Christian Journalism: Muckraking

typewriter writingI recently read a book on journalism history called The Muckrake Years (1974) by David Mark Chalmers, then a University of Florida professor. Part 1 summarizes America in the first decade of the twentieth century, the origin of muckraking as a journalism practice, and the social issues journalists wrote about. Part 2 reprints portions of articles and books by famous muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Chalmers even includes a piece by President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term “muckraker” but discusses its true source – John Bunyan. He used the word “muckrake” in Pilgrim’s Progress: Part II (1684) to describe the muckraker who looks down at the earth’s muck while missing the heavenly crown above.

These journalists claimed their task was “practical Christianity,” but they missed the point. Although they accurately described corrupt American politics, government, and business in their day, they blamed the wrong things: labor, money, power, business, special privileges, public apathy, etc. These journalists missed the great cause – sin.

As goes the person, so goes society. Through sin and the curse, mankind severed relationships with God (spiritual), humanity (social), and nature (environmental). Did turn-of-the-century muckrakers admit this? No. They thought most people were good and needed “moral indignation and facts,” which would help replace bad people with good ones. Lincoln Steffens even blamed the apple of special privileges rather than Adam and Eve, or the snake (Satan) as he thought the church was doing in his day. These journalists still missed the point. They wanted to point the finger of evil anywhere but at the human heart, which “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).[1]

churchThese journalists also gave inadequate solutions to social problems: a regulatory state, the end of special privileges, communal living, and educating people about “facts.” They wanted the government to pass laws and naïvely thought the state could enforce them. However, because they failed to identify the great cause, they also failed to give the great solution – Jesus Christ. He alone can fix the human heart and make corrupt people good so that they will obey moral and social laws, since only good people produce good societies. Yet few journalists looked to the church. Those who did were horrified. The church was supposed to identify the great cause and offer the great solution, yet journalists saw that the church was not helping as she should. Often she was part of the problem instead. So journalists took up the slack in their writing and tried to offer an inadequate “practical Christianity.”

Many journalists today are muckrakers. They help society by decrying abortion, crime, euthanasia, homosexuality, sex abuse, trafficking, and other issues – even when critics want to silence them. However, too many journalists make the same mistakes as their turn-of-the-century counterparts. They look to governments and lawmakers to save them instead of God; these “solutions” are often the problem. Governments today are more likely to enforce evil rather than good.

Public apathy is also a problem, but the deeper problem is evil in the human heart. Do today’s journalists offer salvation in Jesus Christ and tell people to find a Bible-believing church that helps others? Do they tell them to obey the law? No. Still, at least these journalists know what “practical Christianity” is: obeying the law from the heart, seeking justice, and helping people. They also become angry at the church while trying to rouse readers from public apathy.

The church alone can identify the great problem (sin) and offer the great solution (Jesus Christ). Only by seeking God’s face, resisting evil, and forsaking apathy will the church today help corrupt society and provide real, lasting change.


[1] New King James Version (NKJV) unless otherwise noted

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