Hidden Sins

American journalists have become remarkably clumsy in handling news stories with a religious slant. And no wonder. As the profession becomes increasingly secular, journalists not only reject Christianity, they fail even to understand it. Marvin Olasky, in his book Prodigal Press, recounts a marvelous illustration. The time was 1973, and President Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate controversy. On Easter Sunday Nixon attended church and the sermon was about Jesus' power over sin. "I don't like to talk about sin," the pastor said. "But let's face it. It's a fact of . . . life." He ended his sermon with a challenge: "We can sweep [sin] under the rug and dismiss it . . . or you can walk out of here transformed individuals by the power of Jesus Christ." It was a stirring message, and to someone like you or me it was perfectly intelligible. But to reporters, it made no sense whatsoever. The spiritual message went right over their heads. They decided the sermon was really a disguised political attack on Nixon. Listen to the questions put to the pastor afterward by reporters. "Was this aimed at the president?" one reporter steamed. "No," said the pastor. "Was it a Watergate sermon?" "No." "Then you're saying nothing in your sermon had any relation to the president?" "I wouldn't say that," the pastor replied, "If I single out anyone in the congregation and say a sermon had nothing to do with him, that person might as well not come to church." The reporters were still confused. "Then you're saying you were preaching to the president." Finally, the pastor threw up his hands in exasperation and said he was simply preaching basic Christian doctrine. We're all sinners who need to repent, he said, "and whatever the president wants to make of what was said this morning is between him and the Lord." You might think this was clear enough, but it wasn't. The next morning all the news stories came out with the same predictable slant: Pastor chastises Nixon, the papers said. Pastor warns Nixon to stop pretending to be a Christian. Pastor tells Nixon to repent of his Watergate sins. And on and on. I was working in the White House at the time and remember well how impatient Nixon grew over the media's mishandling of the event. But the story behind these stories is simple. The reporters simply could not comprehend anyone taking the idea of sin seriously. In their view the only things worth taking seriously are practical matters—things like finance and politics. As sociologist Robert Bellah says, most journalists think Christianity is "a holdover from the Dark Ages . . . something only ignorant and backward people really believe in." This is not to cast aspersions on journalists' motives. Most of them sincerely try to be objective. But they've been brought up to believe that only scientific facts are objective, and that religion is a matter of private opinion. It was not always that way. The press was once much more sympathetic to religion. In fact, many of our great newspapers started out as Christian papers. Tune in for that story tomorrow.? [Part 2 in a series on Prodigal Press, by Marvin Olasky.]


Chuck Colson


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