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Liberal Journals Wither Despite Rising Christian Left

By G. Jeffrey Macdonald
Religion News Service
Saturday, December 2, 2006

It's never been easy to make ends meet while putting out a progressive Christian publication. But in an ironic twist, a re-energized religious left may be making a tough task even harder.

That's one key observation from watchers of liberal Christianity who are trying to explain why progressive magazines and journals have been dying just as the broader movement seems to be gaining traction.

At least five progressive periodicals have disbanded or undergone a radical makeover in the past three years. Observers suggest the publishing niche has fallen victim to rising costs, lackluster fundraising and shifting expectations from readers, who want less top-down preaching and more piety.

It has been tumultuous since 2003:

· The Other Side magazine, launched in 1965 as Freedom Now, put out its last issue in September 2004.

· Presses have stopped rolling at Christian Social Action, a 32-year venture of the United Methodist Church and the independent Christian Network Journal.

· The Witness, a self-described "feisty, opinionated journal since 1917," phased out its print edition and began publishing exclusively online in 2003.

· Zion's Herald, published by the Boston Wesleyan Society since 1833, put out its last edition in May. It resurfaces this month as the Progressive Christian.

Although none of these publications ever became a household name, they did serve as recognized channels for disseminating ideas that were at once Christian and left-leaning, in politics, theology or both.

The Witness, for example, critiqued the evils of capitalism. Readers of the Other Side soaked up arguments on issues from feminism to international peace.

"People used to say, 'The Other Side is my community. I can't find these ideas in my church,' " said Dee Dee Risher, a former editor and 20-year employee of the publication. Low-paid writers and editors "tried to make lifestyle changes in a consumerist society, a society with a theology of prosperity, and I think that attracted people to the magazine."

Not every progressive magazine, however, has fallen on hard times. Circulation at the Christian Century, the venerable Chicago-based biweekly, bottomed out in 2001 but has since jumped 35 percent to about 35,000. Editor David Heim credits targeted direct-mail campaigns, improvements in customer service and usage of the Internet to attract new readers.

Circulation has also jumped at Washington-based Sojourners magazine, from 24,300 in December 2002 to 45,500. One reason: more evangelical readers. Evangelicals now make up 17 percent of the readership, up from less than 5 percent in 2002, editor Jim Rice said.

Still, the trend has been mostly discouraging.

Zion's Herald saw troubles ahead and began a year-long analysis late in 2005. The magazine relied on subscriptions, advertising and donations to cover the approximate $65,000 cost of putting out each issue. A marketing consultant said the name wasn't helping attract readers. Now, as the Progressive Christian, the magazine's subscriber base has grown by 50 percent. But fundraising still figures prominently in the subscription-growing strategy.

The progressive publications have stumbled even as Democrats made gains among religious voters last month and as progressive religious thinkers -- including the Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners editor-in-chief and best-selling author of "God's Politics," and Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of "The Left Hand of God" -- have struck a resonant chord in recent years.

One theory: People who regard themselves as religious progressives expect something different from their religious communities than they did a generation ago.

James Adams, who founded the Center for Progressive Christianity in 1994, detects a hunger for religious settings where people can work out their own authentic belief systems, rather than merely obey a liberal interpretation of God's will. Adams suspects that many liberal publications never learned to accommodate that desire.

"There was a kind of liberal mushiness, I think, that overtook some of the thinking in some of those publications that have disappeared," he said. "There was this kind of haughtiness on the part of liberals that 'We know best.' . . . I think that attitude lost energy, and people who are more thorough in a way and more thoughtful have come along to replace them."

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