Politics and Muckraking, Necessary But Not Sufficient

Should the bad news about our current political campaign, which features confused Republicans floundering and out-to-sea Democrats foundering, lead evangelicals to give up on politics? No, since life-and-death issues of national security and judicial appointments remain — but this past month’s details about deviance should serve as a reminder that politics won’t save us.

This bad news is coming on the centennial of a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt that defined a new form of journalism. Roosevelt in 1906 referred to John Bunyan’s description, in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” of “the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward.” TR defended the reporting genre he called muckraking: “We should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake.”

Wisely, though, Roosevelt noted that muckraking is necessary, but not sufficient: “The man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

The most famous muckraker of them all, Lincoln Steffens, proved that. Born in 1866 (hence his Great Emancipator name), Steffens co-founded American Magazine as a major muckraking vehicle in 1906, and died in 1936. We can easily recall from the present his crucial dates: born 140 years ago, at his peak 100 years ago, died 70 years ago. But we should also see how, step-by-step, he embraced evil.

Steffens started to go wrong as a student at the University of California during the 1880s, when — as Steffens recalled in his autobiography — his professors “could not agree upon what was knowledge, nor upon what was good and what evil, and why.” Over the next several decades he came to believe that man is naturally good and acts poorly only when corrupted by his surroundings. He explained this religiously: Once, discussing the biblical fall within the Garden of Eden, he said the culprit was not Eve, Adam, or the snake — “It was, it is, the apple.”

Steffens traveled to Moscow in 1919 and loved Lenin’s attempt to transform the social environment. In 1921 he uttered his most widely quoted sentence: “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Ten years later, when publishing his best-selling autobiography, he offered a new definition of sin: “Treason to Communism.” While Stalin was killing millions of his countrymen, Americans were reading Steffens’ declaration that “Russia is the land of conscious, willful hope.”

Steffens, not looking up, moved from moral antinomianism to muckraking to support for murder. He praised the Soviet plan to “lay out consciously and carry through ruthlessly (a program) to arrange the conditions of social living to adjust the forces of economic life.” He overlooked millions of Moscow-decreed deaths. He continued to think that if only the right people attain power, man’s wisdom can save us.

Steffens and other secular muckrakers were and are wrong. We can be God’s hands in saving some lives by working and voting for candidates who oppose evildoers and defend the innocent. But only God changes hearts, saves souls and determines outcomes.

And a personal note: I’ve done some journalistic muckraking of my own. When I write books on the history of abortion in America or about Katrina and other disasters, people ask me about the psychological effect of spending so much time wallowing in woe. But what I try to remember, and what Steffens tragically never learned, is that man’s sin points ever more emphatically to our desperate need for God’s grace. We should look up so we have the strength to look down. We should look down so we appreciate all the more what is above.