The Scandal of Christian Muckraking

“Thou hast said the right, said he, and his Muck-rake doth show his Carnal mind.” — John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Back in the 1950s, the man who’d just purchased the New York Enquirer released a mission statement, vowing that “in an age darkened by the menace of totalitarian tyranny and war,” his paper would “fight for the rights of man, the rights of the individual, and will champion human decency, dignity, freedom and peace.”

It was a high-minded statement, but it didn’t ignite readership. So the owner, Generoso Pope Jr., opted for a switch in approach to sensationalism. He pivoted the editorial content to gore and tragedy, watched the circulation numbers climb and eventually renamed his paper the National Enquirer.

Today, the National Enquirer has been ingrained in American culture as the quintessential example of tabloid journalism, the opposite of real journalism.

What’s the difference between tabloid journalism and real journalism? The BBC has noted that tabloids tend to focus on significant coverage of celebrities and celebrity scandal, their stories tend to be short, and their headlines and ledes (opening story paragraphs) are sensationalistic and emotive. By contrast, what the BBC calls “quality press” focuses on news, analysis and opinion, while celebrity coverage is minimal. Stories are longer, with more detail. The language is more formal and complex, with an emotionally detached form of writing, and headlines and ledes are straightforward and factual. 

The vast ethical and professional chasm between the genres is exactly why so many people were shocked when the Enquirer was allowed a few years ago to submit its story on the Sen. John Edwards love-child scandal for Pulitzer Prize consideration (it didn’t win).

Putting the modern FakeNews problem aside, people just naturally understand that tabloid journalism isn’t real journalism. And admittedly, those of us with journalism degrees and years of print-journalism experience in the “real” genre probably tend to be the most intolerant of those who put out sleazy tabloid fodder. We tend to look at them the way an anesthesiologist looks at a drug dealer.

This is why I’ve been really bothered of late to watch, in horror, as a new “Christian” tabloid genre has begun to emerge and proliferate on the Internet.

Maybe you’ve seen some of these websites, blogs, podcasts or video channels. There are a lot of these types out there, and their numbers are growing. Often they’ll talk about “discernment” or “exposing evil in Christianity” or “seeking justice in the church.” But they’re really just old-fashioned muckrakers, operating Internet-based tabloids.

The term “muckraker” has its original roots in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” but the modern-day definition is “one who searches out and publicly exposes real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business.”

Let me pause for an important clarification: When I identify these online Muckrakers as such, I’m not talking about the many Christians who do solid work online in biblical discernment, exposing various kinds of evil in the church, warning the sheep about wolves, identifying and refuting false teachings or heresies and bringing people back to the truth of God’s Word and the gospel. I’m grateful to God for those people. And I’ve also participated in a fair amount of discernment work over the years on my radio show. Whenever famous wolves or heresies or great evils rise to the surface in the church, I think faithful Christians have a duty to call those things out, in the interest of protecting the church from spiritual deception or even, in the case of sexual abuse, potential bodily harm (Eph. 5:11-15).

But there’s a big difference between what I’ll call Discerners and Muckrakers. Discerners are primarily about biblical faithfulness and only tend to call out church scandal as it naturally emerges, and then only with great grief over sin and a reiteration of the Christian obedience that is required by God’s Word. They are like the real journalists who are primarily about reporting hard news every day and only tend to report on societal scandal as it naturally emerges. Like real journalists, Discerners don’t want to engage in any sleazy tactics or unconfirmed rumors, and most don’t eye these stories as any means of personal gain. They just love truth and facts, and so they want all they do to be done in an upstanding, decent way.

Muckrakers, however, are sensationalists who are always on the hunt for scandal. Like the National Enquirer, they seek scandal out because it’s their business model. No boring stories for them. They want more attention, more readers and followers, more likes and more clicks. And so, like the Enquirer, they’re always digging up dirt, focusing largely on church celebrity scandals, usually via short stories or clips, always with a punchy headline.

