False Prophets of the Electronic Age

The Washington, DC, rally promoted by Glenn Beck and Fox News on August 28, 2010, has been called a nonpolitical event by Beck and others. But conservative politicians have also been quick to describe it as a reaction to the policies of the Obama administration, and rhetoric associated with it appealed to those who already think the US has somehow been hijacked by godless socialists. The result was a bizarre event that capitalized on the fact that it was held the same day and in the same location as Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I have a dream” speech – and, yet, buttresses an agenda that flips King’s vision on its head.

We shouldn’t be surprised that opportunists like Beck and Sarah Palin – who has attracted a devoted following of anti-government Tea Party activities and nativist “Mama Grizzlies” with her fact-challenged approach to politics – have seized the chance to distort public debate and promote themselves as prophets. After all, they have a powerful television pulpit on the Fox News Channel, whose parent company recently exposed its political preference with a $1 million contribution to the Republican Party.

Christian right evangelists have been doing this for generations. Starting with radio in the 1930s, they have used each new technology to influence opinion, win elections and hammer home their theology. One of the first was Aimee Semple McPherson, who pioneered the approach 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.

McPherson’s crusade reached the boiling point in 1934 during the insurgent Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. The socialist author of “The Jungle” and other novels about the excesses of capitalism had pledged to “end poverty in California,” but the evangelist, in an alliance with Republican leaders, Hollywood propagandists and political consultants, recast the race in apocalyptic terms.

“Someone has cast in the poison herb,” McPherson 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.” Sinclair, at first the front runner in an era of mass unemployment and hard times, became the target of the nation’s first full-fledged “media campaign” and ultimately lost by 200,000 votes. McPherson had effectively seized on growing fears of revolution, convincing her flock – many of them poor – that the real enemy was satanic communism and its Democratic messenger. Sound familiar?

First appearing on CBS stations in 1930, Father Charles Coughlin built a similarly ardent following with his volatile mixture of populism and nationalism. When CBS management insisted that he stop railing against “international bankers,” the evangelist appealed directly to his listeners, who sent more than a million letters of protest to the network. CBS responded by replacing all paid religious broadcasts with Church of the Air, a show that offered free, rotating air time to speakers from the three “major” faiths. This became a standard media approach with religious groups.

It didn’t deter Coughlin, who created his own network and turned even more political, eventually drifting toward fascism. Along the way – until he lost favor in World War II – he suggested, “Christians suffer more at the hands of the Reds than Jews do in the Third Reich” and that Nazi Germany had to protect itself from Jewish communists who were influencing radio, journalism and finance. Attempts to censor him were often decried as “Jewish terrorism.”

Not much has changed since then except the targets. Speaking on his own TV network, Pat Robertson made the goal absolutely clear years ago: “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, Beck, Palin, and millions of others share this “dream.”

To call Beck and Palin evangelists, or even propagandists, isn’t much of a stretch. Funded by Fox and backed by corporate conservatives like the Koch family, they are attempting to sanitize an extreme, religiously-infused ideology and immerse viewers in a false reality. Specious arguments are presented as history, biblical truth or scientific fact. These “electronic “prophets” disguise their political calls as sermons or attempts to “restore” integrity and honor. And too often “mainstream” media legitimize their covert operations.

As in the past, the religious right is creating a distorted picture of contemporary reality that many people, insecure and hungry for guidance, embrace. As former Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed explained before the election of George W. Bush, the short-term objective was to force candidates to endorse their religious right’s agenda, an effort that frequently proved successful. But the ultimate step was to turn the agenda into national 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 the 1990s, 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. Once Palin emerged during the 2008 presidential campaign, Buchanan looked positively gleeful on TV as his gospel was embraced by a new generation.

In response, progressives put their faith in 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, Beck and others point to a secret conspiracy supposedly bent on subjugating the nation to some form of mutated socialism or fascism. The idea that Barack Obama is a Muslim Manchurian candidate fits well within this theory. This, too, harks back to the sermons of McPherson and Father Coughlin. It may sound laughable. But in a time of distrust and decadence, when many voters believe their institutions don’t work and leaders often looked like greedy crooks, it isn’t that 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.

On the other hand, endlessly repeating lies and distortions, while sometimes effective in the short term, doesn’t make them true. Eventually, even a manipulated public must face the contradiction of a movement that poses as patriotic and “pro-family” and the destructive divisions it actually promotes. There is still hope that the hypocritical moralizing of opportunists like Beck and Palin will be exposed for what it is – a false prophecy that no amount of repetition can conceal.