Getting American Religion: A Conversation with Former Newsweek Religion Editor Kenneth L. Woodward


This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Kenneth L .Woodward served as Newsweek’s religion editor from 1964 to 2002, where he was also the author of some 1,000 articles, including more than 70 Newsweek cover stories. He’s written for a variety of other publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, and The Christian Century. He’s the author of several books, including Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t and Why? and The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. His most recent book is Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama.

Kenneth Woodward, welcome to Thinking in Public.

MOHLER: Mr. Woodward, you had the front row seat in many ways in terms of observing American religion, at least for the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st. How exactly did you come to that position and what does that say as part of the story?

WOODWARD: I came by accident. I was working on a little weekly newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska. And I thought it was time maybe I went to see how I could make my fortune in New York and I came back with an offer from Time magazine to work in their Chicago bureau and from Newsweek which was a magazine I had never read to be their religion editor. And they used to say around Newsweek I’m the only guy, the only writer, who came in over the transom. That’s not usually the way you get hired at a news magazine. The other interesting thing is that the one person that I knew at Time magazine had been at Notre Dame 5 years ahead of me. And indeed a very good student and very much a disciple of the same English professor. And one day I walked into see about getting a job and the next day I found out I’m his opposite number and we’re going to be competitors for the next few years.

MOHLER: Well, I think a part of this that certainly means a great deal to me is reflection on the role of the weekly magazine in American culture in the second half of the 20th Century. I grew up every week expecting, even as a teenager, to read US News & World Report, TIME, and Newsweek magazines because they were indispensable to understanding the world, at least they were to me, and I think they were to many others as well.

WOODWARD: That’s part of the reason that I wrote the book. Although I didn’t put “journalism” in the title, I could have because I wanted to show people the value of what we did. People like to say that the New York Times and the Washington Post — newspaper men would say, “Look, how can you do this? The one person reports the story, and the other person writes the story, and someone else edits it.” And I said, “No, when we were in the back of the wood–which means doing sports or law or medicine–we did most of our own reporting. We had researchers, but we did a lot of the research ourselves, or we had to point out where to get it. And of course we got edited. It was, you know, I think we were exercising all the skills that a journalist was expected to do. But behind us, behind us, was this vast bureau system that we had around the world. So that more information came in every week in terms of stories suggested and so forth. And they actually went out and got printed in the magazine. So it was like being on the small end of a wonderful funnel in which you got information from all over the world and didn’t always use it.

MOHLER: My impression as a young person–I think validated over time–was that the political spectrum represented by those three magazines with US News & World Report being the most conservative, Newsweek being the most liberal, and TIME being somewhere in the middle. Is that fair?

WOODWARD: Probably not. Certainly true of US News & World Report because they really were a business magazine and oriented towards the business culture. They really didn’t have a religion section until very late in the game as well as a lot of other things. Newsweek was more directly modeled on TIME magazine when of course that was the rare form, it was the first of its kind, and imitated it that way. Actually, before I got to Newsweek, you would have found that pretty conservative too, I think. Since I didn’t read the magazine, I could only see it in back issues. When I arrived, Washington Post had bought it and they determined to take it in directions that were different from TIME magazine and one of the directions, not ideological or at all political, was to say we’re going to be a writer’s news magazine, whereas TIME was an editor’s news magazine, which is to say they rewrote an awful lot. In fact the story was that Whittaker Chambers once wrote the whole issue of TIME. I suppose that is apocryphal but it seems like he did. They would just wrap their arms around their stuff and sometimes you didn’t recognize it when it was done. Not so at Newsweek and certainly not about religion because I was hired because they assumed I knew about religion and they assumed it because I was Catholic and they assumed it because I went to Notre Dame. Those are not very strong assumptions, but it tells you a little bit about how disconnected most of the editors were from the world of religion.

MOHLER: Yeah, I think one of the things that probably framed my reference there is that between TIME and Newsweek I was in high school especially, and the Vietnam controversy was raging so wildly. It was at least visible to me that Newsweek took a more liberal position on that and I think the abortion issue at least by my recollection back during that period; TIME representing, I think, the legacy of Henry Luce who was still kind of a cold warrior vehicle. That was a distinction that was clear to me as a teenager anyway. But the point is I wouldn’t have missed a single issue of any of those magazines because I wanted to understand the world.

