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The greatest spin ever sold

The modern battle to preserve civilization began on Sept. 11.

For a long time most Americans have believed in targeting the perpetrators of a crime, not an entire culture. We don't say that driving is evil; we throw the book at drunk drivers. We don't force everyone to turn in guns; we try to keep them out of criminal hands.

Since last Sept. 11, though, liberal and neoconservative pundits have responded to the Islamic terrorist threat by indulging in broad religious profiling. With Osama bin Laden labeled an "Islamic fundamentalist," pundits have been telling us not just that he, his associates, and other radical Muslims are threats. Instead, as I'll show further on, The New York Times and its disciples would have us believe that conservative Christians are major threats to domestic tranquility.

Such smears were common in the 20th century, as the article on page 50 suggests. But this first press assault of the 21st century has been remarkably audacious for two reasons. First, it came after eight months in which, with George W. Bush in the White House and faith-based initiatives the talk of the town, only a few interest groups were openly castigating biblical belief. Second, the assault began during a period of expanded popular religious expression following the 9/11 attacks. More people than usual were showing religious concern in large ways and small, filling church pews and singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of baseball games.

Post-9/11 spinners, facing tough odds, went to work. We began hearing that religious people murdered thousands on Sept. 11, so we should be wary of religion. We began hearing that the only thing we have to fear is belief itself, so we should fight strong religious commitment on the beaches and on the landing strips. Pundits and liberal politicians pulled out rhetorical tools of all kinds, and the result was spin that helped to reverse a cultural trend.

Only once before in recent decades has the cultural left so astoundingly turned defeat into victory: Look at the 1980s rebound of the gay movement following the onslaught of AIDS. The disease spread because of reckless sexual behavior that, rationally, would have led to a reappraisal of such behavior and a realization that something about homosexuality is fundamentally wrong. But the news was spun, and gays came out as an oppressed minority deserving sympathy, rather than as people who were oppressing themselves and needed to change their ways.

This essay examines the spin since Sept. 11 and its social context:

  • We will see that many journalists have displayed anti-Christian bigotry, the one type of bigotry still allowed and even esteemed among many academic and media leaders.
  • We will see how both American history and Muslim history have been distorted in the process.
  • We will finish by discussing the impact of such distortion, and what needs to be done to tell the story straight.

But at the outset we need to examine the question of why anti-Christian press propaganda often is effective. In part, the answer lies with the power of the camera. It's easy for liberal journalists to point their cameras at a small group that appears at gay gathering places to yell, "God hates fags," and to be silent about Christians who help homosexuals stricken with AIDS and also enable them to come to grips with sin.

In part also, the dramatic nature of Christ's claims inevitably forces a reaction, either believing or hostile, just as He said they would. "I am the way" means that other ways are not, and that does not sit well with some. Christianity cannot be the live-and-let-live religion that goes down easily in a theologically laid-back society, because Christians know that the reality apart from God is live-and-let-die.

And yet, in the spirit of self-criticism, we should acknowledge that at times fundamentalists and other evangelical Christians have given plenty of ammunition to liberal critics. At times, generally from good motives, fundamentalist churches have put alongside biblical admonitions man-made ones against dancing, particular types of music, and so on. Such restrictions have a long heritage-Oliver Cromwell imposed some of them in England during the 1650s-but they produce a confusion about what is of God and what is of man, and often an adversarial reaction (as Cromwell found out).

It's true that many bigoted academics and journalists define Christianity in terms of the sins committed in its name-which is like defining science in terms of those who rigged experiments or used discoveries to create weapons of mass destruction. But we should also acknowledge that at times white members of Christian churches have discriminated against blacks, and others as well. At times members of affluent churches have turned their backs on the poor. That's no surprise-Christians know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"-but before castigating journalists for looking at today's more-integrated churches through a rearview mirror, we need to repent.

We also need to keep in mind a stylistic difference between many fundamentalists and many journalists trained in David Letterman irony. It's easy for such folks to look down on Christians so aching with a sincere desire to reach non-Christians that they start talking at them rather than reasoning with them. Proselytizing styles often grate, and all of us need to remember that God's action, not our strategy or intensity, changes lives. Many journalists tell privately of their experience with fundamentalists who, not taking "no" for an answer, pushed even harder when rejection was apparent. (That impoliteness may stem from a lack of confidence in Christ, because this year's "no" is never a final answer among those He calls.)

We also should remember that all of us continue to sin. As an elder in my church, I often ask prospective members the five questions that our Book of Church Order requires. Here's the third: "Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ?" I point out that without those two words "endeavor to," no one could answer that question affirmatively. We endeavor but we often fail, and we should be the first to acknowledge our sin and criticize ourselves for it. Rather than assuming journalistic bigotry, our first response upon encountering press criticism should be to see whether we deserve it.

One other way in which we may deserve slams is that many Christians bought into the theory of Thomas Jefferson, Clarence Darrow, and others that more education would lead to more secularization. As Peter Berger and others have pointed out, that theory was wrong, for religion is here to stay. But that pessimism among many Christians led some, including many Christian professors, to follow the secular world's advice: Hold your faith privately, but do not teach or write from a vigorous Christian worldview, because your goal is to be accepted. That pessimism led others, including many fundamentalists, to give up the fight at secular universities and stop trying to shape general cultural trends, so as to concentrate on creating a separate minority culture. In neither case did Christians make themselves available to every lost sheep, as Christ calls us to do.

So we need to ask forgiveness for our own trespasses, and also forgive those who trespass against us. To help with the former, WORLD has run cover stories criticizing Christians. To do the latter, we need to discern what those trespasses are, and to explain them in a way that is clear. What follows is a start.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.