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Electronic Prophets

By Greg Guma

08 November, 2004

Religious Right broadcasters long ago learned an important lesson: Repeat almost anything often enough and many people will believe you -- even if it leads them to act against their own interests. Starting with radio evangelism in the 1930s, media-evangelists have perfected the use of each new technology to influence elections and legislation, hammering home reactionary theology with the clear aim of gaining political power.

Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered the approach in the 1930s on a powerful Los Angeles' radio station. Broadcasting from her "temple," McPherson styled herself a modern-day Joan of Arc in a titanic struggle against communism. Her crusade reached the boiling point in 1934 during the insurgent Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. The socialist author had pledged to "end poverty in California," but the evangelist, in an alliance with Republican leaders, Hollywood propagandists and political consultants, redefined the race in apocalyptic terms.

"Someone has cast in the poison herb," she bellowed on the Sunday before Election Day, "and if we eat thereof we shall all perish and the glory of our nation as it has stood through the years shall perish with us." At first the front runner in an era of mass unemployment and hard times, Sinclair had become the target of the nation’s first "media campaign," and ultimately lost by 200,000 votes. McPherson had seized on growing fears of revolution, convincing her flock -- many of them poor -- that the real enemy was satanic communism and its Democratic messenger.

Not much has changed since then except the targets: the contemporary Christian Right rails against Satan in the form of feminists, gay rights activists, and any politician who doesn't endorse their vision of an essentially theocratic state. Since the late 20th century, the rhetoric has turned increasingly outrageous, while the potential impacts become even more dangerous.

Speaking on his own TV network, Pat Robertson made the goal absolutely clear years ago: "The mission of the Christian Coalition is simple: to mobilize Christians, one precinct at a time, one community at a time, one state at a time, until once again we are the head and not the tail, and at the top rather than at the bottom of our political system."

In a country founded on the principle of church-state separation, this may sound unlikely. Yet Robertson's reach has exceeded McPherson's wildest dreams: A multi-billion dollar empire, his 700 Club and Family Channel was reaching 92 percent of US homes through cable by the mid-1990s.

Robertson is just one of many of religious broadcasters who has capitalized on mass insecurity to market extreme views. On a syndicated program in the 1990s, anti-abortion organizer Randall Terry spurred followers to aggressive, sometimes violent action against anyone who defended reproductive freedom. James Dobson, host of the pseudo-talk show Focus on the Family, had amassed a $100 million war chest by the mid-90s.

Using everything that modern technology has to offer, such demagogues combine distorted appeals to religious convictions with pure disinformation to focus attention on "wedge issues" such as gay rights and abortion. Their ultimate objective -- evidenced by school prayer, anti-abortion, and other crusades to turn religious beliefs into law -- is to weaken the separation of church and state. In the long run, they hope to amend the US Constitution, or use the Tenth Amendment (which says that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states) as a vehicle to implement their vision.

The strategy has been fairly effective. TV evangelists and other religious groups effectively sanitize extreme ideology and immerse viewers in a false reality. Specious arguments are presented as biblical truths or scientific facts. Propagandistic videos serve as organizing tools in local campaigns. Hiding behind non-profit status, electronic "prophets" disguise political calls as sermons or educational discussions. And too often, "mainstream" media follow their lead: New shows, for example, often give equal weight to pro- and anti-choice arguments, even though 83 percent of the US public is pro-choice.

The use of influential technologies to promote conservative religious agendas obviously isn't a new development. The earliest use of moveable type, after all, was to print bibles. But now more powerful tools are at the disposal of evangelical groups. As Gerard Colby and Charlotte Dennett point out in Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon, the goals of missionaries have often meshed well with imperialist policies and the capitalist schemes. During the Cold War, for example, fundamentalist missionary William Cameron Townsend's Jungle Aviation and Radio Service (JAARS) used surplus government equipment and corporate backing to create the first air fleet in Latin America.

