Happy Birthday to A Public Witness
This July will mark 126 years since two Baptist ministers and writers, Sanford M. Brown and Robert K. Maiden, printed the first issue of Word&Way. It was a time of change and promise. That year — 1896 — motion pictures premiered, Henry Ford drove his first car in Detroit, Tootsie Rolls went on sale, and the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece. Also that year, Utah joined the nation as the 45th state, H.L. Smith took the first X-ray photograph, and the first women’s basketball game between two colleges was played (when Stanford beat the University of California, Berkeley).
“The Word and Way will fight nothing but evil. It will seek to increase knowledge and godliness in its readers,” Brown and Maiden wrote in the inaugural issue. “It will seek in all things to glorify God.”
The two understood the importance of people learning about faith and current events. As they explained in a 1928 co-authored editorial, “Ignorance may be bliss to some people, but an ignorant Christian won’t be the most useful Christian.” This belief that people need information they can trust and analysis to help them make sense of current events in light of Christian teachings inspired generations of Word&Way leaders. And we continue that mission today.
But changing times and technologies create new challenges and opportunities to communicate real news with the Good News. So, when one of us (Brian) became the ninth editor of Word&Way at the end of 2016, he looked to build on the still-going print publication while also expanding our digital reach. That meant starting podcasting in 2018 and redesigning and expanding the website in 2019.
The next step was to create a digital subscription publication as a compliment to our award-winning monthly magazine. After all, digital advertising is a broken model as Google, Facebook, and Amazon gobble up pretty much all the money. That means publications seeking funding through online ads need to prioritize clickbait over quality content and they need to clutter their sites with annoying and misleading ads. Not wishing to disrespect our readers by playing that game, we instead sought a model that Word&Way has used since the beginning: subscriptions.
Fortunately, a new platform made this goal more easily attainable: Substack. Their clean, dynamic format takes care of the technical side of creating, publishing, and monetizing an e-newsletter. The main thing left to do is the part we enjoy the most: writing.
So, after a few months of planning and as Beau joined the Word&Way staff, we launched A Public Witness one year ago to cover important issues about faith, culture, and politics.
It’s been quite a journey, we’ve learned a lot, and we’re excited by the growing community of subscribers. So, in this first birthday issue of A Public Witness, we cut a piece of cake as we chew on the impact of the first year of this newsletter. And we sing an ode to our readers who make this possible.
It’s Been a Year
We launched A Public Witness with strong convictions about addressing some important topics usually absent in public conversations about how religion and politics go together. While our magazine and website cover a greater range of faith topics, a more niche focus works better for a newsletter. And our educational and experiential backgrounds particularly equip us for this critical area.
We published 82 regular pieces over the past year, 45 of which only went to paid subscribers. We also published 10 other pieces (such as photo essays by Brian, a feature article by Beau about Ryan Burge, book excerpts from Adam Taylor and Lisa Sharon Harper, and the first installment of our new monthly book giveaway). And on top of that, each Friday we sent out a weekly roundup of the top news from Word&Way and elsewhere. And, yes, we do sleep.
The top five most-read pieces show some of the diversity of topics we’ve covered:
Bible-Thumping Bills (Jan. 18)
Upsetting the (Russian) Patriarchy (March 17)
Make Worship Great Again (Dec. 21)
Texting the Apocalypse (March 29)
Jesus & Gerrymandering (Feb. 8)
Looking back at all we’ve written, some key themes emerge. As ministers, the misuse and abuse of the Christian faith to serve partisan ends always irks us. Not only is politics transformed into an idol, but those leading the charge lamentably (and sinfully) use a distorted version of Christianity to convince their followers to bow down before their graven images. Thus, we covered how former President Donald Trump and his prominent religious allies criticized the command of Jesus to “turn the other cheek,” preferring to rewrite the Bible in a way convenient to their political ideology. Turning our attention to gerrymandering, we highlighted how lawmakers sought to cast the drawing of legislative maps benefiting their own electoral self-interest as a righteous cause.
We also joined the chorus of voices warning against the growing dangers of Christian Nationalism. From the role religion played in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to arguments before the Supreme Court, the effort to equate American identity with a narrow version of conservative Christianity continues. This way of thinking inspires Christians in the political sphere to conflate their desires with God’s reign, causing them to think apocalyptically and threaten our democracy when things don’t go their way.
But pushing back against Christian Nationalism is not enough. The other side of that coin is supporting a strong separation of church and state, which protects both spheres from corrupting the other. That’s why we’ve drawn attention to politicians compromising the witness of churches by turning worship services into campaign events. And we’ve covered unfortunate episodes where the religious freedom promised to all in a democratic society is undermined by zealous Christians wanting to use public forums and taxpayer resources to coerce others into sharing their beliefs.
We’ve also looked at voices threatening the mission and witness of churches. That’s why we wrote about Turning Point USA, the Trumpian organization founded by political provocateur Charlie Kirk, effectively canceling a church in the suburbs of Chicago because they didn’t like its progressive practices around Lent. That commitment also explains why we were among the first to call on the World Council of Churches to suspend or expel the Russian Orthodox Church from its membership.
