I found it hard to argue with such a reasonable objection, so I caved in, wrote an op-ed for the Sentinel and another for The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer. I followed these pieces with op-eds for The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal. Before I knew it, I had written more than 60 op-eds, appearing in papers from the Detroit Free Press and The Charlotte Observer to The Contra Costa Times and the Dallas Morning News. In this rather haphazard and unplanned way I started my amateur career as an explainer of things religious (especially things Christian) to a mass audience.
It seemed to me at the time that the care of the world implicit in the commandment to love one’s neighbor meant not only care for the natural environment but also care for the social world of human relationships. In this social world, the endangered species are not the snail darter and the spotted owl, but empathy, knowledge, compassion, patience, justice and courtesy. When these species are endangered (as they currently are in America), silence, even pious silence, is never golden.
There are, of course, limits. Op-eds, however persuasive, can never save the world from its deadliest faults. But to the extent that journalism is a form of truth-telling that contributes to God’s providential care of the world, it is worth doing and well worth doing well.
Michael Murphy, the op-ed editor from the Orlando Sentinel, saw to it that any pieces sent to him were circulated over the wire service. The upside of wider circulation was that old friends wrote to say that they had read my latest piece in the local evening paper or cited on a blog. I heard, for example, from three members of the first class I ever taught at Lancaster Theological Seminary, friends I had not seen in almost 40 years.
But the unfortunate downside of wider circulation is the increased generation of hate mail. This comes in many forms, from merely patronizing notes to outbursts of almost incoherent vituperation. Hate mail, however painful, can be used as an indicator of success. No one attacks columns or columnists that miss their mark completely. The howl of rage is often a glowing tribute to accurate marksmanship.
My op-eds generated some invitations to be interviewed. Church historians generally live a quiet life, since few reporters are interested in the latest news on Didymus the Blind or the signing of the Mayflower Compact. I found myself, quite uncharacteristically, talking to AP, Reuters, the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, NPR, and even Christian radio. The interviews in turn stimulated fresh op-eds, in part because the interviewers were often willing to chat with me, even to give me some useful tips and much-needed encouragement (I was, after all, a greenhorn, and I knew it).