In the ethos of the new evangelical Republican Party, hosting an event at Mar-a-Lago that honors LGBTQ persons within the party is intolerable, but supporting a president who advises men interacting with women to “grab ’em by the pussy” is OK.
Such is the dilemma now tearing at the heart of one of the nation’s premier news journals for conservative evangelical Christians. This internal struggle has led World’s longtime editor to step down while a converted never-Trumper from the Southern Baptist Convention exerts more influence over the media empire.
A lengthy report in the New York Times brought news that Marvin Olasky has resigned as editor of World, which started out in 1986 as a print magazine but since has expanded to include a robust online presence and podcasts in addition to the biweekly magazine. The media company reported revenue of $11 million in 2019, the latest year for which public records are available.
Olasky, 71, had planned to step down next year but said he has accelerated his timetable because of challenges and changes at the media company — all centering on the divisive personality of Donald Trump and the large number of evangelicals in his tow.
Enter Al Mohler
One of those Trump-supporting evangelical leaders is Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the SBC. Mohler previously served on World’s board and now is reported to be a driving force behind a new opinion section Olasky says he was not properly consulted about and does not endorse.
In the same week that national news broke about Olasky’s departure, Mohler has penned a piece in the new World Opinions section taking on Donald Trump and the GOP for hosting a Log Cabin Republicans event at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort — with the former president and his wife in attendance.
This, to Mohler, is a sign of the apocalypse. His column is titled “Will the Last Conservative Please Turn Out the Lights?”
The LGBTQ-inclusive festivities at Mar-a-Lago represent “a moral earthquake disguised as a social celebration,” he wrote. “The event may be remembered as a milestone in the death of American conservatism.”
Mohler picks apart a report on Fox News where someone speaks of the value of “LGBT conservatives” to the party. That, to him, is an oxymoron. “That makes sense only if conservatism now means nothing more than dismantling human civilization more slowly than the left demands.”
The Log Cabin Republicans represent “moral liberalism,” Mohler insisted. But “true conservatism” he added, is “based in the impulse to conserve the truths, traditions and principles that are necessary for human happiness and lasting civilization, is committed to a metaphysical vision that acknowledges that sex and marriage are not plastic realities to be reshaped at will.”
And Mohler concludes with this: “If conservatism is not accountable to the moral law, it is nothing. If would-be ‘conservatives’ fall all over themselves to celebrate the Log Cabin Republicans, we are doomed. Driven by love of neighbor, our Christian concern must be to conserve the institutions and truths necessary for healthy human society — and the defense of marriage as the union of a man and a woman is at the top of that list.”
“If conservatism is not accountable to the moral law, it is nothing.”
But when it comes to Trump’s well-documented history of sexual infidelities, sexism and abuse of women, Mohler and his allies have decided to grant a pass.
In published comments just prior to the 2020 presidential election, Mohler explained why he had changed his mind about Trump and why he could support Trump without having to apologize to Bill Clinton, as he had previously said.
“Well, I am voting for Donald Trump in 2020 and I make no apology to Bill Clinton,” he said. “I do apologize, but my apology is for making a dumb statement that did not stand the test of time. I am not about to apologize to Bill Clinton, who stands guilty of having desecrated the presidency by his gross sexual immorality while in office. I still believe in the necessity of character for public office, but I have had to think more deeply about how character is evaluated in an historic context.”
The Trump handwriting on the wall
Mohler’s no-regrets flipflop on Trump is emblematic of the larger conservative evangelical movement, especially among white Christians. And that already had spelled trouble for Olasky and World.
In October 2016, World published an editorial by Olasky declaring Trump morally unfit for the presidency and calling for him to step aside and let another Republican run at the last minute. And ironically, Olasky quoted Mohler to say that the infamous Access Hollywood tape had “revealed a sexual predator, not merely a playboy.”
Olasky explained: “Although World over its 30 years has been more critical of Democrats than Republicans, particularly because of the abortion issue, we are not partisan. The standards we applied to Bill Clinton in 1998 are relevant to Donald Trump in 2016.”
By no means did Olasky intend to endorse or support Hillary Clinton or any Democrat in the 2016 election. He lamented at the time: “We know that few Democrats and only some Republicans abide by the Constitution. They make up rules as they go along, put into practice cranky ideas marinated at leading universities, and demonize opponents.”
The New York Times quotes Olasky as saying he received about 2,000 emails in response to that piece, with about 80% of them disagreeing.
“That was a very painful time for us because it divided our staff as we had never been divided,” World founder Joel Belz told the Times. It also created havoc with the nonprofit organization’s board of directors.
After Trump’s 2016 election, the same divisions that increasingly wracked the Republican Party and evangelicals nationwide continued to divide World’s staff, board and readers. These have included criticisms about the magazine’s coverage of several young women who said Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., had exhibited “sexually or verbally aggressive behavior toward them when they were teenagers” and more recently criticisms about the realities of COVID and masks and vaccines.