Finally, we believe that most issues look differently when considered with a Christian or religious lens. Like making sense of the bizarre election audit in Arizona as an exercise in failed prophecy, which often causes believers to become more invested in their religious devotion even as facts disprove predictions. Similarly, both our broken criminal justice system and controversies around “cancel culture” look rather different when considered in light of Christian beliefs about redemption. Oh, and CRT? We need a serious conversation about original sin and the ugly forces that animate culture wars.
Our very first piece provocatively criticized the National Day of Prayer (which a year later is again occurring today since apparently not enough people read us). Over the year that followed, we considered a lot of different topics, but the same motivation undergirds all our writing: We’re here to help you think and act as a Christian, first and foremost.
As we have covered stories and issues that otherwise slipped by without proper attention, others have paid attention. Our pieces have been cited in numerous places, helping spread the reach of this publication and affirming the importance of this work. Here are some examples:
Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote at Wall of Separation about our critique of the National Day of Prayer.
Flux reprinted (with permission) our piece about the religious side of the election recount in Arizona.
Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty highlighted our piece on the history of the Christian flag on the BJC podcast Respecting Religion.
Kathryn Joyce of Salon cited our piece about the man behind the Supreme Court case Shurtleff v. Boston, and she interviewed Brian for the article.
Two podcasts invited Brian on to talk about our piece on religious persecution in Russia: The Meetinghouse with Dwight Moody and En Route with Dennis Sanders. And Middletown Press, a newspaper in Connecticut, also highlighted that piece.
WNCN (a CBS affiliate in North Carolina) cited our piece on Senate hopeful Mark Walker campaigning during church services, and reporter Russ Bowen interviewed Brian for the segment.
Freedom’s Ring, a radio show hosted by Alan Reinach, interviewed Brian about our piece covering oral arguments in the Supreme Court’s Christian flag case.
John Fea of Current and Fred Clarkson of Religion Dispatches highlighted our piece on Charlie Kirk speaking in churches.
We’ve also garnered praise from a number of significant figures in the world of religion and politics. We appreciate their endorsements of the quality newsletter we produce for our readers. Here’s some of what people are saying about A Public Witness:
“I’m excited by this intellectually turbocharged work. I’m an avid and loyal reader.” —David Gushee
“An invaluable resource for the Church. In a moment of global transformation, Brian and Beau bring a potent combination of rigor, curiosity, and humility.” —Lisa Sharon Harper
“Very much worth your time to give it a read.” —Adam Taylor, president of Sojourners
“Really excellent.” —Amanda Tyler, Respecting Religion
“Eye-opening.” —Don Byrd, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
“Insightful … Definitely worth some of your time today.” —Rob Boston, Wall of Separation
“A great Substack.” —Robert P. Jones, White Too Long
“You should consider subscribing … I already did.” — Ryan Burge, political scientist at Eastern Illinois University
And A Public Witness even won two awards last month from the Evangelical Press Association for e-newsletter and photo feature. Not too shabby for a little upstart newsletter!
Ultimately, we don’t do this for the awards or praise. But all of that is confirmation of our commitment to providing our readers with quality information you won’t find elsewhere. Because we believe that “ignorance may be bliss to some people, but an ignorant Christian won’t be the most useful Christian.”
Oh, the Places We’ll Go
As we launched this experiment a year ago, we didn’t know how it would go. We’ve learned a lot and made adjustments along the way to improve it. And it’s working. A Public Witness is becoming one of the most popular Substack newsletters in the news category.
This publication is now in 23rd place on the list of top paid newsletters in the news category (based on annual income). And this publication is 16th on the list of top overall newsletters in the news category (based on total email subscribers). Wow and thank you!
We appreciate each person who signs up, reads, shares, and comments. And we especially are grateful to the growing community of paid subscribers who are helping sustain our journalism ministry. This publication is becoming an important part of Word&Way’s revenue. It’s already a bigger piece of the financial pie than advertising and is on pace to surpass revenue from magazine subscriptions by the end of this year (which would put it only behind donations and grants).
While the growth of the paid subscribers is encouraging, it’s not nearly enough to support the work of our organization on its own. But the steady growth of the past 12 months tells us we’re on the right path. We’re not giving up on subscriptions as a sustainable model for supporting quality journalism. And we’re definitely not going to try the clickbait and cluttering digital ad strategy.
We believe good content will attract an audience. So, we hope you continue to support this work by upgrading to a paid subscription (if you haven’t already) and sharing pieces you like on Facebook, Twitter, or email. And while usually only paid subscribers can comment on posts, we’ll open this one up so anyone can drop a note about their favorite piece from the past year.
Without the community embracing this publication, we know some stories will slip through the cracks. Politicians will profane holy spaces without scrutiny. Believers will have one less resource to help them confront the heresy of Christian Nationalism. And efforts to distort our Christian faith will find less opposition. But together we can offer the world a public witness.
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.