One question I’m often asked is “Is it hard to be a Christian and a journalist?”
Whenever I speak to young people about my job, this inquiry pops up almost every time. I always think it odd. I was raised deep inside the cocoon of a nondenominational evangelical church myself, so I know the question reflects presumptions about the world outside. But I still can’t quite nail down why it bothers me so much.
Many conservative Christians are told that the media is evil—almost as bad as Democrats, or maybe worse. That’s the way I grew up. Just like Hollywood and universities, I was taught that the media were secular, godless liberals; that they hated us and our values.
Sometimes it came from a speaker at church. More often it came from the media and messaging centers that dominated evangelical culture. This was conservative talk radio for sure. But I also heard this from conservative political organizations like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and others. I heard it in places like the Teen Mania conferences where I went to get “fired up” for Christ and sign up for overseas mission trips.
So, when kids ask me if it’s hard to be a Christian and a journalist, I know they have a certain picture in their heads. They visualize me going to work surrounded by debauched atheists who did lots of drugs and had lots of drunken sex and read atheist propaganda.
When recently elected US Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) told stories about orgies and cocaine, which were later refuted, he seemed to be working off the same assumptions that drove the questions I got from students just a little younger than he.
Conservative Christians are far more hostile toward the media now than they were when I was growing up. Some of my own family members have told me I should be ashamed of myself for doing my job. In fact, most people don’t like the media—and that’s bad for society. The media shares some of the blame for that, as I’ve written recently for Yahoo! News.
But after working in journalism for 20 years, my Christian faith is deeper and stronger because of this job. As I’ve worked on a book about growing up evangelical and then becoming a mainstream journalist, one thing has become increasingly clear to me: Being a journalist has actually made me a better Christian.
Journalism has empowered many of the most noble, the most Christian elements of my character. I have been discipled for two decades in how to discern what is true and false, and—probably more importantly—how to discern when there are no easy answers or solutions. I have been trained in pursuing truth without regard to whom it offends.
I have also been given a sense of humility about what we can know for sure and how often we need to acknowledge that our point of view is limited and incomplete. This is sometimes called “epistemological modesty,” and it is a quality that we badly need more of in our discourse.
Many “crisis merchants” love to pretend that the answers to our challenges as a nation are simple. It allows these self-proclaimed leaders to build mini empires for themselves through social media likes and followers, viewers on prime-time TV or listeners on talk radio. They whip people into a frenzy of anger and fear and reap a harvest of dollars.
In addition, I have experienced the incredible benefit of expertise. One of the journalist’s chief jobs is to identify experts and separate them out from those who claim to have insight—to talk to them and then translate their expertise for the reader. The effect is transformative. A set of facts might look one way, or one-dimensional, until one talks to an expert.
From a very young age, I latched on to the idea that Christianity is a faith that believes in truth. I’ve always loved the way that Jesus stood for truth. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Christ said (John 14:6). At another point, he promised that his Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (16:13).
When he was about to be executed, Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (18:37). Elsewhere, Christ said that “the truth will set you free” (8:32).
But there are many constraints that make it harder for most people to pursue truth today—and yet being a journalist has freed and equipped me to do just that.
Most people form a point of view about the world based on which groups they spend time with and which groups they are a part of. The groups they belong to shape their identity: their family, their church or affinity group, their political party, their profession. Even bigger than that, their group defines the story they believe they are living in.
A person’s worldview and “story” then filters what information they take in and what they reject.
Whatever group you are in, it will punish you for believing or saying the “wrong” things and reward you for supporting what they support. This problem exists in all groups, mainstream journalism included. Most journalists in the mainstream media live in places that skew left politically, and so they either grow up with that perspective or come to be influenced by it in big and small ways.
However, journalism is one of the few circles in which speaking up against one’s own group, against groupthink in one’s own culture, is generally encouraged and rewarded. It is far more valued than in most other tribes.
There are other groups like this, people who belong to professional societies that hold what former CIA director Michael Hayden called “Enlightenment values: gathering, evaluating, and analyzing information, and then disseminating conclusions for use, study, or refutation.”
In his book The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch notes that the worlds of scholarship, science, research, statistical analysis, regulation, and law all elevate these values in addition to journalism.
I have had a varied career. For eight years, I worked for a conservative newspaper, TheWashington Times. Then I spent a year and a half helping Tucker Carlson start the Daily Caller. Then I worked at a liberal website, The Huffington Post. And for the past seven-plus years, I’ve worked at Yahoo! News.
My stint at The Washington Times set the tone for my career. There were ways in which that newspaper had institutional biases set by the owners and the top editors. But those of us reporting the news were fiercely committed to following facts wherever they led.
I’ve always lived by that code in my two decades in journalism, and here’s the key: The industry, on the whole, has rewarded that pursuit.
I have been free to listen, to consider, to agree or disagree, and to follow whichever direction the evidence pointed to on each issue. In this respect, I feel I am paid to move in a Christian direction—one that remains apart from arguments motivated by ideology or group membership.
That is because, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, Christians should always have a prophetic presence in the world, rather than be beholden to any power or principality or political party.
“The church must be reminded that it is not to be the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” King said. “It must be the guide and the critic of the state—never its tool. As long as the church is a tool of the state it will be unable to provide even a modicum of bread for men at midnight.”
But Christians cannot be the conscience of the state if we are not first the conscience of whichever political party we belong to. We have the difficult task of belonging to political parties and working for the good of the country through those institutions, while also standing apart from those parties to criticize them at times for their weaknesses, errors, and corruptions.
The more one stands outside political powers, parties, and groups, the more one is free to pursue the truth where it leads. And the more one pursues the truth, the more one will see the many areas for constructive critique at every point along the ideological aisle.
This is what it means to stand with one foot planted in the kingdom of man and the other planted in the kingdom of God: to be a “border-stalker,” as artist Makoto Fujimura calls it.
Christians should cross many borders. They should belong to parties and stand outside of them. They should even cross between parties at times, never pledging unswerving allegiance to either. They should be deeply invested in working toward the good of this country and this world, while remembering that their citizenship is in heaven and their hope is in Christ, come what may.
By crossing back and forth across different borders to increase understanding and tear down lies, especially those stemming from reductionist caricatures and misleading confusion, Christians can carry out the call to be agents of truth, nuance, and healing—to engage in culture care rather than culture war.
Jon Ward is chief national correspondent for Yahoo! News, author of Camelot’s End, and host of The Long Game podcast. His second book, Testimony—a story of growing up evangelical and then becoming a mainstream journalist—will be released in April 2023 by Brazos Press.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.