< Messiah Complex


Friday, April 29, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Capitol Hill this week, a legislative showdown with potentially far-reaching consequences drew closer by the day. At issue, ten highly controversial nominees to the federal bench who Republicans seemed ready to confirm by any means necessary, including changing Senate rules to prevent filibustering by Democrats. The rhetoric on both sides has been heated, but perhaps nowhere hotter than it was last Sunday, when several Christian groups staged a telecast that was broadcast nationwide. It was called "Justice Sunday: Stopping the Filibuster against People of Faith," and it featured such luminaries of the religious right as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, here lashing out at Supreme Court justices.

JAMES DOBSON: Euthanasia is on their list of things to deal with, and pornography unchecked and unlimited, on and on it goes. Plus this matter of judicial tyranny to people of faith. And that has to stop.

BOB GARFIELD: The event attracted wide coverage in the mainstream press, mostly focused on the participation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and most of that unmistakably critical. But to Jeff Sharlet, who writes about the intersection of religion and media for TheRevealer.org, it amounted to much ado about nothing terribly unusual.

JEFF SHARLET: I think Justice Sunday got very overplayed by the secular media, which has been casting about since the election for a means with which to talk about the religious right, and they've been trying out different approaches, and finally here comes this event, which gives them a very clean and precise narrative. It's almost like a political convention. You can talk about how many people this reaches and what the reception was, and you don't have to do the hard work of going out into the churches, into the small groups which are the building blocks of the religious right, and reading, over an extended period of time, the media that they have built, completely independent of that. And there, you find that Justice Sunday is just another blip on a very broad spectrum of conversation that the religious right is having with most of America. Congressmen and senators have been coming to their churches and courting them for years, and when I go to big mega-churches, oftentimes there might be a video testimonial from a, a senator or congressman.

BOB GARFIELD: Bill Frist, Senator Frist, was criticized for using the phrase "people of faith"--


BOB GARFIELD: --to describe those who support the president's nominees, and, and I guess the "great godless everybody else" as being Democrats. How did it play with the faithful?

JEFF SHARLET: I think it's a little too soon to say how it played with the faithful, but this language is out there now. "People of faith." Even in an article that seems to be critical of that formulation, it's now become the designated way of talking about the religious right. I think it was brilliant, as media strategy. So these people who see this as a salvo in the spiritual war, maybe even one that they don't approve, nonetheless, when what they perceive as "the godless liberal elite" hits back, they have no choice but to align themselves with someone like James Dobson, even when they think he is expressing a sort of an absurd message or over-stating the case. He's family. He's family in a way that the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN are not.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's talk about James Dobson. He's founder of a Christian group called Focus on the Family. Tell me his history.

JEFF SHARLET: James Dobson began as a psychologist. He created Focus on the Family in Pasadena, California originally; moved it to Colorado Springs in the early '90s, which is sort of the capital of Christian fundamentalism, and he did so because there was such a concentration of Christian media groups gathering there, and was able to acquire access to radio stations or outright ownership of radio stations around the world such that he claims to be heard on more radio stations than any other radio host, and he claims to reach about 200 million people worldwide. I mean in Christian America, James Dobson is as regular a source for news as is Peter Jennings.

BOB GARFIELD: On the question of how to support the president's nominees for judgeship, there seems to be something less than unanimity, even in the religious right. Dobson and Bill Frist themselves don't necessarily see eye to eye. Was there any evidence of this schism on the broadcast itself?

JEFF SHARLET: No, I don't think so, and I think that schism is something that the secular press is paying much too much attention to at the expense of the actual tidal wave of strength and emotion that is building on the Christian right. Remember, the Christian right is not monolithic. They pride themselves on the debates they hold within the movement, and that's something the secular press likes to ignore. They sort of want to look at this as, as a voting bloc. It's not a voting bloc. It is a social movement with different ideas, and they're all going in the same direction. I think Justice Sunday did mark the crossing of a line in terms of Frist openly talking about Democrats in the language which the religious right has, until this point, pretty much reserved for gay people - to say that they are an enemy. That's an expansion, from just talking about liberals, and I think they now have the media power to bully the secular media to respect those terms or use those terms, and they also have the media power, as Justice Sunday demonstrated, to get that message out, even if the secular media doesn't want to carry it. They don't need the secular media any more, and I think that's a lot of what Justice Sunday was pointing to.

BOB GARFIELD: Is it fair to say, then, that what was a movement has now officially, with Justice Sunday, become a crusade?

JEFF SHARLET: Hmmm. That's a good question. When, when do we call it a crusade? Yes, I think so, and I think so because if you go to the religious press, even the, sort of the moderate evangelical press like Christianity Today, which is sort of the flagship magazine of the movement, Christianity Today has begun using the language of spiritual war much more so than it has, and you can almost chart the growth of spiritual war as a metaphor in the religious right. Now, as an idea, it goes back to the beginning of Christianity, but at certain times, the metaphor kind of grows concrete, and people start talking in very literal terms of spiritual war - spiritual war is being fought in Iraq, and if you look at the religious publishing houses, they're churning out books talking about the war in Iraq definitely as a crusade. And there's also language that is sort of out ahead of James Dobson and Bill Frist. If you go to churches and you talk to regular people, a lot of people on the religious right are talking about civil war, and they're talking about civil war in not a metaphorical sense, in a literal sense. They hope it won't happen, but they are afraid that it might. And I think that has come through this growing metaphor of spiritual war.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Jeff, thank you so much.

JEFF SHARLET: Thanks, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Sharlet is editor of TheRevealer.org - a daily review of religion and the press, and author of Soldiers of Christ, an article in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine. [MUSIC]