The Moral Majority may have disbanded at the end of the 1980’s but it also accomplished its mission: Weyrich, Falwell and others forged an alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals (no small feat) over a handful of issues which were then adopted by the Republican Party due to the symbiotic nature of their relationship. In the wake of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, Republicans needed the South to form a stable voting base for future elections. Southern Evangelicals needed the Republican Party, too, as they had grown tired of being marginalized by the steady march of “progressive” social change in America. It was a match made in heaven, so to speak, and like many couples who have been married a long time, after a while they’ve started to even look like one another so that the principles of one have become every bit as much the principles of the other (or as Allen Clifton says, a new hybrid thing has arisen which he calls “Republicanity”). It was odd enough seeing the party of Lincoln absorbing the innate racism of Southern whites; it was also odd seeing a party focused on limited government adopting invasive stances on social issues like reproductive rights and marriage equality. But it’s particularly jarring to see churches founded on the teachings of Jesus embracing the GOP’s disapproval of public assistance for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, especially since, as time goes on, Evangelicals are increasingly finding themselves among the poor, the sick and the elderly. One of the most curious phenomena in American politics is that those states most likely to vote against assistance for the poor are the poorest states in the union. Similarly, those states which vote against expanding healthcare programs (like mine) are those which need it the most. How can this happen? What could possibly motivate an entire voting bloc to consistently vote against its own best interests, even unto the contradiction of the tenets of its own religion?
Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. –
In order to pull off a coup of this magnitude, those who benefit most from these policies (the wealthiest Americans) would have to convince middle America that they have a moral obligation to fight one set of battles which have no ostensible downside for those at the top of the financial food chain while teaching them to turn a blind eye to those places where the policies they support more clearly contradict what middle Americans say they believe. To make this happen, you would need some kind of social structure in place which elicits automatic trust from its members, and you would need an environment rife with pressure to conform to groupthink on a massive scale (That part’s easy: Ever been active in an Evangelical church?). You would also need to bifurcate life into thoroughly separate spheres so that “spiritual things” and “earthly matters” mixed as little as possible (Evangelicals are naturally dualistic because there’s a pretty pervasive dualism running through the New Testament, despite the protestations of its modern defenders). A thoroughgoing dualism serves the interests of the wealthy because as long as charity is seen as a responsibility of the church and not the government, no one will come knocking on the door of the rich asking them to share what they’ve accumulated.
There are a couple of major problems with this. First of all, pure capitalism and the unfettered worship of the free market hurts everybody in the end because the plight of the poor inevitably impacts the rich as well. Crime, poverty, and a lack of quality education among the poor eventually comes back to haunt the rich (the lower 99% spend the money that make the 1% who they are) and if they go unchecked long enough, class warfare may even result. Extreme income inequality destabilizes any society, and that’s bad news for everybody. Second, leaving charity to the church would be disastrous, since the real-world needs of the poor so dramatically dwarf the actual charitable giving levels of churches. One writer estimates that in order for churches to cover just one government program (WIC) they would have to devote 17% of their budgets to cover those expenses, when in reality most churches give far less than that to charitable causes or programs (the Evangelical Christian Credit Union estimates it’s closer to 1%). Most of the money brought in by churches (tax free, I might add, to the tune of $71B a year in exemptions) goes to paying overhead, property maintenance, staff salaries, and promotional and material costs. Very little actually goes to help the poor. So when someone says giving to the poor is the church’s job and therefore not the government’s, he is making a decision that impacts millions based on how he feels the world should operate rather than how it actually does.
There’s also a glaring inconsistency in how churches apply the separation of church and state which was built into the Constitution. When it comes to things like taxes or healthcare decisions, churches often become champions of Jefferson’s wall of separation (he did, after all, borrow the notion from the Baptists in the first place). But then when politicians write laws which privilege Christian beliefs above all others (see school prayer and gay marriage bans), they support those decisions with great zeal. This bifurcation of life is applied arbitrarily and is used selectively. That explains why it is so easy to convince Evangelicals that charity belongs in the religious sphere instead of the civic sphere. They’ve become so comfortable with that dualism that they are easily swayed by rhetoric which appeals to this notion. That is another key element keeping the have-nots happy with not-having.
