Jon Ward is a front line journalist in Washington D.C. and a Christian. He currently serves as the chief National Correspondent at Yahoo! News, and has covered American politics and culture for two decades— writing about the what, the who, the how of our national political discourse— including time as a White House correspondent traveling aboard Air Force One many times with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is also the author of the compelling book, part-memoir, part political and cultural analysis, Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation.
I was thrilled to interview Jon because I trust him to tell us the truth and to do so from the perspective of a person who actually knows what that means. That gives Jon a perspective that is not shared by all of his colleagues in the press corps. If you’ve been wondering, “Who can I pray for? Who serves in the national media?” Well, you’re going to meet him right now. His name is Jon Ward.
This is an excerpt of Carmen’s interview with Jon Ward on Mornings with Carmen. To hear the full interview, listen online here at MyFaithRadio.com.
Jon Ward: Hey, Carmen, thanks for having me. That’s a heavy mail to put on my shoulders, that you trust me to tell you the truth. I feel the heaviness.
Carmen: I do. I trust you. I trust you to tell us the truth about not only what you witness and experience, but then your perspective on it. So thank you. Thank you for years of doing what you’ve been doing and for how you’ve been doing it. I really appreciate it. Maybe we should just start there. You kind of inhabit, I would say two, but it’s really more like three worlds. You are a very well-respected journalist. You live in D.C., but I think it’s fair to say you’re not part of the D.C. scene. You’re also a married guy with kids who loves Jesus. So can you just talk with us about living in sort of multiple worlds, but as one person, as one integrated human being?
Jon: Sure. I think my family, my wife and my kids, is a big part of helping me stay centered. People might be surprised by this, but there are a fair number of normal people in D.C. Many great people who just are raising children, coaching Little League, doing all the things that normal people do. I went to the Correspondents’ Dinner actually last weekend, and I hadn’t been there for about five years because I had just gotten sick of it and just was kind of over it. It was interesting to be back there. I ran into people, well-known people, talked with them, enjoyed that. But at the end of the day, that ship sailed for me quite a while ago, on getting excited about climbing my way up the ladder. At this point in my life, I’m 45 and I am most interested in setting my kids up for success and in trying to devote the rest of my professional career to doing what Yuval Levin talks about, helping to build for the future. So I don’t know if that answers your question. But as I write in the book, I grew up in a very intense and kind of insular religious evangelical church in the D.C. suburbs. And I’ve actually never left this area, believe it or not.
Carmen: As a person who thought she understood both evangelicalism and the current milieu of sort of Christians engaging in the politics of the day, I learned so much from reading your book. The title, for those of you looking for it, Testimony, Jon Ward is the author, Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation. You’re here to help us understand the experience shared by a lot of people in America over the last, I’ll say, half dozen years. Maybe it stretches a little beyond that. Maybe your perspective on that would be helpful. But you do so by telling us a longer story. So maybe just tell us the story.
Jon: Yeah. I always kind of wanted to write a book about the way I grew up, probably starting in college, but for a decent amount of time. I wasn’t really sure whether anybody would care or whether anybody should care. Over the last several years, it became clear to me that there was sort of a larger import or meaning of my story that could be of help to people. So that’s kind of why I decided to write it.
I think you’re right, that the story that we’ve seen of the last several years of evangelicals becoming more clearly sort of a voting block that votes in its own interests rather than according to any set of principles. I think that’s maybe one of the best ways to put it. Because I try to actually stay away from talking about personalities. I try to talk about analyzing things from a systems and incentive structure perspective. I think that’s helpful, hopefully, to people, to think more critically about it.
But I think what we’ve seen over the past several years has its roots, for me at least, in the moral majority in Jerry Falwell and the Christian Coalition and the religious right. Because again, I’m in my mid-40s, I would wager, and I know that there are many people around my age who grew up during the ’90s and were turned off by the model of political engagement we saw from the religious right even then. Which was not really about contributing to the common good and was more about standing outside of the common good conversation and either critiquing it or trying to impose our perspective on it. I just always felt like there was a better way. I felt like it was rooted in Christianity. And then it just… the ugliness of it kind of metastasized and accelerated over the last several years.
Carmen: One interviewer has described Jon Ward as Forrest Gump. That is not far from an accurate description of the journey he has walked over the course of his life and the interesting people that he has met. Grew up in the D.C. Suburbs in a church that his parents helped found after they came to the Lord through the Jesus movement. That church then became a part of the charismatic movement later on. Developed into a part of the New Calvinist tribe. Eventually left that church and has been on a journey of discovery. Some might be tempted to describe Jon’s experience as deconstruction. I don’t see it that way at all. So Jon Ward is here. The book is Testimony. Can you maybe distinguish between what today would be described as deconstruction and your own experience?
