Commentary Magazine

The Religious Press in America, by Martin E. Marty & Others

Faith and the Issues

The Religous Press in America.
by Martin E. Marty, John G. Deedy, Jr., David W. Silverman, and Robert Lekachman.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 184. pp. $4.00.

The four essays that make up this book were written by a Lutheran minister, a Roman Catholic layman, a Conservative rabbi, and a Barnard College professor of economics, Robert Lekachman, who appears here in the role of kindly outsider. The first three of these writers survey the history of religious journalism within their own groups, judge past and current performance, and end by gazing a little into the future and exhorting their co-religionists to think more in the direction of bringing theology to bear on life in the Republic in these inclement times. In the criticism of current practices and the exhortation to think in larger terms, Professor Lekachman cordially joins. If the book says little that will be very new to those who read the religious press at all, it is nonetheless a useful and, in a low-keyed way, intelligent survey of its subject, and has about it an agreeable air of candor. Nobody in the book seems to have much to crow about. Indeed, there is a sentence by Lord Byron that might have served as epigraph to the whole enterprise: “But God help us all, it is at present a sad jar of atoms.”

Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran minister in Elk Grove, Illinois, and an associate editor of The Christian Century, does the Protestant press and sees defensiveness as its besetting sin. Too regularly, he believes, Protestant journalism surrenders to “small-bore” denominational goals instead of “giving witness,” i.e., bringing to bear on contemporary problems an intelligence and conscience formed by Protestant theology. This is a variant of the criticism made almost a century ago by Matthew Arnold, of the smallness of the life imaged in the Protestant press, “a life of jealousy of the Establishment, disputes, tea-meetings, openings of chapels, sermons.” Mr. Marty finds much of the Protestant press in America still determined by a 19th-century idea of its function, and hence ineffectual in the national life. So that when John Glenn orbits the earth, for instance, the Protestant press seizes the occasion to proclaim that little Presbyterians can make good in space. This kind of defensive bluster, Mr. Marty believes, creates a paradox in Protestant journalism: on the one hand, immense activity—many periodicals, sound financing, large circulations, considerable technical skill, freedom from authoritarian control—and on the other, a press that does not reach an audience outside the denominations and that, were it to disappear tomorrow, would not be greatly missed. (Mr. Marty has some rather more cheerful things to say, too, but it has seemed best to get the hard truths out of the way first.)

The Catholic press, where the stigmata bloom in the spring and archbishops telephone God almost every night, is reported on by John G. Deedy, Jr., editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic. Mr. Deedy quotes the observation of J. F. Powers that the Catholic press in its dreary negativism and contrariness combines “all the worst features of the bully and the martyr.” Its frequent tendency to defensive bluster he explains as a legacy from the Counter-Reformation as well as from the 19th century, when Catholic immigrants often found themselves attacked as dangerous aliens. Mr. Deedy addresses himself also to the problem of authoritarian control of the Catholic press, recently dramatized, he points out, by the fact that both the New Yorker and The Christian Century could give their readers coverage of the first session of the Vatican Council that was superior to almost anything to be found in American Catholic journals. Mr. Deedy gets off some fine ironic passages, too, in commenting on how the Catholic press, which so hugely enjoys denouncing secularism, itself habitually runs advertisements that the better secular journals would not touch and promotes circulation by highly questionable methods. For Mr. Deedy, the bitterest irony is that the journals that do a conscientious job—The Commonweal, for example—are the ones that frequently find themselves short of funds and under fire from the Catholic community. Mr. Deedy has some happier findings to report, but again I shall postpone discussing these for a moment.

David W. Silverman, Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale, New York, reports on the Jewish press, whose history and predicament he presents as more or less that of The Girl Who Took the Wrong Turning. Rabbi Silverman suggests that at the level of the synagogue bulletins and the a-denominational weeklies, with their relentless chronicling of births, Bar Mitzvahs, marriages, and so forth, the Jewish press has a defensive provincialism of its own. But what concerns him much more is that in the serious intellectual journals—COMMENTARY for example—the specifically religious part of Jewish life appears to have been abandoned. The writers in these journals, he implies, are likely to be much more conversant with Fowler's Modern English Usage and with developments in the social sciences than with Jewish religious tradition. Ironically, Rabbi Silverman suggests, this situation was in large part brought about by the remarkable success of the Yiddish press in educating and “Americanizing” earlier generations of Jews. The secular emphasis of the press of that period and the failure of the rabbinate of the time to reach the new immigrants combined to cause the sons and daughters of those immigrants to view their religion as a species of irrelevant folklore that got in the way of their becoming American.