WOODWARD: Well, first of all, I think what you just said is absolutely true. We were more liberal under the Washington Post and Os Elliott and that’s part of the new direction that they wanted to take. And they also — yeah, the war brought out a lot; at some point you had to declare and you had to take a stand they felt. And all the newspapers did too, if you remember. But the other thing that you’re talking about is something we –let’s see–part of our franchise really as news magazine writers was to not only report what happened but also to tell you what it meant as much as we could or at least for that week. They described it in the book and you notice this a lot about the news magazine form in that book, a lot about TIME as a forerunner. So, yeah, you talk about what it meant and that’s a little different function. Not every story, but certainly in cover stories and so on. So, that’s a little different exercise. We just didn’t always leave things up in the air. So, it depended also who you talked to. It’s easy to shape a story if you want to in a particular direction by calling on the people you know what they’re going to say ahead of time and that’s something that’s often to a writer and it shouldn’t be that way. And I’m hoping it wasn’t that way very often.

MOHLER: You know in terms of your story at Newsweek there was a pre-story, a pre-history and that  involves your childhood, and your education. You grew up as a boy in Roman Catholicism. I really appreciated where you defined that point by saying, to be a catholic in that era was to find yourself in what you called: “concentric circles of belonging”. I found that to be an extreme power expression: “concentric circles of belonging.”

WOODWARD: Actually, it is my favorite expression. At the center of “concentric circles of belonging”, and it is true, that’s communitarian perspective, but it is also real, and at the end of the book as you probably know I used to describe, I say that’s gone. It is really gone. And that’s not only the church, but it was also neighborhood, community, I was in a suburb of 11,000 outside of Cleveland. The whole town belonged to us. You know, you were gone in the morning, the freedom that we had, and there was no fear, or the drugs to fear. All of that. I did that for my grandchildren as readers and my children because I wanted them to know the world hasn’t always been the way they find right now. I think we have to decide what kind of society we want, and there were aspects of that that we were superiors to what is available today. That’s what I am saying in that piece.

MOHLER: Well I understand that, in terms of childhood that I experienced in my own evangelical and protestant way it is now and I had my own “concentric circles of belonging”, but I sense that my children and grandchildren can only know that world through me and many of your readers through you.

WOODWARD: Exactly. The nicest reaction to the book I have heard is that people around my age would say, oh my god, I forgot about that. My teen I remember that, it was if it was buried and you brought back to life, and writers tend to be people who tuck away experiences and never quite let go them and remember them. And I was glad I was able to remember all that. Some people say it was idealistic. Yes, I suppose if you are really hurt by one thing or another, you mind remember some differently. But that’s the way I remember the way the world was. Too many people will say, oh don’t talk to me about the 40s or the 50s look at racism and look at the role of woman, but that wasn’t all was to it. Whatever generation does is raised in acts and in terms of the experience of children been raised. Sorry, but I think they were better of them.

MOHLER: When you arrived at Newsweek magazine and the way you told the story is really interesting, but you went basically trying to get a job at TIME but you end up eventually as the religion editor for Newsweek magazine. You describe TIME during that era as being a journal where religion was in the air. I think of that in terms of cover stories on Tillich, and Barth, and Niebuhr, and C.S Lewis. Newsweek, on the other hand, did not have much visible interest in religion at all.

WOODWARD: No, it didn’t. So, therefore, I was giving a free hand. I used to tell people, I still do on these days and for the next 20 years, the editors wanted in the religion department first of all, they wanted stories about catholics, second, they wanted stories about catholics, third, they wanted stories about catholics, and forth everybody else until evangelicals became more politically and publicly active and visible and they wanted stories on them. But a lot of the editors were from main line protestant backgrounds, although most of them were secular jewish and they weren’t interested. I remember trying to sell a story about methodism and I got nowhere, those are boring people, you see.  I am exaggerating a little bit, but that’s what they wanted and that’s why they had me where I was. Of course this was the beginning when I walked in, it was the start of Vatican council II and Time had more people over there, and a lot more actually in Rome in their bureau including an extra Jesuit seminarian. And this was a church who couldn’t change and here it was changing. That generated a lot of news and then as I write in there, I got hold of Marty and some other people and said, look the rocks moved, what is the protestant reaction? So there was a cover story that dealt with that with Robert McAfee Brown on the cover.

