Who Are You Calling Liberal?

Elesha Coffman

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 started with Frank Rich's August 3 review of a new book by Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The review noted that the post-Goldwater conservative army included "an emergent religious right invisible to the mainline Christians reading the still liberal Christianity Today." I couldn't quite figure out what error(s) contributed to this unlikely sentence, or whether the mistake originated with Perlstein or Rich, so I sent a letter to the editor that read:

"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.


Randall said…
This is really strange and fascinating. I hadn't seen the Frank Rich review of the Perlstein book. I've looked through most of the issues of CT from 1956 until about 1972 and I agree that the use of "liberal" is definitely off. Esp. if liberal meant anything about support of an activist state. Or, support of the civil rights movement. Or, opposition to the Vietnam War. Or, support for ecumenical efforts. . . . A comparison of the somewhat liberal Methodist Advocate or the National Lutheran with CT makes this all the more stark. For that matter, even the middle-of-the-road Christian Herald (NY) looks almost liberal when compared to CT.

For what it's worth, I really like Perlstein's work, and especially enjoyed Nixonland, which I used for a course I taught on the 1960s. I corresponded with him a little bit about that book. Also, sent him a minor correction for future printings. MLK's final speech was given in the (Charles Harrison) Mason Temple, which is the HQ for the Af-Am Church of God in Christ. Perlstein had it as a Masonic temple. Not sure the COGIC folks would be happy about that.
Matt Sutton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Sutton said…
As (almost) always, I agree with Randall. Perlstein, who I also like a lot, missed the mark here. I saw little "liberal" in my reading of CT, and Carl Henry, Nelson Bell, and Harold Ockenga were of course all very conservative (politically and socially and theologically). I suspect Perlstein has been duped by those who overemphasize "progressive" evangelicalism in the past as a model for the future.
Paul Harvey said…
Randall, I've seen that "Masonic Temple" mistake a lot of places. I can totally see where that would be easy to do if you had never heard of COGIC. AS for CT, I read it starting maybe around 1972 or thereabouts, as my family subscribed to it -- and they didn't subscribe because it was "liberal."
Paul Harvey said…
Yes, I was a complete dork then, too.
Frank Bellizzi said…
Yes, CT was conservative from the beginning. What is really interesting about the early years is how much the editors (Carl Henry? and who else was it?) wanted readers to know about all sorts of biblical and theological issues. Readers were taught about Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner, where evangelicals could and couldn't agree, etc. In biblical studies, readers were taught about things like the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch, and why it was bogus, and the theory of Markan priority and literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. It's impressive, really. Then, after about the first 6-8 years, that changed. The heavy stuff almost completely disappeared.
Randall said…
That is something about that early theological engagement. Does seem like much of it, though, was done in order to reject everything left of Graham and co. A little like the intellectual engagement of Francis Schaeffer a decade later. (Let's learn something about Kierkegaard so we can say how horrible/pernicious his influence is.) But I do recall some interesting essays about theological developments on the continent and in the UK. Also discussions of recent stateside developments.
Neil J. Young said…
I almost sent the Book Review a letter as well.

The mistake originated with Perlstein. This passage from p. 372 of his book is what I suppose led to Frank's mistake:

"One place you could read about such books [like The Politics of Pornography or The Messianic Character of American Education] was Christianity Today--but not in the editorial content, which still took strikingly liberal positions. (The editors were so impressed with the arguments in All We're Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women's Liberation that they came out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. In their survey of eighty-seven denominational leaders, eight of fourteen Baptist officials supported it, too.) Most of its ministerial readers still stayed away from social issues entirely, hewing to a theologically informed reluctance to get involved in 'worldly' concerns, traditional in evangelical circles ever since the humiliations of the 1925 Scopes trial. Instead, the politics of the emerging 'Christian right' was most visible in Christianity Today's margins -- its literal margins, in the ad columns."

