Myths and misinformation sometimes become the conventional wisdom, confounding efforts to understand the religious right. The most notorious failure of the conventional wisdom — the notion that "the religious right is dead" — allowed the new Christian rig ht to wage a stealth campaign for political power before most could even begin to see it, let alone write about it or politically respond. The pundits were dead wrong about the religious right, but myths still abound.
One major myth about the religious right is that the Rev. Don Wildmon heads a flaky fringe group with no real clout — the American Family Association (AFA). Another is that Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family is somehow apolitical.
Don Wildmon is the scourge of TV, movies, and the arts. He is credited, for example, with making (in collaboration with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC)) "obscene" and "blasphemous" art a major issue. However his reputation rests more with his pressuring of TV to censor programs he doesn't like, and advertisers who sponsor programming and publications of which he does not approve.
Wildmon has had many successes. Nevertheless, some argue that his bark is worse than his bite; that his power is overrated; that companies actually have little to fear.
While the American Family Association's staff of 35 and $6 million budget (mostly from direct mail) is not insignificant, his real clout comes from his direction of CLeaR-TV (Christian Leaders for Responsible Television), a larger coalition of some 1600 m inisters, including many mainstream clergy such as bishops of the United Methodist Church and such Catholic leaders as Cardinal O'Connor of New York. AFA's size should not obscure the significance of this parallel operation with mainstream backing.
A winning formula
Wildmon changed the name of his organization from the National Federation for Decency (NFD) to the American Family Association in 1987. A larger NFD-led alliance called the Coalition for Better Television collapsed in 1982. Wildmon updated and refashioned his modus operandi with AFA and CLeaR-TV, and achieved new heights of censorship with this winning formula. More importantly, he provided the catalyst for the far-right attacks on the arts, and a critical change in the political climate regarding toleran ce for cultural diversity.
Through the AFA Law Center, for example, a nationally watched lawsuit against a California school district's use of the Impressions textbook may have sent a chill of self-censorship up the spine of the publisher, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, which did not republish the well-regarded reading series. (The suit was based on the idea that the reading series violated the constitutional provision for a separation between church and state because some of the stories referred to witches, and witches are part of a recognized religion known as Wicca.)
Joan DelFattore, a professor of English at the University of Delaware and an expert on textbook censorship, says, "I don't see Wildmon as an isolated phenomenon. I see him as part of a wider, far-right movement." Indeed, Wildmon is a former leader in several far-right groups, including Christian Voice, American Coalition for Traditional Values, Coalition on Revival, and others. More recent involvements include the far-right Council for National Policy.
DelFattore points out that other Christian right groups also attacked Impressions around the country, notably Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, and Citizens for Excellence in Education.
AFA lost in federal district court. But whether or not they win on appeal, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston's next reading series may well pass the Wildmon test, lest the publisher and its public school customers face further "controversies."
Similarly, the threat of letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, and bad publicity from CLeaR-TV is compelling to corporate advertisers. These are usually consumer-products companies selling such things as hamburgers, books, cars, and computers. Thus they are vulnerable to boycotts. It is difficult for a company to evaluate the risks of challenging Wildmon's coalition.
Corporations faced with active boycotts of any kind will usually claim that a boycott has no impact — whether it does or not. Boycotts don't always make an obvious dent in sales, but may, for example, retard planned growth and cost a company millions in p ublic relations, research, and lobbying. Advertisers may make crude cost/benefit analyses in which their commitment to freedom of expression withers before the bottom line.
Thus the actual effectiveness of Wildmon's campaigns can be hard for outsiders to measure. And self-censorship rarely makes news. All this works to Wildmon's advantage. AFA takes stands on far more targets than he can possibly win. (Not all AFA targets ar e simultaneously targeted by CLeaR-TV.) Meanwhile, Wildmon exaggerates AFA's membership and chapter list. He also uses ridiculously unscientific methods to "survey" sex, violence, and anti-Christian views on TV. His anti-Semitic remarks about the role of Jews in the media have been roundly denounced, though not widely publicized. He has gotten away with a lot, while his conservative and mainstream religious allies have looked the other way, as have most of the media most of the time. And that is most of w hat he has needed to remain influential.
Reporters and anti-censorship groups are often hamstrung for want of accurate information from both Wildmon and his targets. However, the absence of hard data should not obscure the real, if not always tangible, political and economic impact of Wildmon an d his allies.
Meanwhile, Dr. James Dobson is an evangelical Christian psychologist whose radio show is heard on some 1500 stations, and whose discipline-oriented books on child rearing are gospel to many parents. Less well-known are his political views and involvements .
Dr. Dobson is unquestionably a top leader of the Christian right, along with the likes of Don Wildmon, Pat Robertson, Ollie North, Paul Weyrich, and R. J. Rushdoony. Indeed, all are members of the secretive rightist leadership network, the Council for Nat ional Policy.
Dobson's Focus on the Family organization has political and public-policy groups in 35 states, led until recently by the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, DC.
FRC, headed by Gary Bauer, became technically independent of FOF in 1992. The move was designed to give FRC more flexibility, maintain Dobson's apolitical image, and protect FOF's tax-exempt status. Efforts to preserve appearances notwithstanding, Dobson remains on the FRC board.
Most revealingly of all, FOF sponsors political training seminars, called "Community Impact Seminars." The manual promotes the doctrine of a "Christian America" and attacks the separation of church and state.
What's more, as Skipp Porteous and I report in Challenging the Christian Right: The Activist's Handbook (second edition), Focus on the Family's concepts and language are as militaristic as anything said by Pat Robertson or Ralph Reed of the Christi an Coalition. "The first thing that is required to win a war is soldiers," according to FOF's political manual. "Churches must begin with a program of recruitment, or more plainly, discipleship."
"Secondly," the manual continues, "an army needs intelligence. Where are the battles raging? Who is involved? What is the nature of the conflict and the size of the enemy? Questions like these must be answered in order to direct the efforts of your soldie rs. Focus on the Family has a number of resources designed to provide your church with intelligence."
The manual goes on to name the Family Research Council, FOF's radio show, "Family News in Focus," and state-level Family Policy Councils ("similar to FRC") as the political infrastructure with which to wage the "civil war of values."
Dobson himself has said that God "has called us to be His representatives in our nation and in our world. Select candidates," he declared, "who represent your views and work for their election." Of course, by "your views," he means his views, and those of other Christian right leaders.
It is essential to good reporting and effective political defenses of Constitutional rights, to have clear and complete pictures of religious right organizations. Misinformation makes for misreporting and for ineffective politics.