A Review of Christian Standard’s Coverage of U.S. Presidents Since 1866
By Jim Nieman
Has Christian Standard’s coverage of politics been slanted during its 154-year history?
The readership of a Christian journal would demand nothing less.
The better question might be: Has Christian Standard’s coverage of politics been fair?
We certainly hope so . . . but when you root through more than 7,500 issues of a magazine, you’re bound to find at least a few items that give you pause.
When asked to examine the magazine’s treatment of politics since 1866, I decided for expediency’s sake to focus on Christian Standard’s coverage of the 29 presidents who have held office during its history. I quickly discovered coverage of certain presidents was rather skimpy. The magazine’s comprehensive centennial index—1866 to 1966—showed very few items about the first three—Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes.
THE GARFIELD CONNECTION
Next up was James A. Garfield, one of the 10 original investors in Christian Standard magazine.
As one would expect, founding editor Isaac Errett was supportive of his friend Garfield’s candidacy. I suspect Errett’s words from June 19, 1880, might represent the editor’s original vision for the magazine with respect to politics: “Ours is not a political paper, and we have nothing to say, in these columns, touching the party issues between Republicans and Democrats.” He followed that statement, however, with a general endorsement of his friend, the Republican nominee:
But as touching the character of James A. Garield as an honest man, a Christian gentleman, an upright, loyal and faithful citizen, and a statesman of great ability, of high integrity, and of pure morals, we are free to say, as the result of a long and intimate personal acquaintance, that we have in him, and have always had, unbounded confidence.
Notably, Errett offered no criticism of Garfield’s Democratic opponent, Winfield Scott Hancock. Instead, Errett wrote, “Both the leading candidates for the Presidency are gentlemen of acknowledged moral worth” (July 10, 1880).
Four months after being sworn-in as president, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office-seeker on July 2, 1881. He lingered for weeks until dying on Sept. 19. Errett preached at his friend’s funeral in Cleveland. Errett himself died in 1888.
For years, there was little commentary about individual presidents, and when there was, it was generally positive. This endorsement for a second term is one example: “Pres. [Benjamin] Harrison, in a word, has been a wholesome President. . . . We believe the best type of man for the Presidency is the Christian man” (June 25, 1892).
THE CRITICISMS BEGIN
I found no direct criticism of a sitting president until a few years into William McKinley’s administration (although it would not surprise me if there were such criticisms).
The swipe at McKinley (a Republican) concerned alcohol. A correspondent shared a news article reporting McKinley drank champagne at a banquet and that his administration “does not hesitate to aid in the ‘expansion’ of the liquor interests of the country” (August 18, 1900).
Almost from the start, the pages of Christian Standard were filled with hundreds of articles about temperance, a national movement that ultimately led to a prohibition on alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933.
And, so, the alcohol commentary continued with McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican)—he was not “an enemy of strong drink” (December 10, 1904); Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat)—“the White House is to be dry!” (May 24, 1913); and Herbert Hoover (Republican) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat)—“Mr. Hoover is a friend of the cause of prohibition and . . . Mr. Roosevelt is not. . . . The election will be regarded in the nature of a referendum” (October 22, 1932).
And—indeed—Roosevelt won, and Prohibition formally ended December 5, 1933. An interim step occurred in March 1933, however, when President Roosevelt signed a bill authorizing beer sales. “Did you get that smile?” Roosevelt asked photographers. Our editorialist called his question “a slap in the face” (May 20, 1933).
OPPOSITION TO FDR
Franklin Roosevelt was, without a doubt, the most frequently criticized of all presidents within these pages. The catalog of complaints included Roosevelt’s undemocratic manner of compelling change (August 5, 1933), his failure to call for “a day of national humiliation and prayer” (December 16, 1933), his propensity for conducting business on Sundays and addressing the nation on Sunday evenings (October 6, 1934), his lack of regular church attendance (July 11, 1936), his battles with the Supreme Court (September 4, 1937), and his failures at rooting out corruption within his administration (November 12, 1938). In reviewing 40-plus editorials and articles about Roosevelt, negative coverage outweighed positive coverage by about 3-to-1.
One letter writer complained about Christian Standard’s criticisms of Roosevelt, prompting a strongly worded defense that included this notable factoid: “The editors of this journal have usually voted Democratic” (October 22, 1932).
