When Marvin Olasky gets angry emails from readers — more often than not about an exposé of wrongdoing at an evangelical church, or about a story that reflects poorly on Donald Trump — he has a stock reply.
“We think this is useful to the Church,” he tells disgruntled readers, “because we are also sinners.”
As the longtime editor of World, a Christian news organization that has a website, a biweekly magazine and a set of podcasts, Mr. Olasky has delivered a mix of hard news and watchdog articles about the evangelical realm under a journalistic philosophy he calls “biblical objectivity.”
It involves taking strong stands where the Bible is clear, which has led World to oppose abortion rights and support refugees, he says, and to follow reportable facts where the Bible doesn’t provide clear guidance.
The concept served Mr. Olasky well from 1994, when he became the editor of World, until Nov. 1, 2021, when he submitted his resignation.
He had, he said, received an effective “vote of no confidence” from World’s board, which had recently started a section of the website, World Opinions, without fully consulting him. The new section offers opinion essays on religious issues with the kind of commentary on secular topics like mask mandates, inflation, race and President Biden’s spending plans that can be found on any number of other conservative websites.
At one level, Mr. Olasky’s departure is just another example of the American news media sinking deeper into polarization, as one more conservative news outlet, which had almost miraculously retained its independence, is conquered by Mr. Trump.
It also marks the end of a remarkable era at a publication that has shaken evangelical churches and related institutions with its deeply reported articles. The far-right writer Dinesh D’Souza resigned in 2012 as president of the King’s College after World reported that he had attended a Christian conference with “a woman not his wife.” In 2020, World reported that several young women had complained that a North Carolina Republican running for Congress, Madison Cawthorn, had exhibited “sexually or verbally aggressive behavior toward them when they were teenagers.” At a time when hot takes get the clicks, these articles offered something old-fashioned and hard for any community to take: accountability reporting.
“I am not interested in the project of a conservative opinion magazine — there are lots out there already and that’s not my vision of World,” Mr. Olasky, 71, told me Thursday in a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
The chief executive of God’s World Publications, World’s nonprofit parent, Kevin Martin, played down Mr. Olasky’s resignation, noting that the editor had previously said he’d be departing next summer anyway. He said he admired Mr. Olasky and his definition of biblical objectivity, and “we are not going to diverge from that, by God’s grace.”
“I don’t see in any way that we are becoming more partisan or more Trumpy,” Mr. Martin said.
And its founder, Joel Belz, told me he believed Mr. Olasky’s departure was simply an episode of “painful growing pains.”
But many of World’s longtime journalists have sided with Mr. Olasky. A few longtime staff members have left over the last year, and a prominent board member, David Skeel, resigned.
One journalist whose departure particularly rattled the newsroom is Mindy Belz, a writer for four decades and Mr. Belz’s sister-in-law. She resigned in October, saying in an internal memo shared with me that World was “heading in new directions, some I don’t embrace and fear may compromise the hard reporting many of us have spent years cultivating.”
In her final column, Ms. Belz, who was also an editor, wrote of her discomfort “with the strife and stridency that’s befallen American evangelicalism, and with some directions World News Group is charting.”
World was founded in 1986, after Mr. Belz became frustrated that the evangelical world was relying on the secular press to expose wrongdoing within its community, notably the evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who were accused of misusing church money.
World’s business operation is in Asheville, N.C., but its journalists were working remotely since long before Covid-19. In 1994, Mr. Belz handed the editorial reins to Mr. Olasky, a slender, Yale-educated convert to Christianity who quickly became a pillar of Christian journalism. He educates reporters at the World Journalism Institute, where he is dean, schooling them in World’s motto: “Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth.” For a time he was also a leading voice in Republican policy: An occasional adviser to George W. Bush in his time as Texas governor, Mr. Olasky helped popularize the term “compassionate conservatism,” a pillar of Mr. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
The wave of troubles at World started four presidential campaigns later, when World at first seemed to reflect white evangelical leaders’ skepticism about Mr. Trump’s personal morality, and World’s polls of Christian leaders were widely cited as supporting the idea that Mr. Trump would have a problem with Christian voters.