But the final blow for Olasky came in September when he was told those above him in the organization would start the World Opinions section, with heavy influence from Mohler who, before his election as seminary president, was briefly editor of a weekly Baptist newspaper in Georgia. There, he mainly wrote editorials in support of the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC and its leaders.
“I am not interested in the project of a conservative opinion magazine — there are lots out there already and that’s not my vision of World.”
Olasky considered this slight against his editorial leadership as an effective “vote of no confidence” from World’s board.
“I am not interested in the project of a conservative opinion magazine — there are lots out there already and that’s not my vision of World,” Olasky told the Times.
Olasky and World have been well-known in publishing circles for his particular view of “Christian” journalism, which he calls “biblical objectivity.”
When Olasky became editor in 1994, he raised the eyebrows of more traditional journalists — even in the religious press — for something that seemed to make news agenda-driven. This was two years before the launch of Fox News and well before the ubiquitous presence of bloggers on the internet.
Even though he presented credentials as a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and affiliations with other mainstream journalistic enterprises of the day, he carved out a reputation for his insistence that “the only true objectivity is biblical objectivity.”
He carved out a reputation for his insistence that “the only true objectivity is biblical objectivity.”
Thus, he said, Christian journalists must study the Bible and seek to use its teachings as filters in their reporting. He created a six-point scale of evaluating whether the Bible has anything to say about an issue and how that should apply to reporting.
“Journalists must quote people on both sides of the story for all six classes, but there is no obligation to weight both sides equally when the Bible gives one clear answer,” he said.
Olasky’s approach was heavily critiqued by the late Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. In 2000, Parham cited Olasky’s influence as having empowered a “lack of objectivity” in Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news service. Olasky had led a seminar sponsored by the SBC.
In 2006, Baptist Press itself reported on Olasky’s leadership at another seminar for Baptist journalists. The story began: “All journalists are shaped by their worldviews, and the only way to bring true objectivity to journalism is to be shaped by the worldview of the Bible, Marvin Olasky said at the Baptist Press Excellence in Journalism Banquet in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 7.”
Olasky has influenced other aspiring Christian writers as dean of the World Journalism Institute, which describes itself as offering “instruction in Christian worldview and the nuts and bolts of backpack journalism for convergent media.” He also has written 28 books and is credited with coining the phrase “compassionate conservatism” that became a hallmark of the George W. Bush presidency.
More recent coverage
Olasky’s view of biblical objectivity has not withstood the disassociation with facts and truth created by Trump and Trumpism. He has been criticized for stories written about George Floyd’s murder, about COVID and masks and vaccines and voter fraud.
All the hot-button issues where Trump and his followers have told blatant lies — swallowed most readily by evangelical Christians — have created conflict with World and its readers.
In a piece currently featured on the World website, Olasky answers a question from a young writer who wants to know more about “how some of the things you publish make your readers or evangelical leaders angry, because you aren’t doing PR for Christian groups or political candidates.”
He responds with what has come to be known among his followers as the “Flight 93” illustration.
“Some ‘Christian conservatives’ think America is in a “Flight 93” plight. Anna, you were a small child on 9/11, but Flight 93 was the hijacked plane on which brave passengers rushed the cockpit. They knew they might die (and they did), but by then other planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. They knew if they did nothing, Flight 93 would probably crash into the U.S. Capitol or some other structure, and they (with many others) would die anyway.
“If the Flight 93 folks are right, America now has a ‘ruling class that’s hijacked the country: We’re heading toward civil war. Oddly, some of the rhetoric is like what I used when on the political left half a century ago. But in November 1973 I came to believe in God, purely through his grace — and I also believe in ‘common grace.’ That means even in a polarized society like ours, God can still furnish the providential blessings and restraints that will allow us to muddle through — as long as we don’t treat opponents as enemies.
“My reporting-centric vision of journalism and my hope for common grace may seem quaint, but to me they form an ethical imperative: Follow Jeremiah 29:4-7 and try to bless rather than curse our cities and our neighbors. Emphasize reporting that takes readers to people and places they might otherwise never meet or see and helps us learn from others.”
More Mohler and opinion
Over in the new World Opinions section, however, there’s a bounty of content that is far from “reporting-centric.” And among the regulars opining about the cultural war issues of the day is Mohler — who in addition to headlining this new project has his own website and radio program with fresh daily opinion content from him.
On Oct. 1, Southern Seminary announced that Mohler would serve as opinion editor for the new section and seminary ethics professor Andrew Walker would be managing editor.
“What we need is one place with authoritative, respectful, thoughtful, unequivocally Christian and conservative opinion, from a range of voices who share that commitment.”
“We are living in a great battle of ideas.” Mohler said. “What we need is one place with authoritative, respectful, thoughtful, unequivocally Christian and conservative opinion, from a range of voices who share that commitment.”
Walker added: “The project is committed to fostering an unambiguously Protestant and conservative perspective on the great issues and challenges of our day. World Opinions is going to be at its best when it helps the reader connect their theological convictions to their political convictions.”
“We’re going to speak without hesitation in defense of objective truth, in defense of right.” Mohler added. “We’re going to be helping Christians join in the defense of those principles.”