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Combating Caustic Communication with Truth and Beauty: Christianity Today, Beautiful Orthodoxy, and US Culture

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Lived Religion and Societal Challenges book series (PSLRSC)

Abstract

Embedded within a discussion of problems of definition and demographics, this chapter, this chapter highlights how Christianity Today Inc., one of the foremost evangelical periodical publishers in the United States, used communication etiquette both to appoint itself leader and custodian of evangelicalism and as a means of distinguishing evangelicalism from US American culture. Taking the financial crisis of 2008 as an opportunity, Christianity Today Inc. implemented a new policy, “One CT,” to streamline its products and rebrand journalistic fairness as an evangelical maxim. This chapter uses editorial material and interviews to discuss the policy’s overarching vision of Beautiful Orthodoxy, the dictum of holding firm to religious conviction but doing it in a friendly manner.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Beautiful Orthodoxy features largely in the online portrayal of Christianity Today, and is even part of the online address for “who we are” (Christianity Today n.d.-a).

  2. 2.

    For a critical assessment of the category “evangelical” and the inner-evangelical push-back, see Bassimir 2018.

  3. 3.

    Historically, fundamentalism was the name chosen by a particular group of conservative Protestants in the United States. “Fundamentalism” in common usage, though, became a pejorative term. Accordingly, conservative Protestants in the 1940s and 1950s chose to call themselves evangelicals instead, and the term today is in wide use. Marty, Appleby, and their team of scholars applied the term “fundamentalism” to religious extremism of any kind.

  4. 4.

    Many studies have pointed out, in the words of historian Axel Schäfer, that “Christian conservatives, though often regarded as staunch traditionalists, were both remarkably modern and remarkably worldly” (Schäfer 2011, 5). They quickly embraced technological developments and new media (e.g. Bassimir 2017; Campbell 2005, 2010, 2012; Clark 2007; Schultze 2008). Following in the vein of Nancy Ammerman’s studies of religion in everyday life (Ammerman 2006, 2014), this study focuses on the practices and beliefs that go into publishing a religious news magazine that combines the latest trends in technology and design with old-fashioned morality and traditional faith.

  5. 5.

    Research was undertaken as part of the project “Enterprising Evangelicalism: Distinction and Inclusion in Contemporary American Christian Religious Periodicals,” part of the DFG research group 1939, “Un/Doing Differences: Practices in Human Differentiation.” Many thanks to Mark Galli and everyone else at Christianity Today for facilitating my research.

  6. 6.

    Standard practice is to distinguish between “evangelical,” “mainline,” and “Black Protestants.” Here is Pew’s definition: “For instance, churches within the evangelical tradition tend to share religious beliefs (including the conviction that personal acceptance of Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation), practices (like an emphasis on bringing other people to the faith) and origins (including separatist movements against established religious institutions). Churches in the mainline tradition, by contrast, share other doctrines (such as a less exclusionary view of salvation), practices (such as a strong emphasis on social reform) and origins. Churches in the historically black Protestant tradition have been shaped uniquely by the experiences of slavery and segregation, which put their religious beliefs and practices in a special context” (Pew Research Center 2015).

  7. 7.

    Matthew Sutton has pointed out that the clear break between the two groups, often described in the literature, is mostly a fiction of evangelical elites.

  8. 8.

    On Pentecostalism, see Cox 2007; Robins 2010; Barfoot 2015. Studies suggest that Pentecostals also differ from other evangelicals in social and political matters (Garneau and Schwadel 2013).

  9. 9.

    The concept of “imagined community” is borrowed from Anderson 2006.

  10. 10.

    On the importance of Billy Graham for evangelicalism, see Noll 2001.

  11. 11.

    Societies are more diverse than categorial thinking in census data and surveys suggests. I use the term “dominant culture” to indicate broad trends. For more nuanced studies on diversity in the United States, see Eller 2015; Healy 2010; Parrillo 1996.

  12. 12.

    The survey counted Evangelical Protestants (25,4%), Mainline Protestants (14,7%), Historically Black Protestants (6,5%), Catholics (20,8%), Mormons (1,6%), Orthodox Christians (0,5%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0,8%), and Other Christians (0,4%), adding up to a total of 70,6% of people identifying as Christians out of the total population.

  13. 13.

    Ibidem. Cox and Jones write than non-Christian religious groups in the United States are growing, albeit slowly.

  14. 14.

    Both Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine, and Quartz, an online guide to world economics, have noted this fact. See Coffman 2010; Livni 2017.

  15. 15.

    According to the count of one Catholic journalist, based on lists from Pew and ARDA, there are at least 180 different Protestant denominations in the United States. Additionally, there is a plethora of unaffiliated, “non-denominational” churches, mega churches, and believers identifying with movements, like the emerging church, rather than a denomination. See Beale 2017.

  16. 16.

    Compare e.g. Bishop 2009. The popular, and oft critiqued, “culture wars” thesis described an America divided into a liberal, non-religious section and a conservative, religious section (Hunter 1991).

  17. 17.

    The Pew predictions indicate that in 2050 Christians in general will still be the dominant religious group (65,8%; Pew Research Center n.d.). However, by 2065, they predict that whites will no longer be a majority (Cohn 2015).

  18. 18.

    Evangelicals nonetheless often speak of “the Church.” This refers to an abstract, imagined community of Christian believers rather than a worldly institution.

  19. 19.

    The notion that Christianity Today used the newest technology to publish age-old Christian truths was also conveyed in the interview. At one point, Harold Smith interrupted me to correct my use of the term “periodicals” to refer to Christianity Today products: “It’s interesting that you’re using ‘periodicals’ because ‘periodical’ sounds like such an old-school term. I mean, it’s like almost Neanderthal!” (personal communication).

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Correspondence to Anja-Maria Bassimir .

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Bassimir, AM. (2021). Combating Caustic Communication with Truth and Beauty: Christianity Today, Beautiful Orthodoxy, and US Culture. In: Gelfgren, S., Lindmark, D. (eds) Conservative Religion and Mainstream Culture . Palgrave Studies in Lived Religion and Societal Challenges. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-59381-0_10

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-59381-0_10

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