I've looked at every page of CT from 1956 through the end of the 1980s. As others have pointed out, "strikingly liberal" is just not an accurate description of the magazine's editorial content, politically, culturally, and certainly not theologically. The early issues are striking for the range of positions they sometimes displayed, but this was not of a nature that would characterize the magazine's editorial leanings as liberal. Rather, the range of positions were usually presented together - such as allowing different contributors to offer positions on issues like the death penalty or the ERA in the same issue - even as the magazine overall still tilted in a clearly conservative direction. The multiplicity of perspectives CT sometimes printed served, if anything, to make the magazine (in its first decade or so) less partisan rather than "strikingly liberal." Carl Henry and others were committed to making CT an open place that would attract a wide range of Christians to a narrow theological perspective of Biblical orthodoxy. They believed there was some flexibility around political issues and worship styles and didn't want to antagonize possible adherents to the evangelical message by taking overly strident political positions, but again this certainly didn't mean that the magazine had liberal editorial content.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Perhaps this is unfair, but I read early CT through the lens of Henry's CONFESSIONS, particularly a quotation therein from Edward John Carnell about wanting to command the respect of a Paul Tillich and John Bennett. "We need prestige badly," Carnell concludes. Isn't that what drove CT to "engage" with a Bultmann, Women's Liberation, and so on--simply a desire to connect to without endorsing the big names and big issues of their day?
Elesha said…
You have a good point, Mark. Remember, CT was founded as an evangelical answer to The Christian Century, which was all about heady debate (within a generally liberal framework). CT eventually moved away from this model for business reasons. The Century had (and has) a small readership, mostly clergy and library subscriptions. CT expanded its reach to a much larger lay readership--but lay readers didn't want to read about Bultmann. CT started out looking for respect from liberals but transitioned to claiming authority based on a large (evangelical) readership.

Incidentally, CT still has a regular feature gathering a variety of viewpoints on hot topics. The pieces are really short, though. The magazine as a whole, I'd say, is less about presenting the range of possible viewpoints within evangelicalism and more about embodying a center for the sprawling, brawling movement.
Randall said…
I've found this to be a good source on the topic: Robert Booth Fowler, A New Engagement: Evangelical Political Thought, 1966– 1976 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).

I drafted a short list of the main topics it seemed that CT zeroed in on more than others in the 60s. I wonder what others think were the top issues that dominated the editorial staff's attention?
Matt Sutton said…
Since Randall asked, I am copying a self-promoting paragraph that gets at some of these issues from my forthcoming book (although the book is far, far more about pre-1950 fundamentalists than post-1950 evangelicals):

A decade into the magazine’s run, its politics continued to reflect the conservative ideals of its founders and financiers. Historian William G. McLoughlin wrote at the time that evangelicals were “deeply committed to nationalistic, laissez- faire ultraconservatism.” They “equate Christianity with ‘the American way of life’ as defined by the National Association of Manufacturers; they are hysterically anti- Communist in foreign policy and totally opposed to any extension of the Welfare State in domestic policy.” McLoughlin’s purpose in profiling the group was to alert the broader public that they needed to take the evangelical movement seriously as a political force. “The United States now has a permanent, powerful, and respectable ultra- right wing in its political spectrum,” he concluded. “The new evangelicals are the spiritual hardcore of the radical right.” The magazine’s editors basically agreed with McLoughlin’s characterization. In an article subtitled “For the Right—Not ‘On the Right,’ ” they “admitted that there is some truth” to the Brown University historian’s characterization of the movement. However, in a chicken- or- the- egg dissent from McLoughlin, they argued that rather than conservative politics shaping their faith, the true application of Christianity produced their conservative politics. But they did not doubt that hard right conservative politics and evangelical faith were mutually reinforcing, which proved to be essential to the movement’s growth and appeal.
Daniel Silliman said…
A relevant quote from the editorial of the very first issue of Christianity Today (written by Henry, I assume):

“Christianity Today will apply the biblical revelation to the contemporary social crisis, by presenting the implications of the total Gospel message for every area of life. This, Fundamentalism has often failed to do.”

Obviously there's some nuance to that political positioning, but it seems clear that, from the beginning, CT was political and also of the right.

Going specifically to Elesha's question about readers, clergy who responded to the magazine's political questionnaire in 1956 preferred Eisenhower over Stevenson, 85 to 11 percent. Henry attributed this to Ike's "identification with an attitude of faith in God and in objective moral norms." I take this to be a decent proxy for the readership.