Townsend had already demonstrated the ability to wed God and "progress" in the pacification of "bibleless tribes" through his Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). This controversial Rockefeller-backed group used bible translation as a means to "transform" and ultimately disrupt indigenous cultures, simultaneously opening up Central and South America for corporate exploitation.

During the same period, US evangelists were organizing to use another new technology -- television. The National Association of Evangelicals and National Association of Religious Broadcasters, founded to consolidate gains made via radio, quickly expanded their scope. Religious groups were among the first to apply for TV licenses, and have since become masters of TV and radio syndication. More recently, they turned to the Internet to get their message out.

Groups like the 700 Club and Christian Coalition moved early and forcefully into cyberspace, posting anti-gay rhetoric on a huge number of Websites. "It is distressing," wrote Loren Javier in Out! magazine, "when 'pro-family' quasi-religious groups like the American Family Association post articles and pamphlets in the form of educational materials which in fact threaten the existence of lesbians and gay men. Both produce the same results -- fear, hatred, and intolerance."

As in the past, religious propaganda has created a distorted picture of contemporary reality which many people hungry for guidance embrace. As former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed explained several years before the election of George W. Bush, the short-term objective was to force candidates to endorse the Coalition's agenda, an effort that frequently proved successful. But the ultimate step was to turn the agenda into presidential policy, a goal that came within reach when candidates for president, most notably Bush, inserted religious Right rhetoric into the 2000 presidential election.

The foundation had been laid during the previous decade. Although their candidates faltered in 1996, Christian Right "wedge" issues -- school prayer, family values, sex, abortion, gay "lifestyle" -- skewed the debate, eclipsing the competing views of progressive Christians and others who opposed an intolerant and paranoid theology. "Our time is coming," Pat Buchanan told the faithful during the 1996 presidential primaries. Having lost every race on Super Tuesday, he nevertheless predicted victory for the fundamentalist forces he helped catalyze.

Buchanan's gospel of "cultural war" struck a chord with the Christian Right and Howard Phillips US Taxpayers Party, which wanted to restore the "Christian republic," end welfare, scrap the civil service and IRS, and withdraw from international organizations. In 2000, candidates like Steve Forbes, Allen Keyes, and Gary Bauer built on this foundation, linking jeremiads about political corruption and moral decay with calls to overthrow Roe v. Wade.

In response, progressive groups tend to focus on exposure. When more people understand the extreme views of the Christian Right, goes the logic, their candidates will be rejected. At the local level, there is support for this view. But too many people, uncertain about their futures and the safety of their families and friends, remain vulnerable to the politics of paranoia and blame.

From time to time, both Buchanan and Robertson have pointed to a secret conspiracy supposedly bent on subjugating the nation and creating a repressive "world government." Harking back to the sermons of McPherson and Father Charles Coughlin, the 1930s radio priest who mixed tirades against the Elders of Zion with alleged sympathy for workers, Robertson has warned "a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers." It sounds laughable, but there's just enough truth in the argument -- given the de facto "world government" being established through North American Free Trade Agreement, World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund -- to put a paranoid, theocratic spin on future elections as well.

In an era of distrust and decadence, when many voters believe their institutions don't work and leaders often looked like greedy crooks, it isn't so hard to accept such a prophecy. Lacking spiritual moorings -- and bombarded with disinformation -- spiritually starved voters turn to electronic hucksters who offer simplistic answers and the faint hope of a moral revival. Although various spiritual traditions do offer more constructive answers -- tolerance, equality, harmony with nature, and social justice, among others -- their spokesmen don't often reach as vast an audience, a state of affairs that will be difficult to change in the foreseeable future.

But endlessly repeating lies and distortions, while effective in the short-term, does not make them true. Eventually, even a manipulated public must face the contradiction of a movement that poses as "pro-family" and the destructive division of communities it actually promotes. Inevitably, the Christian Right's hypocritical moralizing will be exposed for what it is -- a false prophecy that no amount of repetition can conceal.

Original version published in June 1996 by Toward Freedom











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