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Not quite right: Don’t let the church become fake news

Proclaiming good news in a divided culture

by Joshua Bower | Presbyterians Today

Our culture is in the midst of a “fake news” epidemic. Christians are falling prey to it, and, if we’re not careful, the church’s witness could be deeply harmed.

Before I go any further, I need to say that there are at least two types of fake news. First, there’s actual fake news. This is misinformation circulated to mislead others. This is a real problem with devastating consequences. Most people became aware of fake news because it was all over the place during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some Christians spread this type of fake news, and that’s no good. But it’s not the kind I’m concerned with here.

The other kind of fake news is, to borrow from 60 Minutes, “any news, however legitimate or responsible, with which [one] may disagree.” 60 Minutes was talking about President Trump’s use of the phrase. Generally, if a news story doesn’t support his opinion, he calls it “fake.” He isn’t saying it’s not legitimate news or it’s deliberately misleading. He is saying it doesn’t agree with his perspective. He’s saying he doesn’t like it.

My guess is that most of us probably don’t think we do this very same thing. And it’s true that we don’t do it so overtly and purposefully. But we absolutely do it. Whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, evangelical or progressive, almost everyone has their own preferred news outlets that they emphasize over others.

We get our news from the sources we trust, which are usually the ones that line up most closely with our own views. The more we consume those news sources, the more they reinforce those views and make us comfortable in our beliefs. So we trust them more and trust their competitors less. These news sources know this, so they present the news in a way they know their core audience will agree with.

For example, here’s how two news sources covered James Comey’s firing as head of the FBI. One is stereotypically pro-liberal (CNN) and the other stereotypically pro-conservative (FoxNews). On the morning after the firing, CNN.com’s headline was, “How they fired Comey: Aides contradict official White House story.” And FoxNews.com led that morning with, “A respected career Department of Justice attorney made the call that led to Comey’s ouster.”

Both CNN and FoxNews reported legitimate news stories. But they had a distinct flavor. CNN’s audience was told the story of how White House aides were contradicting President Trump’s version of the events, thus calling his credibility into question. FoxNews, on the other hand, defended Trump’s credibility by noting that a “respected” and presumably trustworthy attorney recommended Comey’s firing.

If we only take in one of these news sources, we’re getting one — very particular — perspective on what’s actually happening. Over time, whether we realize it or not, you simply stop believing the “other” view is legitimate. It’s fake news. We stop trusting the news sources that don’t fit our perspective, and then we stop trusting people who are devoted to those other sources. We form little tribes and everybody outside our tribe is suspect.

Not only is this happening in the wider American culture, it’s happening in the church. The worldview of American Christians is being shaped by the “us vs. them” fake news battle raging around us. As our country’s culture becomes more polarized and less trusting of those of different political ideologies, the church follows suit. I would argue that this polarization is lethal for our country. It is even more lethal for the church, an organization that preaches that all those baptized into Christ are children of God, and “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Can we ever be totally “one” with all people baptized into Christ, even in our polarized, untrusting, fake news culture? Honestly, I doubt it. Especially if we insist upon putting our political affiliation ahead of our affiliation with Christ. Here in southwest Georgia, I know people who would literally question my faith in Jesus if they knew my main news sources are CNN and the New York Times.

I’m willing to bet I’d have the same problem if I was in New York City and loved FoxNews and The Drudge Report. Is there a way to move forward that can help us to be united in the church in spite of our competing realities shaped by where we get our news? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found helpful as a pastor of many different kinds of people:

  •  Take in news from as many different sources as possible, even if it kills you. I’m talking about legitimate news sources, not definition #1 of “fake news.” I check as many legitimate news sources as I can every single day. Not because I like them all. I don’t. But I realize the blind spots in my own perspective when I read news from others, there really is truth to be found in perspectives that I generally disagree with, and it helps me to understand where other people are coming from. Also, it helps me understand and speak the language of other people who may not share my worldview.
  • Realize that comedians and conservative talk radio hosts are primarily entertainers, not journalists. If your main sources of news are John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon OR Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and Herman Cain, you’re getting mostly commentary meant to entertain. Also, if you’ve only listened to or watched people in one of these two lists, please refer to the first bullet point.
  • Spend equal amounts of time in prayer, Bible study, service, and Christian fellowship as you do following the news. This one has made the most profound difference for me. For every minute I spend surfing Internet news, I have to spend the same amount of time studying my Bible or in prayer, service, or intentional Christian fellowship (not with other Christians talking about the news). As somebody who spends a lot of time listening to the radio in my car (NPR and conservative talk radio depending on my mood), I bought an audio version of the Bible and listen to it an equal amount of time as I do the other programs. This is a constant reminder that my ultimate allegiance is to Christ first, everything else second.

What would you add to that list? How do you navigate the “fake news” culture to build unity in the church? How can we see each other as sisters and brothers in Christ no matter what our political affiliation? Is it even possible? I don’t know if it is, but I do know that the world needs fewer disciples of Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh and more disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s strive for that in our own lives. Maybe it’ll catch on.

Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia.


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