MOHLER: I want to get into that just in a moment, let me ask you something before we leave the catholic side of the equation here. I was really interested where you described some of the post-Vatican II changes in catholicism, and I use the sociologist term here, in terms of lived religion, and you made the observation that when the catholic church changed many of its requirements and teachings including meatless Fridays and all the rest. In your book you argued it left many catholics, your word was feeling boundary-less.

WOODWARD: That’s another of my favorite words, thank you very much you read the book closely. It is true you can’t leave people boundary-less, that’s why you need norms and meat on Friday was a big one. It separated them from everybody else, who else did that? As I said there were sins only catholics could commit tongue and cheek.  But yes that served as identifiers who you were and of course what happened in the 60s is the baby boomer came along they simply flooded out all the institutions including the churches and it was clear in the universities and colleges, and boundaries. It wasn’t a good time to change boundaries because waters were flowing over the boundaries, waters of social change. Yes I think it is very important and I think about all those church related protestant colleges in Ohio who taught formation as catholics did, they were created for that and that just disappeared and the reasons of why are numerous, but nonetheless they did disappear.  

MOHLER: A really interesting point was your cover story on Robert McAfee Brown, or at least a cover story of mainline Protestantism in which his was the image you put on the cover. In one sense that was a sign of the dominance of the protestant mainstream back then, the spinal  column of liberal protestantism in America. But then you make the very same point that by the time the story ran, “the age of established protestantism was over” using your own words.

WOODWARD: It really was. When you think of established protestantism, I think of a man like John Foster Dulles. A man of many parts. He played an enormous role. But also, in the world council of churches, and in the national council of churches. All those worlds blended. There was also a time when young men who went into the seminary came of education and class level where there options were to be doctors and lawyers and captains of industry. That’s not the case anymore. Remember that’s the level from which mainline protestant seminaries drew their people. So, there was a time, and it really did disappear.

Part of it was — and one has to have sympathy here — the fact that in an effort to respond to Jesus’ command that we all might be one, they elided specific differences. And you can’t keep a hearty Methodist tradition going if you’re sharing the pulpit all the time with an episcopalian, or an Episcopal parish. Those boundaries were also overcome. So you’ve got a generic mainline protestantism. Furthermore, something of a generic evangelicalism as well.

MOHLER: Absolutely. Well, I cannot read or here of John Foster Dulles — a man of parts, you’re right — without thinking of Winston Churchill’s quip after he met with him “Dull, duller, Dulles”. Because he was so much that kind of vanilla mainline protestantism that ran in the U.S. Yet, by the time he died, his own offspring were divided by the secular and one son who became a convert, of all things, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

WOODWARD: Yes, I knew Dulles. And there was something there. When I point to my career – as I told Avery one time before he died – I say, look, I always wanted to fly to Dulles airport in Washington to be picked up by Avery Dulles the Jesuit, picked up in his uncle’s car, who was head of the CIA. So, very much established. And it weighed on him a little bit too I think. Anyways, he was a distinguished guy. I used to say as a quirk, “Methodists do the feeling for the Presbyterians and Presbyterians do the thinking for the Methodists.” But there’s modality here. I recently, got involved in reading John Wesley and a century after he lived they were comparing him to Ignatius Loyola. As a religion writer, to be interested in the differences in traditions, more than the sameness. And, I’ve seen a lot of those disappear. Some don’t probably so. But sometimes the genius of the founding founder flitters away. I think that’s a real loss, the tell you the truth. By the way, making analogies, when I got invited to go talk to the Southern Baptists, W.C. Fields was in charge, I got a sense from that community that this is where the Baptist congregated. As they say, ‘there were more Baptists in the town than there were people’. I think we all participate in the communal thing. We recognize it differently. But it’s there, and it was important.

