The New Blacklist
Spurred on by a biblical injunction evangelicals call "The Great Commission," and emboldened by George W. Bush's re-election, which is perceived as a "mandate from God," the Christian right has launched a series of boycotts and pressure campaigns aimed at corporate America -- and at its sponsorship of entertainment, programs and activities they don't like.
And it's working. Just three weeks ago, the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) announced it was ending its boycott of corporate giant Procter & Gamble -- maker of household staples like Tide and Crest -- for being pro-gay. Why? Because the AFA's boycott (which the organization says enlisted 400,000 families) had succeeded in getting P&G to pull its millions of dollars in advertising from TV shows like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
P&G also ended its advertising in gay magazines and on gay Web sites. And a P&G executive who had been given a leave of absence to work on a successful Cincinnati, Ohio, referendum that repealed a ban on any measures protecting gays from discrimination was shown the door.
"We cannot say they are 100 percent clean, and we ask our supporters to let us know if they discover P&G again being involved in pushing the homosexual lifestyle," growls the AFA's statement of victory over the corporate behemoth, "but judging by all that we found in our research, it appears that our concerns have been addressed." The Wall Street Journal reported on May 11 that "P&G officials won't talk publicly about the boycott. But privately, they acknowledge the [Christer] groups turned out to be larger, better funded, better organized, and more sophisticated than the company had imagined."
But the P&G cave-in to the Christian right is only the tip of the iceberg. In just the past year and a half, AFA protests and boycotts -- or even the simple threat of boycotts -- have been enough to make a host of American companies pull their ads from TV shows the Christian right considers pro-gay or salacious. "Desperate Housewives" has lost ads from Safeway, Tyson Foods, Liberty Mutual, Kohl's, Alberto Culver, Leapfrog and Lowe's after the AFA's One Million Dads campaign targeted the show's sponsors. "Life as We Know It" got the same AFA treatment -- and lost ads from McCormick, Lenscrafters, Radio Shack, Papa John's International, Chattem and Sharpie.
And it's not just programs on the broadcast networks and their local affiliates that are feeling the heat from the Christian right. When the AFA targeted Comedy Central's "South Park," the popular cartoon satire saw ads on the show pulled by Foot Locker, Geico, Finish Line and Best Buy.
Nissan, Goodyear and Castrol stopped running ads on "The Shield" after AFA complaints. Sonic Drive-In pulled its ad support from "The Shield" after a single email request from AFA's Rev. Wildmon. S.C. Johnson and Hasbro ordered their ads taken off "He's a Lady" when it got the AFA treatment. And the list goes on ..... Call it a new, 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not advertise" if the religious primitives smell sin.
Just two weeks ago, the AFA undertook a new letter-writing campaign aimed at Kraft Foods (makers of Oreo cookies, Maxwell House coffee, Ritz Crackers and the like) for supporting the "radical homosexual agenda."
Kraft's crime? It's a corporate sponsor of the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. Founded in 1980 by Dr. Tom Waddell -- a 1968 Olympic decathlete -- these Gay Games VII will bring gay athletes from all over the world to the Windy City for a complete catalog of Olympic-style competitions. The honorary chairman of the Chicago Gay Games? The city's mayor, Richard Daley, who declared that he is "committed to the success of the 2006 Gay Games because it is an expression of international goodwill and a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, which are important to Chicago."
But, following the AFA's lead, another conservative Christian group -- the Illinois Family Institute (IFI) -- has asked its members to take on Kraft and five other Illinois companies that are sponsoring what it calls the "Homosexuality Games." Proclaimed the IFI: "By allowing their corporate logos to be used to promote the 'Gay Games,' Kraft, Harris Bank and other sponsoring companies are celebrating wrong and destructive behaviors, and showing their disdain for the majority of Americans who favor traditional morality and marriage."
Here's a nice touch: The IFI's Web site features a statue of Abraham Lincoln, who some historians now credibly say was gay or bisexual. Will Kraft stand up to the pressure? The company's answer to this protest campaign is, for the moment, yes -- but for how long?
All across the country, the Christian right and its allies in the culture wars are mobilizing -- sometimes spurred on from the top by the AFA, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and similar national groups, but with increasing frequency local pressure campaigns and boycott threats are self-starters. They target everything from local broadcast outlets and local cable operators to libraries, bookstores, playhouses, cinemas and magazine outlets.
"The Christian right is incredibly mobilized," says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a 30-year-old alliance of 50 nonprofit groups. Bertin says, "There's been an explosion of local book and arts censorship -- a lot of activity by an emboldened grassroots, who think they won the last election on moral grounds. They barely need to threaten a boycott to get those they target to back down -- hey, nobody had to threaten to boycott PBS to get them to back off Postcards From Buster." Bertin affirms that "This new threat from below as well as above has already achieved a widespread chill" on creative and entertainment arts throughout the country.
A good example of successful up-from-below pressure in making corporate America bend the knee to the Christian right: the Microsoft Corp. Earlier this year, under pressure from a local protest led by Ken Hutcherson -- a conservative National Football League linebacker turned preacher -- Microsoft made a decision to stay neutral in the fight over legislation in Washington's state Legislature banning discrimination in employment against same-sexers, although many other companies headquartered in the state took positions in favor of the bill. But after an avalanche of counterprotests to Microsoft about their cave-in to Hutcherson, from their own employees (many of whom are gay), gay groups and the blogosphere, Microsoft reversed itself and supported the anti-discrimination bill. Too late: Two weeks earlier, the bill had been defeated by just one vote in the state Senate. Now, Microsoft is being targeted by a new, national conservative Christian protest campaign for having flip-flopped again.
Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, calls the new offensive a drive toward "theocratic oligopoly. The drumbeat of religious fascism has never been as troubling as it is now in this country," adding that "e-mails to the FCC are more worrisome to me than boycotts" in terms of their chilling effect.
Even The New York Times is feeling the chill. At the beginning of May, an internal committee of 19 Times editors and reporters, who'd been asked how to improve the paper's "credibility" with a wider swath of America, came up with a key recommendation: Deliberalize the paper's news columns, especially through more coverage on religion from a sympathetic point of view.
The committee's report, "Preserving Our Readers' Trust," added that "the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, approaches cheerleading. By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural, and religious life."
Oh, "disturbing" to whom? Why, to the Christian right, of course -- whose email complaint campaigns against the Times are legion: It's the paper the fundamentalists love to hate. So why is the Times -- one of the few newspapers in the latest available study of circulation released earlier this year to significantly increase circulation rather than lose it -- feeling the need to kowtow to the religious opponents of gay marriage? The paper's willingness to do so is about as frightening a testimony to creeping theocracy as one could imagine.
Is the new conservative Christian anti-gay and anti-sex crusade a back-to-the-future nightmare? Remember your history: In the 1950s, the anti-Communist owners of a small chain of supermarkets in upstate New York started threatening the TV and radio networks with boycotts of sponsors' products if they employed any persons listed as supposed Communists or lefties, in a sloppily researched little pamphlet called "Red Channels."
It didn't take long for this small protest to instill fear throughout the broadcast industry, and the result was the Blacklist, a witch-hunt that lasted for years -- even after John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted star CBS-radio host and actor, won his landmark $3.5 million libel suit in 1962 against the blackmailers of AWARE Inc., which -- for a suitable fee -- offered "clearance" services to major media advertisers and radio and television networks, investigating the backgrounds of entertainers for signs of Communist sympathy or affiliation. But Faulk didn't work in national broadcasting for another 13 years, until he landed a spot on the TV series Hee-Haw in 1975. It took that long to end a quarter-century reign of terror in the entertainment industry, 18 years after Senator Joe McCarthy was dead and buried.
Today's Christian right protests are targeting a different kind of subversion. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at the labor-funded Political Research Associates, has spent over 25 years studying the far right and theocratic fundamentalism. He is co-author of "Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort."
Berlet -- who was one of the speakers at a conference last month co-sponsored by the N.Y. Open Center and the City University of New York Graduate Center on "Examining the Real Agenda of the Christian Right" -- says that "What's motivating these people is two things. First, an incredible dread, completely irrational, of a hodgepodge of sexual subversion and social chaos. The response to that fear is genuinely a grassroots response, and it's motivated by fundamentalist Christian doctrines like Triumphalism and Dominionism, which order Christians to take over the secular state and secular institutions. The Christian right frames itself as an oppressed minority battling the secular-humanist liberal homofeminist hordes."
The key to those doctrines is what fundamentalist religious primitives call the Great Commission, which is basically an injunction to convert everyone to Christianity. In the Bible (Matthew 28:19-20), it says, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . ." The fundamentalist interpretations of these and other texts can be found on evangelical Web sites like Thegreatcommission.com, Transferableconcepts.com and Gospelcom.net. They have incredible motivating power for the religious right, and help explain the vehemence of the Christian right's intolerance of the freedom of others to think or act differently.
Says Berlet, "The re-election of Bush was a sort of tipping point for these people, who take it as a mandate from God -- they see that the leadership of America is within their grasp, and when you get closer to your goal, it's very energizing. It reaches a critical mass, in which the evangelicals feel they have permission to push their way into public and cultural policy in every walk and expression of life."
All that, says Berlet, is what is motivating the skein of conservative Christian boycotts, protest campaigns and censorship drives bubbling from the bottom up -- which get added emotional and pressure power from the fund-raising-driven crusades launched by political Christian right organizations like AFA at the national level. The confluence of from-above and from-below is a powerful mix.
There's one big problem: Nobody at the national level is tracking these censorship and pressure campaigns in a systematic way, to quantify them or assess their impact, so that strategies to defeat them can be developed.
"People for the American Way used to track this stuff, but they stopped doing so systematically in 1996. We at Political Research Associates would love to do it," says Berlet, "but we don't have the resources. Groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute or Americans United for Separation of Church and State could easily do this sort of work. But none of us has the money to do it, because nobody wants to give it. There used to be three major journalists writing about this stuff -- Sara Diamond, Russ Belant and Fred Clarkson. But none of them could make a living doing it, and they've all dropped out of the game."
Unless Hollywood, and the entertainment and broadcast industries, all want to live through an epoch of increasing content blackmail and blacklists, the wealthy folks who make a lot of money from those industries better wake up and start funding intensive and systematic research on the Christian right and its censorship crusades against sexual subversion and sin in the creative arts -- or soon it will be too late, and the "theocratic oligopoly" of which Martin Kaplan speaks will be so firmly established it cannot be dislodged.