At religious journalists’ conferences held in various parts of the nation, it is possible sometimes to see spread on the tables as many as several hundred religious papers and magazines. These displays often are adequate cross sections of what is being published by the Protestant or Catholic bodies (such exhibits of Jewish publications are rare). The sight is at the same time appalling, inspiring, and disturbing.
It is appalling because of the technical drabness and amateurishness of many of the publications. So much of the writing is slovenly and cliché-ridden, and so much of the editing results in routine and lifeless journalism.
It is inspiring, on the other hand, because of the editorial courage and vigor of more and more of these publications, by comparison with those of a quarter of a century ago, even though those presenting forceful and brave ideas still are in the minority.
What is disturbing is the generally enthusiastic approval of the publications by these people at the long tables, who often are would-be or actual writers for them or editors. They look approvingly at these scores of often colorful periodicals pouring from church school editorial offices, denominational publishing houses, special boards, and independent publishers. The reactions of these semi-professional readers as well as those of the regular subscribers, as revealed by reader studies, lead me to raise here what I think is an important question. It is:
What do readers in general expect of their religious papers and magazines?
Not much, evidently, or they would be less satisfied than they are with the press of this country’s religious bodies.
Is the reaction contentment or merely indifference?
It is, of course, both. No researcher has discovered yet to what degree it is either, but it would seem clear that the small circulations achieved by most religious publications indicate either unawareness or neglect of them.
Readers of religious publications often are like members of congregations that do not demand higher-quality sermons from their preachers, that do not push their pulpit men to better and better work. Just as the pastor, under such conditions, is likely to repeat himself and produce only thin ideas, neglecting both intense study and thought, so the editor whose readers are too easily pleased soon drops into a routine that makes each issue much like the ones that went before. And if the earlier ones were feeble, the result is easy to guess.
An editor who is without numerous watchful readers ready to insist that he live up to his responsibilities and potentialities is in a bad way. He may receive many letters praising him, but if he examines them closely they probably are all from persons of more or less the same viewpoints—his own. If they are not that kind of readers they are of the type that wants the religious press to be mainly a medium of entertainment—sober entertainment, of course, but in any case not disturbing, not upsetting. They want personal items, jokes, and pictures of church buildings being dedicated but no nasty editorials about racial integration in education or the paradox of Jesus’ ideals in a war economy. This editor lives in an illusion, supremely happy in his dreamland, rarely prodded into an innovation of any sort.
The other editor, whose readers are merely indifferent, is as badly off as his colleague of the worshiping readers, but for different reasons. He goes to meetings of his companions in editing and hears of the strong impact certain publications are making. Other journalists, it seems, have no room for all the exciting letters they get. But he receives few of any kind. Other editors cite results from editorials or articles suggesting action. Nothing much ever seems to happen to him, however. He is frustrated. He studies his latest issue to find the cause of the neglect.
Perhaps these editors, the deluded and the neglected alike, could change their conditions if they re-examined (or perhaps examined for the first time?) their responsibilities. They might look at them with a group of alert laymen, so as to keep themselves down to earth as well as to expose those laymen to some new ideas.
Duties Of The Religious Press
These editors and laymen might begin such a session by examining the responsibilities of the secular press, thus putting the religious publications in perspective. Those responsibilities of the secular press generally are thought to be these:
1. To inform the people, so that they can make decisions, in a democracy, based on full knowledge of events.
2. To provide opinions and other means of influencing the people, so as to guide them through a world of complex facts, with the intent not of telling them what to think but of developing their ability to think.
3. To entertain, in the broader sense, rather than merely to amuse them.
4. To assist the economic system by printing advertising.
Only two of these—to inform and to influence—seem to me to be necessary and appropriate for the religious press. If the religious press does not carry out these functions it is betraying its sponsors, who established it to carry out their own objectives, the most important of which is to propagate the faith.
I suppose there is no harm in the religious press’s fulfilling the entertainment function, but this certainly should be distinctly subordinate to the other two. As for the advertising function, I see it only as a necessity for survival and not at all as a commitment by any religious body to support of an economic order that rests so heavily on advertising as does ours. I can see a service function in the press of religious bodies carrying advertising, but the line between service and dependence must be sharply drawn.
Clearly, then, the responsibilities of the religious press are as great and also as complex as those of the secular press, and as I see them they are greater. For they include at least these seven:
1. To serve God. I hesitate to use that expression, not only because it is such a well-frayed cliché but also because it is so obvious—and also so sweeping and perhaps meaningless unless it is spelled out. Let us accept it as the charter and agree that to take up the responsibilities that come after it is the way whereby this paramount responsibility is implemented.