MOHLER: Yes, I had the opportunity to sit next to Cardinal Dulles for many hours one day in the course of a meeting and he was indeed a great intellectual and gentlemen. At one point in the conversation, which was about Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, he simply made the quip, “at least I can understand this from both sides having been a protestant and now a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.” I dare say there are few people in the history of humanity that can make a similar kind of claim, and quite as graciously as Cardinal Dulles made it. But that also brings me around to that conversation and the fact that by the time you look at 1980’s you are already looking at the undeniable collapse of the religious mainstream in the U.S. You’re looking at the transformation of Catholicism into something different. And you are also looking at the evaporation of the liberal protestant churches that had been so much at the center of America’s public life. Again, you had the front row seat for this, so what happened?

WOODWARD: I’m almost tempted to say “read my book and see.” There are different trajectories. I just think there was a loss of identity. The fact of the matter is — I pick them out because Presbyterians study themselves as much as American Jews study themselves — little Presbyterians didn’t grow up to be big Presbyterians. They grew up to be nothing at all or something else. So, why that happened, there would be several reasons: loss of identity, lack of interest. There was a sense of so identifying with the country and evangelicals – Billy Graham in particular having been immune to this – it was there world. Even Harvey Cox in The Secular City pointed out that it was a reiteration of the protestant churches assuming they would still leading. Albeit in a covert way. I think they just got overwhelmed.

What happened to a lot of evangelicals, I’m talking now about Pentecostal in particular, instead of moving up from Pentecostal to Methodist or Episcopalian, they brought their churches with them. They settled into the suburbs, and that’s where you see them now. So, the class base of American protestantism ceased to exist. But eventually, they couldn’t tell you the difference in Presbyterian or Methodists or why there were differences. And I think that loss of identity is really important in religion as well as other way.

People weren’t raising there kids that way. But look, at a certain point, and I don’t mean to beat on liberal protestantism, you can be a good liberal democrat. It didn’t make a difference. It didn’t add a lot to it. I don’t think they sustained the spiritual and theological thrust that they should’ve done.

MOHLER: You expressed this clearly in your book when you talk about liberal protestantism losing what you called it’s gravitational pull. You certainly see that generation by generation. This leads to another part of your book that I think is really important when you note the changes in family structure in the U.S. that have to be connected to the change in America’s religious dimension as well.

WOODWARD: Let me point out to your listeners If they pick up the book and look at the chapter headings, the word catholic or jew does not appear in any of those headings. Because, there they will find phrases like “embedded religion”, “movement religion”, “entrepreneurial religion”. These categories illuminate, because they allow connections between religion, politics and culture. In what you are pointing to is this: You cannot explain the emergence, and thankfully the disappearance of some 300, of all the cults.

MOHLER: Gordon Melton wrote the book on this.

WOODWARD: Yep. So, where’d they come from? Well, what happened is, they need recruits for cults. And in those years, a million kids were running away from home. These weren’t dirt poor kids. These weren’t Tom Huck Finns. These were high school juniors, seniors, or freshmen, sophomores in college. We also saw the breakdown of the bourgeoisie family, or the nuclear family which is already weakened because it is nuclear. If you hadn’t had the kids running away from whatever family life they had, they would not of had the cults. So, I call the cults not “cults” because that’s a good word in my terms, but “sacred families”. They reconstructed the families. There were mom and dad figures in almost all those. Look at Dr. and Mrs. moon for example and many more. So, that’s where culture and politics and religion and social transformation came together.


MOHLER: It’s one thing to read Newsweek Magazine during this entire era and understand what reading the magazine tells you about American life and about American religion at the time. It’s one thing to read, but it must of been something else entirely to have written it. And that’s what makes this conversation, to me, so interesting.


MOHLER: You also write extensively about the feminization of religion. Even the rise of feminist theology. Then you make the really interesting observation. Feminist theology became an academic discipline, then eventually it found even a dwindling audience among women because secular feminist movement really didn’t need, by it’s own self-consciousness, a theology, feminist or otherwise, in order to drive its aims.

