How Weird Christian Right Beliefs Impact America
Does it really matter that America is home to a bunch of religious fanatics who constantly spin lurid and offensive ideas about how the world works? It’s an interesting question, in light of the inevitable fundamentalist wankery that has risen up in response to discussion over the United States intervening in the civil war in Syria. USA Today published an article about the various Christian “end times” fanatics who are latching onto the Syrian conflict as evidence for their apocalypse that never quite comes.
Hamilton Nolan of Gawker was skeptical, noting that the article was vague about which Christian websites were making these connections and that the only named Christians cautioned against making these connections. After a bit of quick digging, Nolan discovered that one of the most mainstream conduits of the Syria = Apocalypse theory is the Blaze, Glenn Beck’s website. “Fear not, humanity,” Nolan wrote, “all remains in equilibrium.” The implication being that Glenn Beck and the Blaze are understood as marginal characters, so their rantings shouldn’t be of any concern to the average Gawker reader.
It’s a common refrain aimed at any journalist who covers the religious right and its weird, paranoid mindset, as I did recently on AlterNet with a list of 10 Christian conspiracy theories. The idea is that by giving these marginal characters attention, you actually make the problem worse. A recent Cracked article flirted with that idea, describing Robertson’s show as “a fundamentalist Christian slant that lost its cultural cachet years ago” and suggesting that by giving attention to the crazy things Robertson says, the media lets the 700 Club “pretend to be relevant again."
It’s an understandable urge: people spouting crazy nonsense are better ignored. Their numbers are small and they really can’t build an audience for their wacky theories without relying on the mainstream media’s interest in covering weird, marginal characters spouting random, nonsensical ideas. People who think cassettes are the best music medium, cults built around the belief that space aliens are coming for us, people involved in Peter Thiel’s island project are all people whose wackiness comes in small enough numbers that ignoring them really robs them of power.
The problem with that theory is that right-wing, apocalypse-obsessed Christians are not marginal characters who have little power in the world. They constitute a huge percentage of Americans, and just as disturbingly, they have influence over another huge number of Americans. They actually don’t want attention drawn to their wacky beliefs a good deal of the time. On the contrary, the preferred fundamentalist right-wing communication strategy is to use their own spaces—spaces that are often far from the prying eyes of the larger world—to talk about their lurid fantasies, and they prefer to show a more sensible, moderate face to the larger world.
Let’s be clear: Pat Robertson does not want liberals watching the 700 Club. Mike Huckabee is careful to curtail some of his more extreme views when he’s on national television. Rick Santorum has openly claimed that asking right-wing politicians about their hard-right views on things like contraception in the mainstream media is dirty pool. There’s a widespread and concentrated effort on the right to keep the crazy talk as far out of sight of the opposition as possible, while simultaneously disseminating their ideas among the true believers. This reality doesn’t comport with the claim that they benefit from mainstream media attention, but the opposite.
The rule of thumb with bizarre Christian right beliefs, such as the belief that Syria’s conflict is a sign of the end times, is that by the time it percolates up to a Google search or a website like the Blaze, it’s been flying around in lower-profile venues such as Internet forums, Facebook posts, books sold in Christian bookstores, in-person meetings in churches, sermons and presentations, and email forwards for a long time now. The fact that these points of view are concealed from prying liberal eyes doesn’t mean that they don’t have a huge impact on right-wing communities—and that includes Republican politicians.