Christian Broadcasting Network
Beyond the Religious Right
Religion to the Rescue
Politics and religion are the two topics you're not supposed to bring up at parties because they're so sensitive, but when it comes to American history, you have to look at politics and religion if you want to understand our country. America is often thought to be a "Judeo-Christian" nation, and regardless of your religious beliefs, there is no escaping the fact that Christianity has had a major influence on our culture.
Christian beliefs have always influenced various crusades. Though many Southern slaveholders believed the Bible supported slavery, the abolitionist movement used the same text to denounce what they saw as a heinous sin on the American psyche. Christianity was used to justify "civilizing" and murdering Native Americans, but it was also used by a black preacher named Martin Luther King to call for an end to segregation and the dismantling of white supremacy. During the Temperance movement, Christian women banded together to pass the 19th Amendment outlawing alcohol.Within the 20th century, no event was more important towards shaping the identity of conservative Christians than the infamous Scopes trial. In 1925, Christian fundamentalists, after being ridiculed during the trial for believing in the teaching of creationism instead of evolution, generally shied away from involvement in the public arena. They had endured humiliation at the hands of the media, who branded them a bunch of ignorant, uneducated hicks. Based on these negative experiences, they began to believe that building the heavenly kingdom of God meant they should retreat from the dirty, unholy world of politics, and turn their activities towards church ministry.
After five decades of distancing themselves from politics, most Christian fundamentalists started to fight back against secularism and liberalism due to a changing political climate. In the 1960s, prayer in school had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In 1973, in a decision conservatives say represented this century's Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to engage conservative Christians in the political process, and to pressure Republican politicians to support the Moral Majority's agenda. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and five Democratic senators were not re-elected, it signaled the influential political power of the Christian conservatives, generally known as the "Religious Right." Millions of dollars poured into the Moral Majority and Reverend Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). CBN was founded in the 1960s and has become a multi-million dollar world empire with an audience of 94 million.
To obtain a closer look at these modern-day moral crusaders, Neda and I woke up at 4:00 AM and jetted off to Virginia Beach, Virginia, home of the CBN media empire of Pat Robertson, who in 1988 ran for President. Even though I personally may not support the Religious Right's political beliefs and tactics, I decided to heed Jesus' words to love everyone, even those who you may disagree with. Therefore, I went to Virginia Beach with an open mind, determined to be respectful. I must admit at times, it wasn't easy. We were led onto the set of the CBN's flagship show, "The 700 Club," which features news stories, commentary and advice. Millions around the world tune into the show to receive an evangelical Christian perspective on the important issues of the day.
...angel will answer our wishes...
During the show we watched, Robertson advocated for tax cuts to help the average American family and argued against campaign finance reform, an issue he called "nonsense legislation." I started scratching my head, wondering why anyone with a conscience would oppose legislation to clean up our corrupt government system and stop the legal bribery now practiced by corporations, individuals and unions. Later, a report came on detailing how two homosexuals had raped and killed a 13 year-old boy. They pointed out that this incident barely made a ripple in the national media while Matthew Shepherd, who was bludgeoned to death by two straight males received extensive media coverage. "It just shows the bias of the pro-gay liberal media. They're so slanted to the left it hurts," said Robertson. At this point, I started scratching my head again. Perhaps there was some merit in his argument, but then I thought, for that to be a good analogy, the boy would have had to been killed by the gay men because he was straight, and we don't know that. Heterosexuals don't get killed and beaten because they happen to be straight, but gays are killed on the basis of their sexuality all the time. The most amusing moment came when Robertson commented that California was now a "majority minority" state thanks to the growing Hispanic population. Then he stammered, "And uh, I think that's great. They're nice people." The response may have been somewhat bumbling, but it shows how far fundamentalist Christians have come from their Ku Klux Klan-sympathetic, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic days.
Though I may have had my disagreements with Pat Robertson's viewpoint, I found his media empire and influence impressive. He commands a loyal following among Americans who believe their voices have been lost in an increasingly secular and liberal world.
"Scary and intolerant," "homophobes," "anti-woman," "a group bent on making America into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy." Those are some of the epithets that have been hurled at the Religious Right ever since they were credited with Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. Some liberals have started to believe that Christianity is equivalent to the Religious Right, a view I must admit I once held. I asked my friend, Maria Sung, a student at Harvard Divinity School and a self-described "evangelical Christian," how she viewed the Religious Right as a fellow Christian. She told me, "I've always considered the Religious Right to be a very powerful political movement made up of mostly white and wealthy people and I was neither of those. The greatest Christian commandment is to love in the name of Jesus Christ and I don't think they do a very good job of expressing that love."Interestingly enough, two leaders in the Religious Right movement of the 1980s tend to agree with Maria's assessment. In their memoir, Blinded by Might, two of Jerry Falwell's right-hand men, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, admitted to the failings of the Religious Right after two decades of feverish political activity. "Is the first image that comes to mind when the world looks at "modern" Christians is that they care most for the outcast?" said Thomas. "No," was Thomas' answer. Instead, the Religious Right attempted to impose morals from above by changing laws instead of souls, making them vulnerable to accusations of being judgmental instead of loving. He believes that's why the Religious Right failed to achieve its goals - abortion is still legal, homosexuality has gained in acceptance, and pornography is even more accessible by the Internet. Thomas believes that personal actions by Christians, rather than voting drives and political petitions, are what will transform the American culture. He writes, " The message of Christian leaders must be clear: It is not enough to support a welfare reform bill; they must also mentor the children of poverty who live without fathers and without hope. It is not enough to fight the gay rights lobby; they must comfort AIDS patients preparing for a lonely and painful death. It is not enough to support a constitutional amendment against abortion; they must provide a young woman in trouble with a home and a sympathetic ear. What we must not do is demonize those with whom we disagree." My friend Maria also said, "I'm very disturbed by the fact that a lot of Christian values like compassion for the needy and racial justice are misrepresented by the Christian Right and Republicans." Thomas also believes that at times, the Moral Majority's focus on hot-button cultural issues like abortion and gays meant they ignored issues like poverty and racism. "Fundamentalist preachers concentrated largely on the "sins" most of their members had a pretty easy time avoiding - liquor, movies, dancing, promiscuity. They mostly avoided the positive tough stuff - the business about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison, along with matters of justice."
In spite of the trashing the Religious Right receives in the media and among liberals, I think they should be applauded for representing the best in American democracy. Since 1980, groups like the Moral Majority, which disbanded in 1989, the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition have led between 4 and 5 million previously unregistered Christians to get involved with the political process and become a force to be reckoned with. Most of them are well-meaning middle class families who simply want to restore some decency in the culture. As I watch MTV's sex-drenched Spring Break, listen to Howard Stern on the radio, and get repeated pornographic advertisements in my email, I can't help but be sympathetic. Though their agenda to me seems overly obsessed with the control and regulation of sexual issues, they expose the continuing uneasiness we Americans have as a country in mixing politics and religion.
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