WOODWARD: No it didn’t. It wasn’t interested in that. Certainly the founding mothers were not religious, but for Byllye Avery and Gloria Steinem. I met both of these people, I wasn’t impressed. And certainly not impressed with their books. They came along at a time when a lot of women were very well educated and hot very limited outlets for that education. If that had not been the case you wouldn’t have seen the women’s movement as you’ve seen it. But the feminization, which a lot of women in academics don’t like the phrase, but it’s true and there were studies. So, I take for example the Catholic Church to be a high feminine organization. People say, “what are you talking about?” I say, it’s not who runs the show it’s does the nurturing and raising the kids. Synagogues? Protestant Sunday schools? Catholic schools? They’re run by women. It’s the women who are doing the teaching. Who’s in church? Whether Evangelical, Catholic, or Jewish, it’s predominantly women. There’s been some interesting histories of Christianity which appealed to women more; it protected them from the pater familius Rome. So there’s more women religious. One thing I’ll say about the Catholics – notice I never use Roman Catholic – they had schools like the Jesuits where there was a very masculine approach to religion. You were to penetrate the world. You were to make something happen. You were to witness to your faith. So I think the Catholics as a whole did it better in resisting. But, the Catholic church has at its center, the cult of the virgin Mary. You can’t get around it. It’s highly feminized. Holy Mother of the Church. They use gendered language all the time. That’s a big part of my argument, you have to recognize it. If you’re a Hindu, and you come over here and walk into a Catholic church and you see what you Baptists don’t have, which is a lot of statues, you’re going to see an awful lot of Mary in there. And you’re going to wonder, “who is this at the center of attention?” That’s why at Vatican II they rightfully cut back on this federation of Mary and put it into perspective of her relation to her Son. She’s a witness to her Son after all, not to herself.

MOHLER: In terms of your tenure at Newsweek, what will be of interest to many people is your chapter called “Entrepreneurial Religion”. But at the center of that is something that took place, and of which the anniversary is right now, 50 years ago, 1976 Newsweek famously ran the cover story Born Again, where in the inside of the magazine they declared the “year of the evangelical”. What’s behind that in 1976?

WOODWARD: Oh my goodness. Chuck Colson flipped his mind over this. He was one of those people who read it as prophetic saying, look, 20 years earlier Time had pronounced God as dead on the cover. Now we saw vindication of something or other. He would come and visit. He was a tall, big guy. Filled up the whole door. I think he never quite got over that. There was a recognition. Now, you would know this better than I, but my impression is that until the Carter presidency, an awful lot of Fundamentalists shunned politics like they shunned cosmetics, many of them. And a lot of conservative evangelicals did the same. I read all those books back in those days, so that seems to be what my memory is of that. So that when they came in it really did change the political landscape. As I say in the book, “they came in with cleats on.” They hadn’t been participating in party politics, they had to be taught that. So they used their churches. They didn’t have the mediating structures that the Catholics had, namely, the unions and democratic party. Evangelicals didn’t have any of that. So, they used the church. Then as I point out, there was two Catholics and a Jew who started the moral majority, which was really the first organization. So they were politicized. Jerry Falwell was politicized. He was picked by conservative political operatives so that they could, in the first instance, blunt the evangelical support for the democrats that they saw in Jimmy Carter.

MOHLER: And that came somewhat afterwards. I lived through that very intensely and I worked for Ronald Reagan in 1976, as a teenager. And I was not in the Carter movement, although I’m glad to say on Thinking in Public I had a wonderful conversation with former president Carter. By the way, evangelicals voted before the rise of the new Christian right. They just didn’t vote the way they voted thereafter. They just didn’t understand themselves as a political movement. That was really caused by the religious right. The catalyst for that were many, including Francis Schaeffer, and of course others. But the really interesting thing to me is that, when I was 16 and this came out, I remember going to the mailbox and getting Newsweek Magazine and seeing Born Again. To be honest, I didn’t really know that most people in America didn’t have a clue what being born again meant. So it was news going two ways. Your cover story informed many Americans about evangelicals, but it informed a 16 year old evangelical that the elites in this country didn’t have a clue who we were.

