“The grand Pulpit is now the Press,” Thomas Carlyle argued a century and a half ago, adding that “the true Church of England, at this moment, lies in the Editors of its Newspapers. These preach to the people daily, weekly; admonishing kings themselves; advising peace or war, with an authori­ty which only the first Reformers, and a long past clan of Popes were pos­sessed of.” “How” Carlyle wrote, “these two Churches and Pulpits (the velvet cushion one and the metal-type one) are to  adjust their mutual rela­tions and cognate workings: this is a problem which some centuries may be taken up in solving.”

More than a century after Carlyle’s death, the adjusting of “the mutual relations and cognate workings” of edi­tors and ecclesiastics is far from fin­ished. The last three decades have seen some curious twists in the rela­tionship between the churches and the media. During the 60’s and 70’s when many clergymen became involved in the civil rights and antiwar move­ments, their relations with the press were usually harmonious. In April 1971 Newsweek sympathetically dis­cussed clergymen and religious journals involved in criticizing the Vietnam War without consulting any critics from the other side. Three years before, The Nation published “No Port for the Phoenix,” by a member of a Quaker group defying U.S. law by trying to deliver medical supplies to the Red Cross of the Vietnamese Na­tional Liberation Front and to antiwar Buddhists.

The New Republic likewise allowed Edward Duff, S.J., the use of their pages for a 1971 article expressing sympathy with the Berrigan brothers. Despite doubts about “the ease with which gospel truths are translated into concrete political programs” by the Berrigans, Fr. Duff lauded the radical brothers for their destruction of draft files and for other illegal acts.

Three years before the Duff article, TNR praised clerical activism in the civil rights and antiwar causes in an unsigned editorial, “Clergy and Poli­tics.” The editors lamented that “most clergy have traditionally shied away from such participation.”   But in a short article published in TNR about a month later, George Higgins ques­tioned the magazine’s endorsement of clergymen in politics: 

Clerical involvement in partisan politics … will almost inevitably lead to certain consequences which, upon further reflection, even the editors of TNR might conceivably wish to forestall.

A decade and a half later, after the rise of the Religious Right and the Right­-to-Life movement, the editors of TNR and many other national publications are beginning to agree with Higgins.

Some journalists have even begun to sound a bit like Edmund Burke, who believed that clergymen betray their sacred trust when they cease to speak with the “voice of soothing Christian charity” and venture into politics. The New York Times, for example, warned in 1980 that “when ministers preach to 30 million parish­ioners that only one brand of politics has God’s approval there is a terrible danger of intolerance.” The Boston Globe spoke in similar tones the same year when it denounced antiabortion bishops for bringing “all sorts of un­leashed bigotry” into politics.

These reversals in journalistic atti­tudes toward clerical activism have not gone unnoticed. Writing in The Na­tion (Nov. 1980), Leo P. Ribuffo de­tected a “double standard” and editori­al “snobbery” in media treatment of politically active evangelicals and anti­abortion Catholics. Observed Ribuffo:

[Jerry] Falwell has a point when he complains that his critics never ‘accused the National Council of Churches of mixing religion and politics.’ It is ironic that theologi­cal conservatives are now urged to wait quietly for the Antichrist both by theological liberals, who tradi­tionally denied any distinction be­tween godly work and work-in-the-world, and by secular radicals, who rightly maintain in other contexts that the personal is the political.

The New Republic (11 Oct. 1980) likewise found “more than a trace of inconsistency, even hypocrisy,” in de­nunciations of conservative clergymen by “liberals [who] have never objected to Catholic bishops speaking out in favor of civil rights or New England ministers protesting the arms race.” Still, as Higgins predicted, TNR was not delighted by “the political organiz­ing of the fundamentalist right, and … the Catholic Church’s campaign against abortion.” Such developments demanded “renewed political energy on the left and among believers in a woman’s right to abortion.” Disgust at the hypocrisy of the newly critical attitude of many journalists toward clerical activism, however, did not prevent TNR from publishing an arti­cle (2 Aug. 1980) on “The Danger of Born-Again Politics.”

Newsweek is also worried that Rea­gan’s religious views derive from “the narrow agenda of a single religious group that on matters of war and peace, Central America and justice for the domestic poor and hungry runs counter to what a majority of Ameri­can Protestants, Catholics–and pos­sibly evangelicals as well–believe.” The President’s vision of America makes religion “essentially a personal relationship to God” and seeks for “government noninterference in reli­gion and family life.” These positions mirror “the fundamentalists’ own en­trepreneurial style of religion,” in con­trast with the Democratic hopes for “a government with the soul of a church.” On the other hand, Newsweek (17 Sept. 1984) also charac­terized the Religious Right as supporters of “causes–school prayer, abor­tion and financial support for parents who send their children to parochial schools–[that] all require govern­ment action to alter what they see as the permissive status quo.”

Journalistic casuistry is even more baffling at The Nation. There the left hand that permits Mr. Ribuffo to re­flect on the injustice of editorial as­saults on fundamentalist politics is countered by a right hand that allows Hans Koning in the same month to decry the “wave of obscurantism … sweeping the Western world” because of conservative religious attitudes fos­tered by people like Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter.  “Beliefs … are purely private  matters…. They  have  been private matters since the last public burning of a heretic, which is not that long ago. We want to keep them pri­vate.” But in March 1983, The Nation defended the very public stances of the National Council of Churches on “aid to the poor, development, and social justice in the Third World, racial inte­gration, and minority rights” against attacks by 60 Minutes and the Reader’s Digest. A year later, though, The Nation (8 Sept. 1984) was attacking Rea­gan for asserting that “religion rightly belongs in every section of American political life”:

God may indeed prefer Reagan to Mondale … but there is no good way of knowing, beyond the claims of self-proclaimed prophets, whether in purple robes or three­ piece suits. Diderot, after all, had a point: ‘Mankind shall not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.’

Well, until N.C. C. officials become the last to provide The Nation’s editors with the weapons for regicide, the difficult task of adjusting the “mutual relations and cognate workings” of press and clergy will proceed. Carlyle’s allowance of only “some centuries” for the task now seems optimistic.                  cc