The last essay in the book is the work of Robert Lekachman, an economist by trade but also a member of the study commission on Religion and Free Society of the Fund for the Republic and a writer long interested in the workings of religion in a pluralistic society. Professor Lekachman records his disappointment at the failure of even the best religious journals “to sound a clear religious note in the public dialogue.” Either these journals fail to show that religion has anything to say about, for example, the danger of thermonuclear war (the failure of relevance); or they abdicate judgment on economic problems (the failure of scope); or, taking a stand on public questions, they announce attitudes and principles rather than specific programs (the failure of precision). What it comes down to is that the religious journals either say nothing on public questions or else offer opinions indistinguishable from those to be found in the good secular journals. The fact that Professor Lekachman is able to single out half a dozen religious magazines (The Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, The Commonweal, America, Midstream, COMMENTARY) as consistently civilized in tone and serious in purpose hardly offsets the general melancholy of his conclusions. (The Christian Science Monitor might perhaps have been added to Professor Lekachman's list, but it has largely foregone its original religious function in order to perform a straight news and interpretation service.)


Against all this, what can be said? Not a great deal, the authors suggest. They are all agreed that the religious press has acquired considerably more technical dash in recent years and that it attracts and publishes excellent writing. Rabbi Silverman sees hopeful signs in the Jewish press that questions like federal aid to parochial. schools or the New York Regents Prayer controversy are forcing Jews to reconsider the secular libertarian line they have often taken and to examine “for the first time” the entire problem “of Judaism's relation to the free society.” Dr. Marty is heartened by the indifference of educated young Protestants to the small defensive concerns of their elders, by the growing ecumenical spirit in the Protestant press, and by the great courage it has shown on occasion. Mr. Deedy reports that the Catholic press enjoys a good deal more freedom now than it did in even the recent past and that there is hope that the matter of external control is on the way to resolution. In support of his view, he is able to quote with obvious glee the advice of Pope John to Catholic journalists, that they must be prepared “to defend and help defend truth, justice, honesty, even before religion and the Gospel.” Indeed, it must be said from the Catholic side, that the late Pope did much to bring about the movement away from polemics in religious writing and to create an atmosphere of increased good feeling—an achievement the more significant insofar as it came about at a time when the dangerous process of “columnization” has gone very far in American life and promises to go even farther. (Columnization is the awkward but apparently inevitable term used by Gerhard Lenski to describe the development of separate and parallel societies—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish—within American society and with church affiliation, of all unlikely things, as the basis for division.) Dr. Marty and Rabbi Silverman who stress the Protestant, Jewish, and secular contributions to the creation of an atmosphere of good will, exhibit an admirable awareness of the dangers of “columnization” and of the responsibility of the religious press to counteract them. Professor Lekachman is impressed by-how certain magazines have occasionally illuminated national issues by bringing to bear on them ideas not readily available to secular thinkers: America's discussion of federal aid to parochial schools; Midstream on the recitation of the Regents Prayer; Christianity and Crisis on thermonuclear war. He is grateful, too, for the high literary quality of some of these magazines, COMMENTARY, for example, and for the sense of tragic depth that, for instance, a journal like Christianity and Crisis has brought to the discussion of public questions. But pretty plainly, the general record of the religious press has not been of a sort to call for widespread or very strenuous rejoicing. All the writers here agree on that.

I should like to close by offering several brief criticisms of the book. The most serious is that neither Dr. Marty, nor Mr. Deedy, nor Rabbi Silverman faces up to the hard question of whether or not theology really has anything relevant to say about the social and political questions of our time. All three imply that it does, which leaves Professor Lekachman alone in maintaining that he has seen little evidence to support such a view. His own position in the matter seems a shade naive, for he assumes: (1) that specific programs are to be found in religious revelation or tradition; and (2) that these programs will and must be dramatically different from those offered by secular thinkers. The religious press has not often, it is true, discouraged these assumptions, but they are nonetheless in error. (Since Catholic writers have done their share to perpetuate them, I might point out in this connection that at least one spokesman for the dissenting view is the German Jesuit theologian, Karl. Rahner, who has specifically and roundly denied that the religious tradition has at its disposal such spectacular programmatic solutions.) Yet the failure of the three religious writers in this volume to discuss how theology can be brought to bear on contemporary secular questions, even while reiterating that it must, appears like an evasion of the central issue. Some of the space given over to the more obvious failings of the religious press—its defensiveness, for instance, about which we have heard a good deal before—might better have been devoted to grappling with this fundamental question.


I would have wished, too, that the analysis and evaluation of the best of these magazines had been carried further at the expense, if necessary, of the lesser ones. If all the authors had confined themselves, as Professor Lekachman does, to The Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, The Commonweal, America, Midstream, and COMMENTARY, analyzing their respective strengths and weaknesses, we might have been able to get a better idea of the shape of the contemporary religious dilemma as a whole. But these reservations notwithstanding, this is a useful and candid little volume which provides a fine introduction to the subject.

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