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Marvin Olasky Survived Trump as World Magazine Editor. But Not the Hot Takes.

Marvin Olasky

(RNS) — Marvin Olasky has long believed in the Bible and the power of journalism.

For nearly three decades, he put his faith in both to work as the editor-in-chief of World magazine, a theologically conservative publication that values street-level reporting over “suite-level” opinions. That approach, he said, set World apart at a time when hot takes often drive more traffic than detailed, careful, intensive reporting.

“There are a whole lot of publications I can read for various opinions,” he told Religion News Service in a phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. “But who else in Christian journalism is doing, on an issue by issue basis, that type of digging for specific details? That’s where I think World has a unique position. And I’m very proud that we’ve been able to fulfill that calling for all those years.”

Olasky had hoped to end his tenure as editor-in-chief, which began in 1994, in the summer of 2022. Those plans changed after World’s publisher announced the launch of a new online opinion section, overseen by Albert “Al” Mohler, a prominent Southern Baptist seminary president known for his conservative commentary. The decision to start the new World Opinion was made without Olasky’s approval — he had heard some discussion in the spring of 2021 about bringing in outside opinion writers but objected to the idea. He viewed the decision to start World Opinion as a no-confidence vote by the board of God’s World Publications Inc., the magazine’s parent nonprofit.

In response, Olasky resigned, effective Jan. 31.Several other key World staffers have also resigned, including senior editor Mindy Belz, who had been with the magazine since the 1980s; magazine managing editor Angela Lu Fulton; and senior reporter Sophia Lee.

All were concerned the new opinion section — which focuses on conservative political and cultural views — would overshadow World’s commitment to reporting. Perhaps more than that, they worried the conservative commentary would define World’s identity and the opinion section would claim to portray “the Christian view” on a topic, rather than one of many views held by Christians on a specific topic.

“To me, the issue is the belief that one narrow subset of Christians is in sole possession of the ‘correct’ ideology and are the only voices to be trusted,” Fulton said in her resignation letter, which she posted on Twitter. “That mindset runs counter to the message of the Bible as well as the on-the-ground reporting that we do in diverse communities in the United States and around the world. “

Olasky told RNS he has long been concerned about Christian commentary that’s based on political concerns, not the Bible. He recalled reading a magazine early in his career that rated members of Congress on how Christian their views were on the topics of the day. One of the issues included in the ratings was the fate of the Panama Canal and whether it should remain under U.S. control.

An important issue, said Olasky, but not one the Bible spoke to.

“I don’t remember the Book of Panama anywhere,” he said.

World’s editorial guidelines, which were shaped by Olasky, also warn about journalism that promotes conflict and panic. One section seems particularly fitting for the world of social media.

“Amoral journalism emphasizes all the sound and fury in the world and presents people’s lives as tales told by idiots, signifying nothing,” the guidelines read. “In reporting sensational events, we try to avoid the overheated prose that characterizes many politicized publications. Our motto: Sensational fact, understated prose.”

World has not always lived up to that standard, in the eyes of critics. In 1997, the magazine was censured by the Evangelical Press Association’s ethics committee for stories about gender-neutral language in a Bible translation that the committee deemed “distorted and sensational,” according to an RNS report at the time. That censure was later withdrawn, largely due to the committee failing to follow association bylaws.

A longtime fan of the Red Sox and other Boston teams, Olasky used a sports metaphor to illustrate his concerns about World. During the kickoff of a football game, it’s crucial the players of the team kicking off stay in their lanes as they run down their field. Otherwise, disaster will strike. In the world of Christian journalism, he argues, World’s lane is reporting informed by Christian beliefs, not conservative culture war commentary.

“I wonder if the board members understand what World’s lane is,” he said.

Kevin Martin, CEO of the World News Group, declined to speak about internal decision-making at the organization. He did tell RNS the magazine staff will continue to do in-depth reporting and will retain editorial independence.

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Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications and websites. Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.