Disapproval reached its zenith, perhaps, with a nearly two-page “Open Letter to the President” by editor Edwin R. Errett (October 5, 1935). He objected to FDR’s co-opting of the biblical term “the abundant life” to promote “the social gospel.” Errett wrote, “‘Sharing the wealth’ is not idealism; it is only spreading the materialism” . . . especially when it is “forced sharing.” Errett also complained that, early on, Roosevelt’s administration had behaved with the attitude of Moses striking the rock. “In other words, there was the assurance that human wisdom, and that alone, could bring the kingdom of heaven—and that by distribution of money!”
It must be noted that all criticism of Roosevelt ceased during World War II.
‘ROMANISM’ AND WATERGATE
The Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960 was controversial because he was Roman Catholic.
“The issue[s] involved in the prospect of having a member of the Roman Catholic church . . . in the White House are important, and they need to be discussed,” the editor wrote (September 17, 1960). At the risk of oversimplifying, the greatest worry was that Kennedy’s highest allegiance might be to the pope and not the American people.
Hints of presidential sympathies toward “Romanism” had been a recurring concern through the years, most notably the editors’ repeated criticisms of William Howard Taft—a Republican and a Unitarian—for his perceived cozyness with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.
When Lyndon Baines Johnson (a Democrat) became president upon Kennedy’s assassination, columnist James DeForest Murch noted that LBJ’s family joined a Disciples of Christ church in 1923, he was baptized that summer at age 14, and he “seldom if ever attended a worship service in any Washington Christian church” (May 23, 1964).
Though Christian Standard has generally been more sympathetic toward Republican politics than Democratic, it has also sought to uphold the founding editor’s original vision of nonpartisanship.
“The church’s involvement in politics will stop short of official, or even congregational, endorsement of parties, candidates, or programs,” editor Edwin V. Hayden wrote on November 12, 1972. “It is amazing how quickly a church can come to be known as ‘Republican,’ or ‘women’s lib,’ or ‘pro-union,’ or ‘anti-busing,’ rather than ‘Christian.’”
Some may have thought the same editor came close to that line when, on February 17, 1974—at the height of the Watergate scandal—Hayden wrote an editorial expressing weariness at the constant drumbeat of scandal (while conceding that Nixon “is probably not wholly blameless”). He concluded by writing, “The Scripture, remember, urges that we pray for—not prey on—those who govern us.”
A few months later—immediately after Nixon’s resignation—Hayden wrote an editorial headlined “You Told Us So.”
“Christian Standard remained firmly sympathetic to Richard M. Nixon throughout the ‘Watergate investigations,’” Hayden wrote (September 8, 1974). “Most of our readers seem to have agreed with us, though some took vigorous exception to our position. . . . Mr. Nixon’s final admission that these tapes revealed facts ‘at variance with’ statements he had previously made, left us shaking out heads. . . . [While] we can find no statement of principle we would want to retract, . . . in our specific application of these principles to Mr. Nixon . . . we simply did not expect the revelation of facts ‘at variance with’ statements made repeatedly, solemnly, and publicly to the nation.”
THE PAST 40-PLUS YEARS
Over the past several decades, the magazine has voiced little direct criticism of the presidents. During his tenure as editor (1977–2003), Sam E. Stone effectively carried out Hayden’s recommendation that we pray for political leadership rather than prey upon them. (Illustrative of this, perhaps: Political articles were catalogued under the heading “Citizenship and Patriotism” in the annual topical index.)
During his years as editor (2003–17), Mark A. Taylor said he sometimes sought out Christian writers who offered alternative thinking on controversial issues such as social justice, immigration, and others.
“Some readers disagreed with the conclusions of our authors in these issues,” Taylor said, “while others wondered why a Christian magazine was giving space to them at all.”
The 21st century has given rise to a distinctive form of patriotism and nationalism, he said. “More than once we urged readers to distinguish between honoring America and worshipping it.”
“My years as editor were during a time of growing animosity between Americans of different political persuasions, including Christians who couldn’t accept that another believer could espouse a view so opposite from their own,” Taylor said. “We tried to heal this divide by pointing readers to a broader view and a higher loyalty.”
When it comes to politics, one might question whether on every issue, concerning every president, during every era, under every editor, that Christian Standard has perfectly upheld the Restoration slogan, “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love.”
But I believe we have tried to do our best.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.