Sometimes the attention to labels and definitions in our field seems excessive, merely an excuse for yet another conference panel. At other times, though, a slippage in terms causes significant confusion, as in a recent exchange I had with an editor at the New York Times Book Review.
"It would seem that the landscape of 1970s American Protestantism continues to befuddle outside observers. ... Mainline Christians read the consistently liberal Christian Century, which had briefly lost its tax-exempt status for an editorial endorsing Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater. If these mainline Christians and their fellow elites had also read the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, the emergence of the religious right might not have come as such a surprise."
To my own surprise, an editor responded to my letter right away, on a Friday night no less. But the response only confused me further.
The reply read, in part:
Rich didn't put that as well as he might have, but his point--taken from "The Invisible Bridge," and documented by Perlstein--was that the editorial content of Christianity Today at that time was politically liberal, despite its ties to Billy Graham and evangelicals. (Perlstein cites, as one example, the magazine's endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment.) Most of its ministerial readers, Perlstein says, stayed away from politics, "hewing to a theologically informed reluctance to get involved in 'worldly' concerns." Speaking of this time (the early '70s) Perlstein writes, "The politics of the emerging 'Christian right' was most visible in Christianity Today's margins--its literal margins, in the ad columns."So what I had at first assumed to be a fairly simple mistake--the review named Christianity Today when it meant Christian Century--turned out to be the tip of a murkier iceberg. At least three questions were in play: 1) What would it mean to call Christianity Today "liberal"? 2) Was Christianity Today "liberal" before, at some point, it ceased to be? 3) And what of the portion of my letter not addressed in the reply, the mainline Christians who allegedly read Christianity Today?
Based on my own reading of this history, my years working for Christianity Today International, and the smart comments from some of my Facebook friends (who also don't have much to do on a Friday night, apparently), here's how I would answer these questions.
1. For Perlstein, Rich, and my correspondent at the Times, "liberal" is a political rather than a theological marker. Christianity Today could qualify as liberal if it took some stances aligned with the Democratic party and/or if it chose not to align with the Republicans. CT's arguments about such topics as biblical inerrancy (on which it took a very hard line in the mid-1970s), missions, or ecumenism (see the 1969 cover image above) would be irrelevant to its liberal qualification.
As a religion scholar, I would reverse this order of consideration, weighing CT's theological positions more heavily than its political positions (or lack thereof). I suppose it's mostly a disciplinary preference, but I would also argue that CT cared more about, and was more consistent in, its theological stances than its political stances. From my perspective, it simply makes to no sense to call a magazine that would go to the wall for biblical inerrancy in the 1970s "liberal," regardless of what it printed about politics.
2. Certainly, CT's conservatism--theological as well as political--has ebbed and flowed since its 1956 founding. Around the offices, editor Harold Lindsell's "Battle for the Bible" in 1976 was frequently cited, with chagrin, as the apogee of the magazine's rightward swing. So there is some grounding to claim that CT was more liberal in the early 1970s than it would become later--but not the grounding cited by Perlstein. As my friend Tobin Grant (a political scientist who blogs at Corner of Church and State) pointed out, both Republicans and Democrats supported ERA in 1972. It wasn't only a "liberal" cause. Additionally, though Billy Graham was all-too-closely linked to Richard Nixon, he was a lifelong registered Democrat, as were several of the editors I knew in the 1990s and 2000s. All of this to say, reference to "still liberal Christianity Today" at any point in its history is misleading at best.
3. Of course, in all of this I would seize on the passing reference to "mainline Christians." I'm guessing Perlstein meant that false cognate, mainstream Christians. Here, I stand by my original letter. CT had some readers who identified as evangelicals but belonged to (or even pastored) churches affiliated with mainline denominations, but that isn't the same as saying that mainline Christians read CT. If they had, I suspect that the ads in the margins would have alerted them earlier to leaders and causes of the Religious Right, and the content of the pages would have helped them understand the center-right evangelicals who supported those leaders and causes in the 1980s and 1990s. WORLD magazine is much better place to see the marriage of evangelicalism and the Right, but it didn't launch until 1986.
Anyone who has read Perlstein, please comment on whether my observations apply to his book or only to that line in the review. I don't mean to criticize his work based on second- and third-hand reports, only to point out that the more people who are involved in trying to ascertain something about American religious history, the more important it is to figure out what each of them means by his or her chosen terms.