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the Body Politic
Vol. 6, No. 10 - October/November 1996, Page 24
Copyright © 1996, 1997 by the Body Politic Inc.
Frederick Clarkson Interview Part II
Interview by Anne Bower
Last month we began an interview with Frederick Clarkson, author of the soon to be released, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. Mr. Clarkson was discussing the works of Stephen Carter and his book, The Culture of Disbelief which tries to make the case that religion is demeaned in American culture. Mr. Clarkson disagrees.
Q: You said that Stephen Carter's book has contributed to the notion of Christian bashing so dear to the heart of the Christian Coalition.
A: What's particularly strange is that Mr. Carter's book is also extremely critical about the Christian Coalition and the Christian Right with whom he dis-agrees on just about everything. But Stephen Carter has no background on the Christian Right. He doesn't know where they came from. He doesn't understand that people like Pat Robertson look to the theocrats of the original thirteen colonies as the model for Christian governance.
When Pat Robertson talks about what the "Christian Nation" ought to be that's the kind of thing he has in mind. Mr. Carter hasn't read Pat Robertson's books, or at least he offers no indication in his text or index that he has. So, when Mr. Carter hears people like Ralph Reed say that criticism of the Christian Coalition is just bigotry, I think he tends to buy it.
What's particularly remarkable is Mr. Carter's argument that society is stacked against religious expression in political discourse has been recycled back in Ralph Reed's book, Active Faith, in which Mr. Reed cites Stephen Carter saying Christians are being picked on.
Q: Considering how many people in America identify themselves as Christian, isn't this stretching a point?
A: I think that sometimes there is some bigotry directed against Evangelical Christians. Where that happens, it's wrong. But, that said, it is very important that people figure out the difference between religious bigotry and fair criticism. Just because someone is deeply religious does not mean they are right about political matters. Nor are they above criticism.
Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, people who call themselves the Christian Coalition, claim to advance a political/social agenda that reflects their religious views. They have every right to do that and that right has never been in question. However, they use their identity as Christian as a way to deflect criticism. If you criticize them politically, they call it Christian-bashing, but they're also being cynical in an interesting way.
They use their religion views in their political agenda in a way that violates the religious rights of others particularly in areas like Evangelization and prayer in the schools.
Q: Why do you think the mainstream media doesn't call them on the implications of their platforms?
A: It's a really delicate issue for the media. Most political reporters don't know a great deal about religion and their editors know even less. Everything in the news business is "ghettoized". There are "departments" and "beats". It's unusual for political reporters to have much depth in matters of religion and religious reporters have little depth in politics. The "institutions" of the media are sensitive about doing things that appear to criticize people with religious views. This is a potentially explosive situation and responsible reporting is not easy to do.
Lately we have seen some changes. The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post have done some good reporting, but, by and large, this is still a very delicate issue.
Q: Maybe your book should be sent to all the political reporters in the country.
A: That would be nice.
Q: Fred, in Eternal Hostility, you have proposed action that should be taken to counteract this movement.
A: It's important to learn the lessons from recent events. Politics is changed forever and the Christian Right is not going away. The reasons for their success are many, but it's not limited to having a television network or a show like The 700 Club nor is it money. Lot's of other groups in society have far more money than they do. The key to their success is the growing unity and coherence of their ideology combined with a street-smart political strategy.
People need to learn more about what the Christian Right believes in the broadest sense, not just, well, they're anti-gay, or anti- abortion, or anti-woman. Understand their comprehensive world-view. You also have to understand the particulars of how the Christian Right is organized politically. The most important thing is not the voter guides, or the fact that Ralph Reed is on television a lot, but rather that their people are systematically registered to vote and have an above-average political consciousness developed in their constituency. The Christian Coalition has systematically developed a Voter ID profile so they can keep an eye on the electoral calendar to register their base across the year. Their opponents usually only gear up for voter registration six to nine months before an election every two years. This is short-sighted.
Part of the success of the Christian Coalition is right after an election, even if energy is at a low ebb, they keep going. They aren't a juggernaut, but they have a longer-range vision of what needs to be done and how to accomplish it. Their plans aren't reinvented by political operatives every eighteen months. They have the same people and the same computers and keep working on it year round. That's really smart. Candidates are sought year round, trained and deployed while the Christian Coalition figures out how to get these people into lower level offices then get them booted up stairs. By doing this, they develop a larger pool of people with knowledge and political skills to do the leg work and run for office. This persistence and vision is what it takes to function effectively in participatory democracy. It's the key to their success.
Q: What should the pro-choice community do?
A: People shouldn't wait for national organizations to act, or wait for grant proposals. For the most part, what the Christian Coalition does is nitty gritty work that can be done by any group of people in any community who are willing to put in a lot of time and a little bit of resources. There's nothing here that can't be done with community meetings, a phone book and a PC.
The brilliance of what the Christian Right is able to do is because they believe they are in the process of building the Kingdom of God, and acting politically is part of what God requires of them. The grunt work of precinct politics become a transcendent experience. One needn't be jealous of the energy they bring to political work. Just understand that it's real. In the various communities who are concerned about the Christian Right, it is important that people find ways to have a political culture and consciousness that answers their opponents' zeal.
There isn't going to be any one formula that's right. What the gay community needs is not necessarily what is needed by the pro-choice or the arts community. The diverse elements of those who oppose the Christian Right must work in tandem and sufficient unity without having to rely on uniformity.
Q: Fred, you've been researching the Christian Right since the 70s, mostly as a second job. Why is it so hard to get organizations to recognize the importance of this kind of research?
A: One of the reasons is that political organizations and news organizations have not valued on-going research sufficiently to sustain research and publishing in the area. That, unfortunately is still the case.
What I am currently doing is sometimes fashionable, and sometimes you can raise foundation money for your work, but really integrating what you learn from this research into one's organizational life and political strategy is very rare.
Q: Well Fred, when is the rest of the community going to have the good fortune I did to read your book?
A: Hopefully, some time in October or November.
Q: We'll look forward to that and be sure to offer it to Body Politic readers when it comes out.
Eternal Hostility is available from the Body Politic.
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