Jon: Sure. Thanks, Carmen. I mean, I’ve had a couple people bring this up with me and take different positions. I have avoided using the term because I think it’s widely used to describe somebody who’s kind of walking away from their faith or throwing it out almost all together. Curtis Chang, who does the Good Faith podcast, I was talking to him the other day and he was arguing that it’s actually a classic case of deconstruction because the more accurate description is one where you’re looking back and taking out the good and building on that and discarding the bad. And that’s probably… I’m sure he has a great point, but I still would avoid the term just because of the way that it’s perceived as something particular.
For me, I think the through line of the book is that I was raised… I was taught a pretty simple Christian faith. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Mean it, do it, live it. Lift up the poor and the vulnerable. That’s what I’m still seeking to do. I think one of the challenges of the book is just seeing all of the ways that that simplicity of Christ gets distorted and manipulated. So if that’s deconstruction, so be it. But a young man who wrote a really nice review the other day called it a, “Classic construction story.” So people have all kinds of different words for it. One of my pet peeves, I guess, is the way that people try to use words to control and box in. So anytime I see language being used like that, I start looking for new language because language is supposed to be a tool to help us understand.
Carmen: That’s so good. I describe myself as an evangelical Christian. In one season of my life, I served on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. I am absolutely unwilling to abandon the term because I’m classically evangelical. Would the kind of evangelical Christian that is described in different places throughout the book even ever accept me as an evangelical? No. I don’t fit their understanding of what it would mean for them to even lay claim to the term.
But I absolutely believe that the Bible is the word of God and that people are in need of salvation and that Jesus is the Savior and Lord. And I believe it’s my responsibility to share that great good news with other people through both word and deed. So I absolutely resonate with what you’re saying in terms of when words are used in particular ways to either advance our own sense of power or to exclude people because of the way we use the term in a pejorative way. And so thank you. Thank you so much for the reminder of words as tools.
Let’s do this, because we only have a couple of minutes left, sadly. What happens this time around in the election cycle? And particularly maybe with your eye on Christians in the culture?
Jon: Well, the conventional wisdom right now is that it’s going to be Biden versus Trump. I think on the Democratic side, Biden does look, if his health remains, which is a question, to be the nominee. On the Republican side, Trump is in a good position to be the nominee. I have felt even back to January when DeSantis was rising, that DeSantis was probably going to fade and that there might be somebody else who emerges. If somebody else emerges on the Republican side, I think there’s plenty of demand for somebody else than Trump. There’s still a lot of columns being written, calling for the GOP to choose somebody else because Trump has been on a losing streak for the last three cycles.
It’s an interesting moment for evangelicals, for Christians in politics. It would be great to see evangelicals take a stand on principle over the next year. I’m not holding my breath waiting for it because I just don’t think that hoping for that sort of turnaround, especially in the political realm, is just the way. I don’t think it’s the way it works. And it’s not human nature.
But I think small conversations, writing this book, just calling people to really say, “Hey, here’s another chance to reassess where we stand, how you’re engaging in politics.” Read the book, agree, disagree, but my call would be, this is another chance for evangelicals to really kind of wipe the slate clean and think about, “How do I apply my faith to politics? How do I apply Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself to politics?” That might not change your vote at the national level, but it might change the way you engage in your politics in your community.
Listener’s Guide: What’s Next?
After hearing an interview like this one, it can be easy to move on to the next thing on our to-do list, but instead, let’s take a moment to pause, and reflect on what we have heard and consider what God may be asking us to do in response.
- How does the news I watch or read influence my worldview? My view of God? Of others?
- When discussing news about our national politics, how can I ensure my words are grounded in the truth and represent Christ in the conversation?
- How does my faith influence my politics? And how can I love others through my political engagement?
- Pray for members of the media, that they may do their job well, report out news clearly and truthfully, and so help the rest of us (the readers and viewers) understand our world better and grow in wisdom.
- Pray for Christian members of the media, like Jon Ward, that they would bear witness to both the truth about the world, as they report it, and the Truth of Jesus Christ to those around them. Pray that they would be encouraged by other believers and built up in the faith.
- Take stock of the media sources you consume on a daily basis and consider if they are trustworthy and truthful. Unsubscribe from those that knowingly repeat falsehoods or intentionally stir up anger and fear.
- Pause before reposting a news article and ask God to help you be wise with your words and remember that those in the article and those journalists who authored them are dearly loved, Image-bears of God.
Photo by Nils Huenerfuerst on Unsplash