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How Did The Press Become Prodigal?

Editor’s Note:  Below is a transcription of the video “Why Do We Say The Press Is Prodigal?”  This material is a summary of material in “Part I” of Prodigal Press:  Confronting The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media by Marvin Olasky and Warren Cole Smith.  To see the first video in this series, click here.

Many forces contributed to the decline of Christian journalism in America.  We identified many of them in Prodigal Press, so I’m just going to highlight a few of them here today.

The first one I’d like to mention is the rise of American Transcendentalism in the 1830s and forties. If you remember your high school English, you might recall such names as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These were two primary figures in the Transcendentalist movement in this country.

They were not materialists in the sense that we understand that word today.  They had a religious sensibility in many ways.  But it was very different from the biblically orthodox understanding of the supernatural.  In fact, their views were very much in conflict with historical Christianity, but it also began to have influence, especially in colleges and universities, and among men of letters in this country.

A second event that occurred soon after that was the American civil war between 1861 and 1865.

The American civil war sort of stands astride American history. We were one country before, and a different country afterward.  What we often forget is that there was a spiritual crisis taking place in this country at that time as well. The war caused many people to ask the question:  “Why God?”   Why would God allow something as dramatic, as destructive, as traumatic as the American Civil War to happen to a country that at least nominally proclaimed the biblical God as their God, and that included folks on both sides.

This spiritual crisis helped fuel a concurrent and counter movement, and that was a movement we now call the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening was an era of revivalist preaching and a rise not just of Christianity, but of many new religious movements.

In fact, the Second Great Awakening was different from the First Great Awakening which took place before the American Revolution.  The Second Great Awakening was based much more on emotionalism and revivalism and was not deeply grounded in a biblical theology. That’s one of the reasons why, for example, we saw such religious movements as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter-Day Saints, and other religious movements and cults also spring out of the Second Great Awakening.

Fast forward another 40 or 50 years, and we come to 1925 and the Scopes Monkey Trial, which of course has been emblazoned in the imagination of Americans as being a moment when God was put on trial in the form of the debate over creation versus evolution.

This trial was also an important moment in the history of American journalism.  Newspaper editor H.L. Mencken, then considered by many the Dean of American Letters, took a personal interest in the trial and helped make it what came to be called “The Trial of the Century.”

Mencken portrayed the Christians of Dayton, Tennessee, unsophisticated, backward rubes.  That portrayal of Christians became dominant during that time and has remained more or less dominant ever since.

Now, fast forward another quarter century, another famous trial.  This one is the Cold War Era trial of Alger Hiss.  Hiss was part of an important, progressive family who had been closely aligned with Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Hiss was put on trial for espionage, and many people could not understand how Hiss could be a spy against the United States.  The chief witness against Alger Hiss was a man named Whitaker Chambers, who went on to write a book called Witness, a brilliant book and one of the seminal documents of the modern conservative movement.

Whitaker Chambers’ book – and that trial — pitted a progressive and secular worldview against the more conservative and Christian worldview.  And because the press sided with Alger Hiss’ progressive politics, it blinded them to the reality that he was in fact guilty of espionage, a fact we ultimately learned only the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet records were opened to the public.

These events in American history have highlighted the divide between a secular worldview and a more Christian worldview.

I should also mention that technology has played an important role. We’re going to talk more about that in a future video — about how technology played an important role in affecting the way people think about religion.

But for now, I just want to mention a couple of names, Neil Postman, who wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves To Death, and Marshall McLuhan, who is probably best known for the phrase, “the medium is the message.”  They were both brilliant and prophetic in helping us understand how technology has impacted us in important ways, and have led us away from a religious and spiritual understanding of the world.

But I’m only going to mention Postman and McLuhan now, and we’ll dig more deeply into their ideas in a future video.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.