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Right of the Dial

Dorothy: Destroyed? Toto? Oh you can’t. You mustn’t. Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, you won’t let her, will you?

Miss Gulch: If you don’t hand over that dog, I’ll bring a damage suit that will take your whole farm. There’s a law protectin’ folks against dogs that bite.

Uncle Henry: We can’t go against the law, Dorothy. I’m afraid poor Toto will have to go.

Auntie Em: Almira Gulch! Just because you own half the county doesn’t mean you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you. And now—well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it.

 

The other day I was telling a friend about some egregiously anti-Catholic diatribe I had heard on a Christian radio station when he interrupted me to ask me why I listen to that.

Only he didn’t mean it as a question. It was a judgment: How could I waste my time on such flagrant silliness? “Why do you read the newspaper?” I wanted to say. Why do you watch television news? Of course I didn’t. I’m still a recovering Nice Christian.

Which is too bad, really, because it means I’m not always quick enough in denouncing what I am more and more convinced is the hoodwinking of our nation in the name of a Christ I don’t recognize even though I support my family by spending my life leading a congregation in trying to figure out and follow Christ’s teachings. (These teachings, I’m certain, do not include bullying people on Christian or AM radio or condemning homosexuals or Christianizing the Constitution or stacking the courts or demonizing Muslims or mobilizing a voting bloc to elect program-loyal candidates—but I’m becoming breathless only partway through my list.)

It’s widely acknowledged that there has been a dangerous and increasing collapse of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics so that more and more they come to be seen as one and the same thing.

But acknowledging that and understanding it as a genuine worry are different things. One of the most egregious ways progressives marginalize the religious right is in not taking its media reach seriously. Probably because Christian radio has always seemed a quaint, kind of homespun thing, supported by a coterie of like-minded listeners—hokey, but harmless—it’s easy to overlook the growing power of broadcasters disseminating a political agenda cloaked in Christian rhetoric.

I only started listening to Christian radio—which I can only do in small doses—because a member of my congregation wanted me to. I couldn’t tolerate any of the Christian contemporary music and a lot of the radio preachers made me really want to scream. But I discovered that a lot of the call-in therapy shows actually had some decent psychotherapists offering useful information. There was very little “let-and-let-God” talk on these shows.

I didn’t really start worrying until last fall when a commentator on a news program began talking about the issues in the upcoming election. For a minute I thought it was really going to be thoughtful critical analysis. He sounded fair-minded. He was intelligent, soft-spoken. So when he got around to saying, in more or less these words, that no one really Christian would vote for John Kerry he made it sound almost reasonable.

Unless you were really listening to what he was saying, his no-nonsense affability made it seem as though dissent would be absurd.

Mariah Blake, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, explores the growing “alternative universe of faith-based news.”

She begins her story with a visit to the Christian Broadcasting Network’s brand-new Washington, D.C., digs in the Dupont Circle area. Trent Lott had been in earlier in the week for an interview. News anchor Lee Webb was just gearing up—with prayer—for the taping of his show, NewsWatch, one of many of CBN’s faith-based programs, this one a blend of God, politics and current events.

“Few outside the evangelical community know how large [CBN] is,” Blake writes, “It employs more than 1,000 people and has facilities in three U.S. cities as well as Ukraine, the Philippines, India, and Israel — or how diverse its programming.”

“CBN is just one star in a vast and growing Christian media universe, which has sprung up largely under the mainstream’s radar. Conservative evangelicals control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation’s more than 2,000 religious radio stations. Thanks to Christian radio’s rapid growth, religious stations now outnumber every other format except country music and news-talk.”

The National Religious Broadcasters (“Christian communicators impacting the world”) mission statement describes its 1,600 members as “your partner to promote the Gospel.” NRB was founded to “provide access to the airwaves, promote education and training for members and provide networking opportunities.”

One of their most visible networking opportunities is at their annual convention, “the largest nationally and internationally recognized event dedicated solely to assist those in the field of Christian communications.”

Chris Hedges, a war correspondent and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning visited the NRB convention in Anaheim, Calif., and writes about his experience in this month’s Harper’s.

Hedge’s Harper’s piece makes for chilling reading and ought to be enough to make those dismissive of Christian media take another, worried look. But even more chilling is that Hedges has no particular ax to grind. He’s not anti-Christian. Indeed, he grew up the son of an activist Presbyterian minister and was himself a student of Christian ethics at Harvard Divinity School.

He writes with real anguish at the disconnect between the Christianity he was nursed on and the kind now ascendant: brash, unapologetic and hungry for a piece of secular political power.

“Rarely mentioned these days is the Jesus of the four gospels, the Jesus who speaks of the poor and the marginalized, who taught followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies, the Jesus who rejected the mantle of secular power.”

Instead, he says, a disproportionate amount of scripture he heard quoted at the convention came from the book of Revelation, “the only place in the NT where Jesus (arguably) endorses violence and calls for vengeance against non-believers.”

With sadness, Hedges recalls the words of his Harvard ethics professor, Dr. James Luther Adams who told his students that fascism would not return wearing brown shirts and arm bands, but cloaked in the language of the Bible, carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.

And Christian broadcasting is fueled by that trio. NRB President Frank Wright couldn’t have made it any clearer: “We don’t just tell [listeners] what the news is. We tell them what it means.”

And if you don’t listen to what’s happening, it’s hard to disagree with it.

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org

jopage@graceniska.org


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