Magazines and Crises: Journalism for the Public Church

By Heim, David | The Christian Century, April 28, 1993 | Go to article overview

Magazines and Crises: Journalism for the Public Church


Heim, David, The Christian Century


THE PUBLIC has changed during the last decades, even centuries. A public that once snapped up pamphlets by Thomas Paine or stood for hours listening to Abraham Lincoln debate Stephen Douglas hardly exists; its span of attention shrinks as its fondness for television increases ... A public that reads serious books, magazines and newspapers has dwindled." So lamented Russell Jacoby in a book several years back titled The Last Intellectuals. His contention may be hard to prove in detail, but it expresses a widely felt sense that the market for serious prose directed at a sophisticated but general audience (like the CHRISTIAN CENTURY's) is disappearing. Newspapers follow the McNews-bite approach of USA Today, and general-interest magazines are replaced by special-interest journals designed through market research to capture a niche of readers (and advertising dollars) under such specialized categories as fitness, travel or home decorating. Meanwhile, serious writing on moral issues, politics, culture and public life migrates increasingly to the pages of academic journals.

Editors, at least editors of a religious magazine like the CENTURY that covers theology, religious life, politics, social issues and the arts and tries to reach a broad audience, are inclined to speculate on these matters. We are provoked to do so again by news of the demise of Christianity and Crisis.

C&C was not only a sister nondenominational publication on the liberal wing of American Protestantism, but something of a stepchild. It was launched by Reinhold Niebuhr in February 1941 in deliberate opposition to the voice of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Under Editor Charles Clayton Morrison the CENTURY was a firm opponent of U.S. involvement in the war in Europe. Support for the Allied cause had become for Niebuhr a touchstone of Christian realism and political responsibility--the tragic necessity evident to those not deluded by perfectionism and sentimental utopianism. Niebuhr's own career as a public theologian had begun in the pages of the CENTURY under Morrison, but as Niebuhr's interventionist leanings became clearer in the late '30s their relationship soured. In May 1940, while German armies were overrunning Western Europe, Morrison editorialized on the need for America to remain neutral, and he called on Roosevelt to arrange a conference of neutral countries to formulate terms for an armistice. Such a proposal at this point in the war drew a sharp rebuke from Niebuhr. In a letter in the CENTURY Niebuhr termed Morrison's idea "fatuous," his foreign policy "completely perverse and inept." Morrison's stance was a "shocking revelation of the disposition of Americans to close their eyes to the magnitude of the tragedy which has engulfed Europe."

Morrison, for is part, was not a pacifist, though he deeply respected the pacifist position. He was more of an isolationist--though he would have rejected that term also. He regarded himself as a pragmatic peacemaker. He believed that the U.S. could accomplish nothing by involving itself in the corrupt machinations of the European powers. By entering the war the U.S. would only jeopardize the promise of democracy and social progress at home and undermine its ability to contribute to a just international order.

For those who know C&C today there is some irony in the fact that at its birth it was to the right of the CENTURY (if these labels can be anachronistically applied). The story of how C&C evolved from Christian realism and liberal interventionism toward its recent emphasis on liberationist themes would capture a good deal of the history mainline social ethics. How much this record departs from or continues the Niebuhrian legacy is of course a subject of regular debate, since what counts as "realism" depends always on contingent judgments and a selection and weighing of the relevant facts. That is why debate is crucial--and why journals are needed.

We are pleased that C&C has bequeathed to us its John C.

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