By the general election, it was clear that, whatever leaders thought, Mr. Trump was popular in the pews. And so when World’s editors, in October 2016, declared Mr. Trump “unfit for power” on its cover because of his remarks about grabbing women, and demanded that he step aside, Mr. Olasky received about 2,000 emails, he said, about 80 percent of them disagreeing. (In a column two days later, Mr. Olasky also suggested that Hillary Clinton step aside for her “lies” and policy errors.)
“That was a very painful time for us because it divided our staff as we had never been divided,” Mr. Belz said.
The board was furious — though Mr. Martin said it was not because of the substance of the column, but because Mr. Olasky had presumed that he could speak for the entire institution.
“Before Marvin’s cover story in 2016, I always felt we could easily navigate any differences we might have on political or theological issues, given our shared Christian faith,” the board member who resigned, Mr. Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told me in an email. “But views seemed to harden and become increasingly entrenched after that.” Mr. Skeel said he left after having “come to believe that World was moving away from its original mission and that I was no longer in step with the rest of the board.”
And since 2016, many conservative evangelical leaders have gotten behind Mr. Trump. An emblematic one is Albert Mohler, a former World board member who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote in 2016 that Mr. Trump was “the Great Evangelical Embarrassment,” but in 2020 executed a complicated about-face, announcing that he would vote for Mr. Trump because Democrats are “antagonistic to biblical Christianity” on issues like abortion and transgender rights.
Secular culture wars roiled World in the summer of 2020 over a podcast whose guest sharply criticized the protests after George Floyd’s killing; Mr. Olasky pressed to include a more liberal view. More recently, Mr. Olasky said he faced criticism from readers for running articles by a doctor recommending masks and vaccines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Ms. Belz said she had felt growing pressure on two topics in particular: “on issues that related to masks or to voter fraud.”
There have also been tensions over World’s coverage of Republicans, particularly a piece in August 2020 by the reporter Harvest Prude about the allegations against Mr. Cawthorn, who won election to Congress.
The company’s chief content officer, Nick Eicher, criticized the article, and Mr. Olasky defended it. Mr. Martin said that Mr. Eicher’s objection was that he “thought the story was weak.” Mr. Eicher declined in an email to comment further.
Still, Mr. Olasky believed the tensions were manageable. “I thought things would go on this way and I would just be able to retire peacefully next year,” he said.
The last straw came when he learned in September that Mr. Eicher and Mr. Mohler, the board member and seminary president, planned to start World Opinions in the coming weeks.
“That’s when I realized this wasn’t going to work,” he said. “I realized we were really coming from different vantage points.”
World remains in an unusually strong position in a fast-changing media landscape, with a niche all its own and more than $11 million in revenue in 2019, according to publicly available tax forms. And while the future of World’s newsroom is unclear, much of its online real estate is devoted to the new opinion section.
Its editor is Mr. Mohler, who opened it with a promise to join “the battle of ideas” and delivered a searing attack on President Biden’s Build Back Better bill.
Mr. Olasky’s recent work shows a deep concern about where this is all headed. In a recent column, he deplored the “Flight 93” approach — a reference to the hijacked flight on 9/11 where passengers banded together to storm the cockpit — that he sees among many conservatives, who, he says, believe they must use any means necessary to keep America from being destroyed by liberals.
“Some on both political sides now say: We’re heading toward social Armageddon. We are two nations. It’s them or us,” he wrote in October. “And yet, many on both sides still share the hope of the Pledge of Allegiance: ‘one nation under God.’ I’m on the one-nation team.”
Mr. Olasky said he was grateful for his long run. He plans to stick around until the end of January, to complete the magazine’s annual Roe v. Wade issue.