Also like the Enquirer with its John Edwards story, Muckrakers may report on a legitimate scandal now and then. The story may be well-written, well-researched and undeniably true. It may do some good to expose it. But the next day, the Muckraker is right back on the scandal hunt, sniffing around to determine who gets it next.

This is a blatantly ungodly and unethical endeavor. It’s the stuff of tabloids. But for the Muckraker, the sheer vulgarity of what he’s doing is actually built right into his flawed business model.

By design, the format he’s set up to promote himself requires the continual output of controversial content. And so, there must be controversial content to promote all the time. The business model is what ends up forcing the Muckraker to go out and regularly find some scandal where it may not even exist, lest the “discernment” readership, with their precious retweets, reposts and new-follower potential, go elsewhere for content. That, then, leads the Muckraker from reporting on actual scandals every now and then to majoring daily in insinuations, exaggerations, innuendos, rumors or gossip about (largely) Christian celebrities whom they seek to “expose.” Sometimes it’s even done in the form of a question, giving the Muckraker plausible deniability when confronted. “I wasn’t accusing him of anything! I was just asking questions! What’s wrong with asking questions?” I don’t know, Muckraker. When did you stop beating your wife?

To add insult to injury, we also have to endure the pain of watching some of these Muckrakers claim to be Very Important Journalists, when a quick perusal of their thin resumes shows they’ve never been anything of the sort and have no experience to even make the claim. Most of them are just people who started a video channel or podcast or blog in order to be a Very Big Christian Deal on the Internet. There’s nothing wrong with launching an Internet-based career, per se. But it’s maddening to see someone try to claim that he’s some kind of modern-day Walter Cronkite who just happened to stumble upon a USB microphone deal on Ebay and humbly lowered himself from his world-class journalism career into a super-fabulous! podcasting gig. Give me a break. To such as these, I say: We all know that if you actually did have the experience and talent to have an impressive journalism career, you wouldn’t be muckraking on the Internet.

Additionally, you’ll see them engage in some of these tabloid tactics:

  • Reporting on “ties” between a good person in ministry and a bad person in ministry that aren’t really “ties” at all (Ex: attempting to link a reputable pastor to a heretic who is a Kevin Bacon-esque six persons removed, hoping to smear the non-heretical, reputable pastor by association);
  • Capitalizing on popular online hatred for certain famous Christians by mounting petty attacks on them to please the Internet mob;
  • Picking and choosing “who gets it” according to their own theological or political preferences, while pathologically ignoring equally heinous, or even worse, sin committed by their pet Christian celebrities;
  • Letting anonymous “sources” mount boring, low-level charges against people in Christian ministry for no discernible reason, other than to fill space;
  • Taking credit for breaking a story that they know full well someone else broke first;
  • Making claims of “consistent journalistic accuracy” that can be easily refuted by actually fact-checking their work;
  • Reporting stories that the “discerner” knows full well aren’t true, just because they like the narrative and can excuse the tactic in the name of “getting a good jab in at the bad guys.” Besides, the Christians they just lied about probably won’t sue them, anyway (1 Cor. 6:1-11, anyone?)!

All of these tactics are unseemly, but here’s my biggest problem with the Muckrakers.

While most of them would say they’re just trying to expose evil in the church to try to “reform” it, they never quite seem to get around to the “reforming” part. In other words, they never quite move from “There’s another big scandal in the church!” to “Let’s go before the Lord in repentance and sorrow over this,” or “What does the Word of God teach us about this?” or “Where would the Lord have us go from here?” That latter half of the equation just doesn’t interest Muckrakers. And so, intentionally or not, what they’re really doing is not reforming the church, but enabling — or even encouraging — the deconstruction of the church.

“Christian deconstruction” is often put forth by emergent heretics as a “re-examination” of Christianity to get you to figure out what you truly believe. In reality, however, this “deconstruction” process, so often cited today by exvangelicals and progressives, actually destroys faith in Jesus Christ. Search online for the term to find out what “deconstructing their faith” did to popular ex-Christian celebrities like Joshua Harris or DC Talk’s Kevin Max.

