’s dean, Kenneth Kantzer, was named editor of CT (a post he held concurrently with the deanship). Though widely regarded as a saintly figure in evangelical circles, Kantzer was also an inveterate fence-sitter. He would occasionally make daring (in that world) statements about the role of women in ministry, for instance, but when the waves of conservative criticism washed in, he headed for shore like a sandpiper.
I lost touch with Christianity Today during graduate school and in my years as an assistant professor, but I began writing for the magazine in the 1990s – book and movie reviews, nearly a dozen feature articles, three of which were cover stories. I revised several of those articles into chapters for subsequent editions of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.
That relationship came to an end with Mark Galli’s reign of error as editor. By that time, I was on the masthead as editor-at-large. Galli, who thought that promoting his own book in the pages of the magazine was a swell idea, apparently regarded me as insufficiently deferential toward the Religious Right. He tried several times to remove me from the masthead.
Although Christianity Today had declined to support Richard Nixon’s impeachment back in 1974, Galli’s final editorial before his retirement at the end of 2019 was entitled, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.” While many people applauded the editorial as courageous, Galli’s sentiments arguably would have been more efficacious, say, four years earlier – before 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
I’ve never met Christianity Today’s new editor-in-chief, Russell Moore, formerly head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have no fixed opinions about him, although Moore invited me as a Zoom guest to his class at the University of Chicago, so I guess I’m generally well disposed. Besides, anyone who riles up the yahoos currently running the Southern Baptist Convention has earned the presumption of respect.
Having taken over a year ago, Moore is still new on the job, although I have to wonder if he’s minding the store. A recent article by Jonny Williams, “Legal Advocates Eye Next Big Victory for Religious Liberty,” applauds recent Supreme Court rulings that whittle away at the First Amendment, America’s best idea.
Any celebration of the Kennedy, Carson and 303 Creative decisions is, to say the least, myopic, especially for anyone concerned about the integrity of faith. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District said it was all right for a football coach to lead his public-school athletes in prayer on the 50-yard line of a publicly funded athletic field. Hmm.
Aside from blurring the line of separation between church and state, didn’t Jesus have something to say about those who prayed ostentatiously in public? Didn’t he recommend praying in a closet?
The Carson v. Makin decision permits the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for religious schools. How is that not a species of religious establishment specifically forbidden by the First Amendment?
303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, building on the equally misguided Masterpiece Cakeshop decision of 2018, holds that business owners have the legal right to refuse service to anyone who offends the shopkeeper’s “religious” convictions about gender or sexual identity.
Let’s play out the logic here. I want to open a coffee shop, but I absolutely refuse to serve Scandinavians. Or Jamaicans. Or women. The Supreme Court says that as long as I can cite a religious objection, that’s just fine.
How can anyone justify discrimination in a business open to the public as an expression of religious freedom?
For people of faith, these decisions are no cause for celebration. What Jonny Williams, who is listed as CT’s national political correspondent, apparently fails to recognize is that the separation of church and state mandated by the First Amendment is the best friend religion has ever had. It set up a free marketplace for religion where religious groups compete on an equal footing, thereby lending a vitality to religion in America unmatched anywhere in the world.
Once that line of separation fades, it’s the integrity of the faith that suffers. Consider the words of Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America. He wanted to separate the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of a “wall of separation.”
It’s important to remember that Williams and his contemporaries were not members of the Sierra Club. Wilderness for them was a place of darkness, where evil lurked.
So, when he wanted to separate the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world, he wanted to protect the integrity of the faith from too close an association with the state. That’s the genius behind the First Amendment.
Russell Moore, a Baptist, knows that. Russell Moore knows better.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.