WOODWARD: Yeah. In those days, what I called “embedded religion” is religion that is embedded in the place where you live. It’s place, it’s geography. To this day, if you go to Wisconsin, religious people are either Catholic or Lutheran – all that in the beginning of my book about the map of religious America. If you lived where you lived and went to Columbia University, in my time, you came from a place where people ate differently. They weren’t all raised the same, or watching the same television program. They listened probably to the same Lone Ranger or radio programs but that’s very different experience than TV. In other words, there was diversity, which included regional diversity. So, yes, you probably lived in a place where most everybody talked that language. I didn’t hear it growing up in the west side of Cleveland. I didn’t here that language at all. Again, it was a more diverse time. Diversity, as argued in the book was based on religion.

MOHLER: Martin Marty, by the way, whom we both greatly respect, told me in a conversation that he was actually on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary giving the Gheens lectures in 1976 when he said Susan Cheever, at Newsweek, called him. She was on your staff at the time. And she asked him to define an evangelical. And Marty’s response was “you’ve got bureau’s all over the world, perhaps you need one in Atlanta.”

WOODWARD: (Laughing) Well we did have one in Atlanta as a matter of fact. But you’re right. But listen, Chicago where I am now was considered the Catholic bureau. Not is the guy from Notre Dame the bureau chief but it was Catholic country. So you went to different parts of the country to get different kinds of opinion. This is funny because next April I am going to speak at a conference which is based on that cover story. I’m looking at what the academics are making of it – none of them were around to read it at that time – and I looked at the column for papers and they are making such an intellectual fuss out of this. You know this, academics can do as only academics can sometimes do. Not all of them are Martin Marty’s by any means. They’ll be postulating things from a distance and I’m going to have a wonderful time telling them “no, that wasn’t the way it was. It went this way” etc.

But I’m glad we did that cover. The editors of Newsweek could not get enough of Jimmy Carter. Do you know that we did Jimmy Carter more than once before he got elected? We did his mother, Mrs. Lilian. We did his brother with all the beer cans, brother Billy. At the end of it all they sent me out to do Ruth Carter Stapleton. I don’t talk about that cover story in the book. But, yeah, they couldn’t believe a peanut farmer, some kind of born again crazy guy. Where did this guy come from? So, there was a recognition. There was a salute in the direction to people who had never been saluted before.

MOHLER: Indeed, and that raises another contemporaneous issue with Carter and the cover story and that’s the issue of abortion. I really appreciated how straightforwardly you dealt with that issue in your book. So talk about abortion as an issue, perhaps the issue, in this great transformation of American religion in this period.

WOODWARD: Well, it was a transformation in American politics. It was codified, and people didn’t expect that. Something like the ‘gay’ thing, it was codified ahead of time. I myself could not believe – yes it’s a tough decision – they would sanction it. It seemed to me the ultimate. The most innocence. And you can’t have a conversation with a lot of people about this because all they see is the mother, and the word choice, and all of that. I think things have turned, but never over. Even Scalia said, in one of his opinions, that it was probably settled opinion. Of course, with the American people it isn’t. But it’s scary. It’s built in as a rock principle of the democratic party and they blew away a great deal of their Catholic constituency with the position they take. I’m sorry, but people like Governor Cain are moral eunuchs in my mind. One minute they’re pro-choice and the next minute they’re not. Everybody who’s Catholic who ran for higher office had to change postures, starting with Teddy Kennedy. So, I found that it be spoken course of nature of the party itself. So it’s one of the great crosses.

As you know, the evangelicals and Southern Baptists in particular were late to the game. I think part of it was, as Troy Valentine said to me one time, something like, ‘Catholics have a tendency to tell other people at times what they should do, and we don’t like that. We’re not for abortion but we don’t want them telling us what to do.’ That was his response as to why they went the direction they went, at that particular point.