As Harris puts it, “deconstruction” is just another way of describing the biblical concept known as “falling away.”

How do the Muckrakers help that process?

First, Muckrakers aid deconstruction by feeding a constant stream of bad news about Christians to the very people who most want to see Christianity discredited and destroyed. You can see evidence of this most clearly on the Internet. The exvangelicals, emergents, feminists and progressives who hate biblical Christianity are often those who delight the loudest in the muckrakers’ reports and question them the least. They don’t grieve when they read about Christian scandals, as real Christians do. No, the exvangelicals are downright psyched. To these people, every church scandal – small, large, real or made up – confirms their built-in bias that the church is a horrible institution that should be repudiated, exited and kicked repeatedly for good measure, preferably with steel-toed boots. They are the ones most prone to cheer when a Christian pastor goes down, the ones most excited to stomp on the corpse and high-five their liberal friends afterward. And so the Muckrakers often pander the most to this crowd, as they are the ones most likely to retweet, repost or comment on such stories.

Second, Muckrakers aid deconstruction by creating the false impression that there is nothing admirable to report about Christians or their churches. Why do these Muckrakers never highlight Christians who are reputable, sacrificial or faithful, those who really do honor Jesus Christ? Could it be because those testimonies don’t fit it in with the muckraking business model? Yet Scripture says: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Third, Muckrakers aid deconstruction by de-emphasizing — or ignoring altogether — the good news that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. There’s no gospel in muckraking! There’s only a constant tearing down, no building up. No forgiveness. No redemption. No hope. Just a constant, lopsided stream of bad news, often with no sound theological reflection whatsoever. No wonder 1 Tim. 6:20-21 tells us: “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.'” No wonder verses 4 and 5 warn us of the man who “has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth …” By failing to faithfully apply the Word of God to what they’re writing and failing to give readers the hope of the gospel after a bad situation, these Muckrakers end up undermining the central message of the God whom they claim to love and serve.

Fourth, Muckrakers aid deconstruction by saying they just do it to “obey God.” Where do we find any passage in Scripture that tells Christians to fault-find their fellow Christians on a daily basis and continually take their sins and faults public, regardless of the nature of those sins and faults? Do they ever read what the Bible has to say about gossips or busybodies? It’s one thing to report on a genuine public scandal in the church as a news story, which I support, but quite another to peck away at the church of Jesus Christ every day like some kind of spastic woodpecker.

Are there big scandals and big moral failures in the church today? Of course! Are those scandals a blight on the name of Jesus Christ and a shame to His people? Of course! Are they occurring too frequently? Yes! And I’d argue it’s likely because we’re in the midst of a great apostasy, something the Bible warns us about.

But the Lord also told us in His Word how to deal with such matters, and it wasn’t by anointing Muckrakers to go out on the Internet and spit continually on His Bride for every single little infraction — big or small, true or false — that they can hype.

In the end, while using appropriate biblical discernment and appropriate means of dealing with sin and scandal in the church, we also have to beware of those who look upon Christ’s church solely as a digging ground for their tabloid business models or as a convenient target for furthering Christian deconstruction. Biblical discernment must never morph into any kind of muckraking enterprise.

For all the sins and failures of Christians — and there are many — let’s also admit that most of those sins and failures don’t rise to the level of the breathless public scandals the Muckrakers so relish in expectorating for their own gain. Frankly, a lot of the so-called scandals they spout aren’t even scandals but, at best, petty irritations or foolish gossip. It’s just hyped-up filler, in between occasional scandals. And it’s not real journalism.

So instead of giving the Muckrakers the attention they want, we should instead heed the words of Titus 3: “Avoid foolish controversies … because these things are pointless and worthless. Reject a divisive man after a first and second admonition, knowing that such a man is corrupt and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

And remember this, as well: The Lord knows all about His Bride’s sin, and yet He still calls us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9) The Lord is not our muckraker, but our Savior.

If I might say so, that’s the real news. And it’s the best news of all.