About Time's infamous 'Is God Dead?' cover -- a paradigmatic 50th anniversary

In olden times the major U.S. news magazines often ran major religion takeouts at Easter time. Fifty years ago Time greeted the holy weekend with the stark “Is God Dead?” cover story (hit the pay wall here), rousing its top newsstand sales since World War Two and a record pile of letters to the editor.

The lede:  “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.” The article pursued that duality, not only doubt but problematic aspects of fashionable skepticism.

Author John T. Elson (1931-2009) was no faith-basher but an intellectually inquisitive Catholic who worshiped regularly at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Church. This uber-talented religion writer was largely unheralded in that era when Time barred bylines. Later, he was a senior editor or A.M.E. who often supervised the Guy during 19 years as the news magazine’s religion writer.

The God article raised a classic journalistic issue as  pertinent as the latest Trump outburst: Does media sensationalism distort reality and harm the culture? After all, only a handful of “mainline” Protestant theologians were the “Christian atheists” of 1966. But Elson captured a cultural moment other media were pondering. Weeks beforehand, John Lennon had remarked that “Christianity will go” and “we’re more popular than Jesus now.” Another Elson cover story later that year profiled the Episcopal Church’s doubt-drenched Bishop James Pike.  

God didn’t die. Neither did “mainline” Protestantism, but after a 1966 historical high point, cumulative membership would undergo unprecedented decline. These moderate to liberal, ecumenically aligned, and predominantly white U.S. denominations treated the debunkers in their midst with bemused tolerance as old beliefs began to erode.

Neil Young recently wrote for The Christian Century that the “God is dead” hubbub “hardened evangelical identity and theology” as “a counter-force to the nation’s secularizing culture, and a conservative alternative to the mainline Protestantism that still dominated American religious life.” Subsequent Time covers included the self-satirical “Is God Coming Back to Life?” (1969), followed by “The Jesus Revolution” (1971), “The Evangelicals” (1977), “Fundamentalism” (1985) and “Gospel TV” (1986). (The Religion Guy was a correspondent filing for the first two articles and wrote the last three.)

Further history: Time founder Henry Luce (1898-1967) was a Presbyterian Missionary’s Kid, and his magazine pioneered in religion coverage, including cover stories on popes, cardinals, and the likes of C.S. Lewis (1947), Reinhold Niebuhr and Bromley Oxnam (1948), Albert Schweitzer (1949), Otto Dibelius (1953), Henry van Dusen, Geoffrey Fisher, and Billy Graham (1954), Martin Luther King (1957, Man of the Year for 1963), Franklin Clark Fry (1958), Paul Tillich (1959), Eugene Carson Blake and W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft (1961), Karl Barth (1962), Michael Ramsey (1963), and Gerald Kennedy (1964).

After prosperous times these same 50 years brought decline and death for many forms of print news media. One Time staffer stated at a colleague’s memorial service, “There was a time in this land when print was king, and he was a prince in the  kingdom.”

Both Time and Newsweek were hotly competitive and most weeks their religion sections went toe to toe. Two full-time staffers were assigned to religion and could obtain field coverage from a large global corps of crack correspondents. U.S. News and World Report also upped its religion game in that era.

Now, among the big three only 93-year-old Time survives in widely circulated print form, with a much-reduced staff, iffy finances, and only occasional religion features. Daily newspapers face similar market woes, often with fading religion coverage to match. The Economist, Britain’s newsweekly with substantial U.S. circulation, makes only the occasional stab at faith. As the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs concluded a 1936 profile of Luce that parodied Time style, “Where it all will end, knows God!”

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