Francis Schaeffer’s an interesting figure, an important figure, for evangelicals. I was another big fan of his, especially when he started talking about art in the Catholic’s being superior in the arts today. I think he was talking about more than he knew. But it was important to people like Mark Noll, and others, for it freed them up for doing a lot better thinking themselves. But anyways, there’s a sensitivity  there that is just mind blowing, and you meet a lot of resistence to it. So, it was the reason John Richards Newhouse changed political direction. And it certainly has a lot of Catholics holding their nose. It can’t be the only issue because the only way it would become an issue is a matter of appointing Supreme Court Judges. So, it is such a black mark in our society. But the pro-choice people, pro-life people, haven’t prevailed. They may be more among the young.

MOHLER: Yes, indeed. That’s one of the most amazing responses to modernity and to abortionist. The moral sacrament of modernity. It is really interesting that the younger you go – sometimes explained by the ultrasound image on the fridge – the more instinctively pro-life that generation becomes. That’s really a reminder to us that moral change happens in more than one direction.

WOODWARD: One can hope and pray. But to get back to something earlier mentioned. I was at a conference on Billy Graham, somewhere in Atlanta, and I told the story about how I asked Billy Graham what it felt like to be saved, to know that you were saved. Then he gives me his answer, “I couldn’t get up in the morning if I didn’t know I was saved.” I said if I knew I was saved I wouldn’t get up in the morning! I told that story at this Billy Graham conference and Leighton Ford was there, and he did not laugh. In fact, the whole audience didn’t know what to do. When you talk about differences, there are certain kinds of differences that are not just political, not just theological, but experiential. There are people coming off different trajectories. I would be interested in seeing what a person, like yourself, would  say when I talk about Billy telling me he doesn’t go to church when he’s on the road very often. And there could be several reasons why that’s the case. But when listened to a tape of himself preaching he felt as if he’d been to church already, anyhow. The whole notion of a verbal sacrament seems to me, at least for people from sacramental traditions, helps them understand the role of the highly verbal, and of the verbal culture of evangelical protestantism. I mean if you’re going to churches on Sunday, say you’re Catholic and the preaching is terrible, you don’t mind. The mass is there. But I don’t think they understand the reverse.

MOHLER: Evangelicals mind, I can assure you. And it’s based upon what goes back to the Reformation in terms of the centrality of preaching. Now, without going into extended conversation about Dr. Graham, you can’t tell the story of 20th century Christianity, 20th century religion for that matter, without him. So, when you look at how Newsweek told the story, it’s clear that how Billy Graham appears was some regularity. I want to ask you a question: what was the big story Newsweek missed during your tenure in terms of American religion?

WOODWARD: I’m not sure. I don’t think we missed anything! You may be in a better position, as a consumer of the product, to say “why didn’t you mention X or Y?” Listen, about Billy Graham, I wrote an obituary – Grant Wacker had access to it – but he hasn’t died so it hasn’t been published yet. It’s pretty much my take on the story since it’s pretty much over. But he was a changed man after he went to eastern Europe. I think he basically learned from his mistakes of getting involved in politics. But he was a man of his time. He never got over Eisenhower, he was a great father-figure to him. But anyhow, I can’t think of any stories we missed. What do you think we missed?

MOHLER: Well, I asked that question more as an experiment, not an indictment. I don’t really have a story that was missed. Except, while looking back at the magazine, you might not understand how secular America was becoming and how distinct that was from even the recent past. There was a great social and ideological hinge turning in America. I think maybe those who were living in Manhattan, or D.C., or California, didn’t see it because it felt normal.

WOODWARD: Oh, very much so. That map of America that shows who predominates in tradition, if one does. So, New York City colored with Roman Catholicism because so many hispanics there. But if you look at it differently, it looks like a Jewish city because of the concentration of Jews in places, like arts, or philanthropy. And it does have the feel of a Jewish city. So yeah, they don’t see it. They got big churches all over the place but some of the never talked about. There more like landmarks than anything else. I know when I went south to the Triangle, with a of academics who were all secular, they could not get over the churches on every street corner. They really felt intimidated. They lived in academic bubbles, where there’s more thought that’s similar than different. They just weren’t used to that, they hadn’t seen that. One said, “and people actually go to them!” So, we’re balkanized in lots of ways. It’s no longer geographical, it cuts along cultural and class lines than anything else. I don’t know what you all in ministry do to see the drift from religion among, for example, the less educated Trump voters worried about their jobs. Instead of turning to religion, they ran away from it. So, there are cross currents that are hard to figure out.

