No Longer in Our Infancy - Word&Way

No Longer in Our Infancy

The media landscape is rapidly changing. Last week Fox “News” and CNN summarily dismissed Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon from their prominent perches. Vice Media, which has created significant documentaries and news reports, is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy. BuzzFeed, a pioneer in online reporting, recently announced the shuttering of its newsroom.

“I’m proud of the work that BuzzFeed News did, but I think this moment is part of the end of a whole era of media,” opined Ben Smith, the site’s founding editor, about the evolving relationship between social media and journalistic efforts.

The slow and ugly demise of Twitter lends credence to that argument. NPR abandoned the platform after Elon Musk’s company inaccurately labeled it “state-affiliated media,” which looks terrible on a tote bag and put NPR in the same status on the platform as propaganda organs operating in service to autocratic regimes. PBS also left Twitter, as did CBC News in Canada. There are other signs that journalists are using Twitter less, while the company’s user traffic and advertising revenue are in decline.

Honestly, we remain sad about the iconic blue bird’s fall. As we explained last year, Twitter played a vital role in democratizing information in our digital age. It allowed people to directly access policymakers, journalists, scholars, and even celebrities. More personally, Twitter is how we initially met. It fostered the friendship and collaborations that led to the creation of A Public Witness.

The good news is that part of Twitter’s loss appears to be Substack’s gain. This week marks the two-year anniversary of this newsletter’s launch, where our debut piece offered a critique of the National Day of Prayer (which is happening again today despite our excellent piece on why it shouldn’t exist). Substack has proven to be an ideal platform for the original reporting and expert analysis on religion, politics, and culture that has become our hallmark.

(Robert Anderson/Unsplash)

While many other media outlets and personalities have been struggling, A Public Witness continues to grow. The total number of subscribers to the publication has grown 59% over the past year — to over 9,100. And the number of paid subscribers — the community who make this all possible — has grown 129% in 12 months. We are among the top 25 Substack newsletters in the faith and spirituality category. And our readers now come from all 50 states and 81 countries.

We’re grateful for each of you who have joined us on this journey and welcome our writing into your inbox. As we reflect on the past year, we think we’ve accomplished quite a bit with this little publication. During the last 12 months, we’ve published weekly roundups of the news along with 112 pieces (45 of which only went to paid subscribers). These included a mix of original reports, analysis of emerging trends, photo essays, book reviews, and more.

With all those pieces, we decided to look back on some of the work from the past year. As we celebrate our second birthday, this edition of A Public Witness recounts a few articles whose importance and impact stood out to us and highlights (as humbly as possible) some of the attention our work has received and what you can expect from us in the future.

Brian’s Highlights

One of the most significant reporting moments over the past year came as we covered the ReAwaken America Tour (or RAT for short) as the traveling carnival of extremism rolled into Branson, Missouri. We had previously reported on earlier iterations of RAT, like those in South Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania. But being present in the room provided new insights to shape our coverage of these events that feature Eric Trump, Michael Flynn, Mike Lindell, Roger Stone, and numerous MAGA preachers.

Given their influence on people in our churches, it’s important to pay attention — but we go so you don’t have to! The main piece we published from Branson demonstrates that and is one of my favorite pieces from this past year. We also published a photo essay from the gathering and a report about our press conference we organized with other clergy to offer an alternative witness. Both the main piece and the photo essay recently won top awards in their categories from the Religion Communicators Council.

People lift their hands to pray along with “prophet” Amanda Grace at the ReAwaken America Tour in Branson, Missouri, on Nov. 4, 2022. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Perhaps the most difficult piece to write this past year — and the one I’m most proud of being able to publish — was a piece about Rev. Lauren Bennett’s experience ministering on death row and in an execution chamber. I still think about our conversations ahead of writing it. And it added to other works we published recently on that topic, including one about religious liberty in the death chamber and one about capital punishment and Christmas.

A piece that represents our reporting often being ahead of the curve is one we published about Christian Nationalism in the Brazilian insurrection attempt just two days after the violence. It was the first report on the presence of Christian messages, symbols, and acts in the mob that supported a president who lost an election.

Similarly, we broke the news about what was said inside a prayer gathering in support of embattled Senate candidate Herschel Walker at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. While major news outlets — including CNN and the New York Times — reported from the church parking lot that the meeting was happening but it was closed to the press, I obtained video from inside the event. As a result, this quickly became our piece over the past year that was the most cited by other media outlets, and it recently won awards from the Associated Church Press and Baptist Communicators Association. We followed up on the story with an analysis of the problematic rhetoric from Walker amid his scandals and a piece about the partisan preaching of FBC’s pastor (who attacked me from the pulpit for my reporting).

One more piece that I particularly enjoyed from the past year came as we reported on how Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano used Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Great Adventure” during campaign events and videos. It brought together many elements we often cover: a politician who espouses Christian Nationalism, the misuse of Christian symbols or messages, and a call to Christian leaders to speak out on critical issues — all with some fun writing thanks to Chapman lyrics. Fortunately, Mastriano lost. But unfortunately, Chapman never spoke out, even after our friends at Faithful America got more than 10,000 people to sign a petition urging Chapman to publicly stand against Christian Nationalism.