Finally, to complete this coup you would need to create a kind of epistemic closure around that population so that all their sources of information conform to a pre-approved ideological template. In a land built on the freedom of press, this could be the trickiest part, since impartiality is the cardinal virtue in such a place. Enter FOX News and talk radio.
The FOX News Effect
In a global information age, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that clamors for your attention. While our great-grandparents only had to know about what was going on in their local communities, we today are expected to know what’s happening on the other side of the planet. Our world seems almost unmanageably big. On top of that, changing financial realities and the hollowing of the middle class have made us busier, working more jobs and longer hours than our parents ever had to work just to make ends meet. We find that we have less time than ever to sort through mountains of information in order to figure out what’s happening in the world. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, as has our time to really think. With all that incoming noise, we need some kind of filter, some kind of selective mechanism to help us evaluate what matters most in the world. We need help making sense of it all. That’s why our sources of news have become so important. They have become our lens to the outside world.
There was a time once when news outlets worked hard to be impartial in their reporting of the news. When I was a kid, a news anchor could lose his or her job by overtly stating a personal opinion about the story he was covering. In fact, from 1949 to 1987 the FCC explicitly maintained a “Fairness Doctrine” which mandated that news outlets labor to tell both sides of controversial issues. As channels proliferated, however, the FCC decided the multiplication of options lessened the need for such overt controls over content, which created a breeding ground for one-sided programming. First it was talk radio which took advantage of this new freedom (as a counterweight to Clinton-era liberalism). But soon cable TV got in on the action as well. Fairness and balance were virtues of a bygone era, but now the rise of corporate media conglomerates has changed all of that, so that the bottom line determines what gets discussed and how it gets discussed. Today media outlets intentionally cater to the biases of their target audience because it sells well to tell people what they want to hear. It feels good to have your preconceived notions validated by the people on TV. This creates an echo chamber in which one’s own prejudices get amplified and reinforced so that viewers become more and more entrenched in their own interpretation. And no news outlet understands this better than FOX News.
I single out FOX because while many news outlets clearly lean to one end of the spectrum or another (e.g. MSNBC leans left, as does the Washington Post and the New York Times), study after study has demonstrated that regular viewers of this particular network are the least aware of how far to one side their channel leans and they are the most uninformed on multiple tests of current political knowledge. One study also demonstrated that while regular viewers of MSNBC, CBS, CNN, and PBS tend to switch back and forth between their news sources, FOX viewers tend to only trust FOX. FOX News works hard at branding itself the sole conservative holdout amidst a bevy of flaming liberal networks, so that fear of “the other” fuels fierce brand loyalty. “Do you know why that FOX logo in the corner of the screen is always spinning?” a friend once asked me. “It’s because back when it used to sit still, people left the TV on that one channel so much of the day it burned a permanent image into the corner of their screens.” I’ve never verified that story, but you get the point. Where I live, that’s the only news anybody trusts, so anytime I’m near a television, FOX News is what I see. The people around me won’t watch anything else.
It would be easier to call them out on their imbalance, except that any news outlet still holding on to a strong commitment to equitable coverage wants to avoid looking imbalanced and biased themselves. It’s an unfortunate dilemma for any media outfit wishing to be even-handed about coverage: When one of two sides of a controversial issue is either significantly skewed or else is completely absurd, journalistic tradition dictates that the conscientious reporters treat both sides as if they are equally valid perspectives. But sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re not even close.
This became abundantly clear during the partial government shutdown last October, when Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives hijacked the budgetary process in order to force changes to the Affordable Care Act. Their rules committee rigged the legislative process the night before the shutdown began to ensure that total control over the process would be in the hands of the majority leader of the GOP. This unprecedented move even prevented other Republicans from calling a vote if Eric Cantor wasn’t satisfied with how things were going. This aggressive control tactic failed and congressional approval plummeted even lower than its normally abysmal numbers, which is really saying something (ripping on Congress is something of a national pastime). Most news teams were hard pressed to present this congressional stalemate as if both sides shared equal blame (as is so often the case, but clearly wasn’t this time), but they did it anyway because that’s just what you’re supposed to say. FOX, however, dutifully followed its scripted “spinstructions” and did what they could to make it look like the Democrats were the ones unwilling to negotiate (on a law, it should be noted, which was written by Congress, signed by the President, and upheld in the Supreme Court). This is unapologetically partisan news, and FOX’s faithful viewers don’t seem to mind the one-sidedness of it all. They sometimes reply that “the other side is just as bad,” but that’s not actually true. At a time when one end of the spectrum is jumping off the deep end, that statement is a false equivalence. They just don’t realize it.