MOHLER: Indeed. This is a story that continues to be told. A story that cannot yet be written. In closing I want to tell you something as a word of appreciation. If I ever have the opportunity to write a memoir – and I honestly hope to do that at some point – I have a collection of books, just to remind myself, of models that I want to incorporate in such a work. Your book, Getting Religion, is one of those books. You told the story incredibly well, and I want you to know that I appreciate that.

WOODWARD: Thank you very much. You know, I grew up in a time when it mattered. It mattered individually and culturally. So the drift away from that is a very unfortunate part of that story I tell. Thanks for having me on. It’s been a very stimulating conversation. And I very much appreciate you asking me.

MOHLER: Well I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for joining me on Thinking in Public.

WOODWARD: You bet!


I greatly appreciated that conversation with Kenneth Woodward. For one thing, it’s just interesting to talk to someone who had the perspective and experience he had in such a rarified atmosphere as Newsweek Magazine at that time. Again, I go back to the beginning of the conversation. It’s hard for most people alive today to understand just how important those News Weeklies were to thinking America. And it’s also important to recognize they functioned as barometers. Whatever was on the cover of those News weeklies, was in the conversation of America during that week, and for some time beyond. When you look at those cover stories and reports in the magazine, you are looking at a conversation taking place. But you’re also looking at a conversation that, from the side of the writers and editors and publishers, reflects how the intellectual elites in the country were trying to communicate and shape the conversation in middle America. Or, at least middle America that read Newsweek and Time and U.S. News and World Report. Among those magazines Time was understood to have a particular theological expertise. That is reflected in the cover stories, and it goes back to the fact that Time Magazine was the figure of Henry Luce, whose parents had been missionaries, Protestant missionaries in China. That’s a very different situation than Newsweek, especially when it became a part of the empire of the Washington Post. It’s at that point that so much of Newsweek’s influence in America really came. Its subscriptions grew, and its influence as well. At the center of this was Kenneth Woodward, interpreting American religion for the readers of Newsweek Magazine.

In this newest book, Getting Religion, what you have from Kenneth Woodward is his observations of what it meant to watch America’s religious life, being assigned to do that, through a century of the most tumultuous change in American society, religious institutions and in churches as well. The changes he traces in American Catholicism should be of interest not only to Catholics, but to others who understand that similar pressures and issues were also shaping the lives their own churches and denominations. At the same time, you come to see that what was taken for granted in the beginning of Woodwards term in Newsweek was the dominance the Protestant mainstream in America. But, as he indicates, even by the year 1965, in a cover story by Newsweek at that time, virtually everything had changed. The age of Protestant establishment was already over.

Then, I was very glad to talk to Kenneth Woodward about what, at least among American evangelicals, is the cover story. Back in 1976, that cover story that declared Born Again, and in the internal pages of the magazine, declared the year 1976 to be the year of the evangelical. The readers of Getting Religion, however, will be really interested not only in how Woodward tells the story of big transformations, but also his perceptive eye for very small details. Also, his elegant phrasing which creates many memorable moments in reading the book.

When he talks about Liberal Protestantism losing its gravitational, when he talks about his boyhood at the center of concentric circles of belonging, when he talks about entrepreneurial religion, it’s very clear that he sees a pattern and helps us see that pattern as well. I also really appreciate his candor in this book. To be honest, the section of the book dealing with the question of abortion are some of the most bracing that I have ever seen. They also come with a particular power coming from the religion editor at Newsweek Magazine. The book is also spicy in its own way, as was this conversation, and that’s a part of what makes conversation and reading always an unexpected pleasure.

Thanks again to my guest, Kenneth Woodward, for thinking with me today. For more information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, just go to For information about Boyce College, go to

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.