By Greg Guma
08 November, 2004
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.
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 nations 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
published in June 1996 by Toward Freedom