2. To inform. This means that the religious press is obligated to provide facts. It means that a publication must do what it can to help the layman as well as the professional churchman become informed about his own group’s news as well as about the events occurring in the larger world of religion. It leads to all sorts of problems of format, editing, financing, and distribution, but it is inescapable.
3. To educate. This responsibility is not the same as that of informing and certainly not the same as that of influencing, although education does influence. An informed person is not necessarily an educated one. He may have only isolated facts. He may be well informed in some areas but not religion. Education implies systematic accumulation and retention of knowledge, development of thinking power, adustment to any situation in life, and the ability to use the resources of information.
4. To interpret. In fulfilling this responsibility the press explains the meaning of religious events and shows the significance of secular events from the viewpoint of a particular religion. The massive failure, in my opinion, of the grass-roots church to shed religious light on world events may come in part from the shortcomings of editors who do not or cannot take this responsibility seriously. It also means the explanation of church policies to members, a responsibility more successfully carried out than the other by far.
5. To persuade. This, the evangelical function, is one of the best-fulfilled responsibilities in the list. It is the opinion-making function and comes naturally to most religious journalists. It is the focal point for being influential.
6. To reconcile. For most of the history of religious journalism in this country, that has hardly been accepted as the press’s function except in certain personal situations, such as splitting marriages. In fact, too frequently the opposite has been done. Scan the back issues and you see that many religious publications have done much condemning of other religions—even of other denominations—than their own. Although this has not ceased there is now less of it, partly because religion has a common enemy in certain anti-religious political theories and partly because more editors have come to realize that direct attacks on other faiths harm all faiths, in the long run.
7. To develop loyalty. One of the most common responsibilities and one of those most eagerly discharged by the religious press, this one hardly needs explaining. Religious journalists, if anything, are in my view far too serious and zealous in this endeavor; they pursue the aim so enthusiastically that you see them reach the point of printing articles and pictures about the all-Methodist football teams or the largest numbers of some one faith in the national Congress. By making such distinctions in the religious affiliations, if not devotion, of our representatives and senators, the editor seems to say that it is more important to have nineteen members of a certain denomination in our government than it is to know that some of those same churchmen are among the worst obstructionists to social progress. Yet the latter observation rarely is made. Realizing responsibilities 2 and 4 might be useful here.
What is likely to come of such self-examination? The editor may see wherein he perhaps is remiss. If he has the freedom and the journalistic ability to do so, he will see to it that his publication lives up to more of these responsibilities than it now does. This action, let him be warned, is likely to anger some of his contented readers and even cost him some circulation. But he will have more attentive, discriminating readers than ever before. If it is indifference that has plagued him, this largely will come to an end, for there will be a cutting edge to his work that it may have lacked before.
But he must have support, the support of those who control the publication—the boards, the bishops, or whatever other bosses are about—and, in the long run, of the readers.
In the United States alone there are, combining the figures of all faiths, about 1,700 religious publications. One scarcely sees any of these on the newsstands, for various reasons having to do mainly with economics and the public. One specific reason is that the public does not ask for religious papers and magazines at newsstands or, when they are put on stands, buy them in sufficient numbers to be profitable to the distributors.
This situation is much like that of the chicken and the egg. Church publishers have coddled the subscription plan for so long that many readers do not need to buy religious publications on newsstands. Consequently, a paper that tries to reach the unchurched in places where publications are on public sale—corner newsstands, drug stores, supermarkets—is certain to experience a loss, with only a few notable exceptions.
Yet, if the religious publications were dynamic enough to live up to their responsibilities fully—that is, if they were not belaboring readers with so much denominational nationalism and so much yea-saying that echoes the viewpoints only of the dominant groups in the church—there might be more editorial impact than is now evident.
Which kind of Protestant journal is it that keeps readers awake, that provokes thought on religious issues of the day and on the application of Christian ideals to the world’s problems? Is it the bland denominational house organ that is merely a monthly bulletin board and a poster on which to set forth the pet prejudices of certain church leaders? Hardly. Is it the all-pleasing non-denominational publication that must—so it thinks—stay safely on non-controversial subjects like smoking and dancing? Not it, either.
It is the slowly growing number of publications that do not fear to speak out. It is such periodicals, in the Protestant world, as The Christian Advocate, Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, The Churchman, Crusader, The Episcopalian, Eternity, The Lutheran, Motive, The Register-Leader, United Church Herald, The Witness, and, let no modest editor cut it out, Christianity Today. This is a list of only some that are typical of several dozen in all theological areas.
These publications, by living up to many of their responsibilities, are having an impact on the secular as well as the religious world today. Many more of the remaining hundreds could do the same.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more