Beau’s Highlights

The oddest story we wrote last year is also my favorite. As the financial and legal fate of the vehicle designed to take Truth Social public (and provide a windfall for Donald Trump and others in his orbit) became imperiled, we noticed the acquisition company’s head was doing interviews on a little-known podcast with Canadian Christian worship artist Chad Nedohin. Nobody had focused on the mix of religion and politics featured in his Rumble show that morphed between conspiracy theories, stock pumping, and Bible study.

We spent hours listening to the podcast, documented his rhetoric, and noted how his efforts represented a new evolution in the prosperity gospel genre, where the promised financial success came not from sending in a contribution but from buying stock in Trump’s media company. The company remains troubled, but Nedohin has kept the faith. (Full disclosure: Neither of us are shareholders!)

Speaking of Christian worship artists hanging out on the political fringe, we’ve devoted significant attention to the words, music, and antics of Sean Feucht. Whether by lifting up Donald Trump on 9/11, providing spiritual succor to the extremist campaigns of Kari Lake in Arizona or Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, or rallying at state Capitols, Feucht’s odd ministry seems directed towards aiding politicians who claim a divine mandate for undermining democracy. His escapades are part of a broader assault on democratic practices emanating from the Christian far right. We’ll continue documenting those abuses, while also lifting up the wise voices pushing back. We’re particularly excited to read David Gushee’s Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies, which is scheduled for release this fall. (Full disclosure: Gushee is a Word&Way board member.)

Sean Feucht sings during “Kingdom to the Capitol” in Jefferson City, Missouri, on April 2, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The anti-democratic prayer book was also on display by politicians who mixed religion and politics on the stage of CPAC. Back in August, we described how CPAC had lost its moorings. Drifting away from its original purpose of promoting “responsible conservatism,” the radicalized event reflects larger shifts in the Republican Party in this Trumpian era. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick egregiously misinterpreted scripture to delegitimize his political opponents. Painting Democrats as agents of evil, he told the crowd, “We’re in a fight of lightness and darkness. We’re in a fight of powers and principalities.”

Our coverage of Christian Nationalism, attacks on democracy waged in the name of Jesus, and other abuses of religion in the public square makes it easy to understand why so many have given up on the church. If being Christian involves all of that, then it’s easy to leave behind Jesus and all the baggage that comes with him. Still, we refuse to give up hope. Part of our mission is highlighting other Christian leaders, movements, and conversations that draw less attention but represent faithful laborers toiling away in God’s vineyards.

One way we accomplish this is through our monthly book review, which can be read by everyone (and paid subscribers are automatically eligible to receive a signed copy of the book). We’ve featured volumes by Lisa Sharon Harper and Sandhya Rani Jha talking about how exploring family histories and wrestling with our ancestors can help us better understand and live in the present. Other months explored a wide range of topics from how Christians should care for corpses to underappreciated aspects of American religious history. Stay tuned, there are more interesting reads coming in the months ahead.

Get cutting-edge reporting and analysis like this in your inbox every week by subscribing today! 

Impacting Conversations

Another way of considering the highlights of the past year is to look at the most-read pieces at A Public Witness. Thanks to readers sharing pieces on Facebook and forwarding them to others who should read them, these essays particularly took off:

10. Preaching a Gospel of Conspiratorial Politics (Oct. 27, 2022)

9. When Politics Attacks the Pulpit (Feb. 14, 2023)

8. Hill of Crosses (Apr. 6, 2023)

7. Did the Fundamentalists Win? (May 17, 2022)

6. The ReAwaken America Worship Service in Branson (Nov. 8, 2022)

5. Taking Off the Armor of God (Aug. 16, 2022)

4. How Most Christians Became Godless Globalists (Oct. 25, 2022)

3. When Worship Goes Wrong (Aug. 23, 2022)

2. Baptist Megachurch Pastor Leads Prayer Event for Herschel Walker after Abortion Allegation (Oct. 4, 2022)

1. The NRA’s Thoughts & Prayers (May 26, 2022)

Beyond reaching our subscribers and other readers, several of our pieces this past year were quoted by bigger news outlets who recognized the importance of our work. Among the outlets citing A Public Witness pieces in the last 12 months were Axios, Baptist News Global, Religion News Service, Salon, Slate, Sojourners, State of Belief, Talking Points Memo, The Atlantic, and The Hill.

Additionally, last month we received six awards for pieces published at A Public Witness (in addition to other awards for our seasonal e-newsletter Unsettling Advent, our podcast Dangerous Dogma, and more). These awards help show our commitment to bringing you quality Christian journalism.

We were also called “a bad actor” by Trump attorney Jenna Ellis, who sought to overturn the 2020 election and has since been censured by a Colorado court. Considering the source, we see that as be proof we’re doing something right!

Now, you might be worried that we will soon enter our terrible twos, but we promise to keep sending you the quality you expect. Perhaps we’re just mature for our age. After all, while A Public Witness is turning two, Word&Way in July will turn 127. So as a media organization, we’ve covered quite a bit. COVID wasn’t even our first global pandemic. And we’ve watched — and reported — as problematic political and religious leaders have come and gone. We will keep doing all of that and more.

So we appreciate all of you for reading. And if you’re not yet a paid subscriber, please consider upgrading to help our award-winning journalism continue. Here’s to another year!

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way. To receive new posts and support our journalism ministry, subscribe today.