So what does all this have to do with Evangelicals and how their opinions about politics are shaped? Both FOX News and the Republican Party (but I repeat myself) court Evangelicals like colleges court 6’5” linebackers and point guards. Every year FOX trots out its annual “War on the War on Christmas” and airs commercials about sending money and food to Israel. It employs former preachers like Mike Huckabee and outspoken Evangelicals like Sarah Palin because that’s what their target audience wants to see. Every story with potential shock value for Evangelicals is put front and center, usually sensationalized far beyond what the facts and the story merit (“They made those poor teachers take down their Christmas cards!”). FOX’s loyal viewers respond with the desired righteous indignation, and none of them seem to notice the strings above them being pulled by men in business suits with deep pockets. They’re being played.
For what it’s worth, I think we all are. People with money manipulate people on the left as well as the right. Democrats are not above reproach. Just follow the money and you can see who is filling their pockets. As the quote says at the top, “We are all either kings or pawns.” That’s the way it’s always been. The special interests vary, but the fuel that runs all the engines is the same: People with way more money and influence than most of us could ordinarily understand make deals behind closed doors and put on a show for the rest of us. Bread and circuses, as the Romans called it (and lately they’ve been cutting back on the bread).
What Then Can Us Pawns Do?
As Donny Miller said, “In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” For starters, if we care at all about not being played like marionettes on strings, it behooves us to read up and stay informed about the issues that impact the world and our daily lives. We also should be wary of always getting our information from the same sources. I have always made a habit of collecting critiques of my own views so that I can challenge myself and not fall into the trap of complacent ideological stagnation. Sometimes I remain unconvinced by opposing views, but I’ve certainly changed my mind about some pretty major things, and this is a big reason why. It’s more work to live that way, I know, but to me it’s worth it. I hate feeling duped. Don’t you? If you do, then you should do what I do and actively seek out sources of information (or stimulating conversation) which challenge your views about as many things as possible. You may not change your mind about all of them, but you will have a more informed opinion in the end either way. Also you will be less likely to misunderstand or misrepresent opposing views because you will have seriously considered them for yourself. If more people would do that, our public discourse would be greatly improved.
Pay attention to how uniform your social networks are. It’s quite natural to utilize the internet to surround yourself with voices which reinforce what you already think and feel. We need that, in a way. But it’s worth it to put some effort into making friends who are different from you, and who don’t see eye-to-eye with you about everything. Having friends with very different belief systems can help keep you grounded so that you don’t fall off the deep end of one ideology or another. You can also learn to be aware of the political and religious biases of your sources of information so that you can be a more critical consumer of what you take in. Many of the sources I’ve linked to in this article, for example, came from left-leaning sources (who better to expose the extremes of the far right, especially when those in the middle won’t say anything for fear of looking partial themselves?). But knowing the biases of your news sources can help remind you to fact check and balance out what you’re reading by consulting other sources which might provide an alternative perspective. And finally, underneath all of this, we should do what we can to help maintain a free press, without which democracy cannot function. In some places government control is the greatest threat to freedom of speech, but in modern America it is corporate control which is the greater threat. Big businesses like the energy industry and the banking industry do far more to disguise their own propaganda in social and news media than most governments could (and the chances are, most government officials are in their pockets already anyway). So learn to detect those interests in your sources of information. Every bit of awareness helps to keep us a little less like the pawns they need us to be.
Seneca attribution above is due to the fact that his name is most commonly associated with this wording, even though it appears that Edward Gibbon said the closest thing to this himself, not Seneca. But this wording is the catchier of the two so I liked it better. It took all of one hour before my skeptic friends called me on the misquote, which is precisely why I like having discussions with skeptics. You can’t get away with anything.