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.
The Bush administration in particular provided some strong examples of how Christian right folk beliefs and conspiracy theories can percolate up to the highest levels of government without ever putting those ideas out in the general public. The Bush administration appointed Eric Keroack to the deputy assistant secretary of population affairs within the Department of Health and Human Services despite, and probably because of, Keroack’s strong anti-choice beliefs.Keroack became famous for his presentation, prior to appointment, of his belief that women’s brains get flooded with oxytocin when they have premarital sex, which makes them less capable of falling in love. Prior to Keroack’s appointment, this bizarre theory, which has no scientific basis and is pure Christian right babble, wasn’t something you could find through Google, much less the mainstream media. But it not only was a guiding belief of Keroack’s, it has been a mainstay of the kind of abstinence-only programs that Bush administration policy mandated in so many schools across the country. It was a classic example of how a right-wing myth can become widely influential through PowerPoint presentations and pamphlets without ever touching the Internet, where prying eyes might see it.
A more recent example came to light with Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments. If you jumped on Google and started looking for where he got that idea in the moments after he uttered it, you would have come up short. After a great deal of digging, it turns out that it likely went back to a book published in 1972, exactly the sort of thing that gets Xeroxed and handed out at anti-choice seminars or passed along by email or simply regurgitated by word of mouth from one believer to another. This man did not win the Senate seat, but only because his beliefs made it to the mainstream media by the slip of a tongue at an inopportune moment; the fact that he had a long career as a congressman prior to this demonstrates how well the system generally works.
Sadly, Akin is hardly an atypical Republican. Most of them are slightly better at keeping their weird ideas from going viral, but channeling bizarre ideas that percolate up through the conservative ranks is just the way Republicans do business these days.
Indeed, right-wing politicians are so confident that their audiences are educated in the conspiracy theories and rumors that they will often casually allude to these ideas in speeches in a way that causes outsiders to wonder what the hell they’re talking about. Such was the situation with Rick Santorum making the indecipherable claim that anti-choicers can’t shower at the YMCA. A little digging finally revealed that there’s a legend spreading rapidly in Christian conservative circles that Students for Life got run out of the YMCA for merely existing, though the YMCA claims it was because they were harassing people in the showers. But it was a pitch-perfect right-wing moment: The audience he wanted to reach understood exactly what he was talking about, having heard it through their relatively underground channels, but the mainstream media reporting on it had no clue whatsoever.
What you see on Breitbart or the Blaze or the 700 Club is almost always just the tip of a massive iceberg of what’s really going on in conservative Christian circles. While it may seem like the explosion in searchable online media encompasses the entire world of what people believe they know, the ugly truth is that for millions of Americans—and in plenty of red states, enough Americans to control the elections—their worldview is still being shaped by communication systems that are largely invisible to the larger public. By the time the tip of the iceberg is big enough for outsiders to see it—such as when a weird theory is published on the Blaze—that usually means so many millions of people have passed it along in church and on Facebook that Blaze writers feel confident enough to share it more publicly. By then, it’s already done its damage and determined how those millions of voting Americans feel about the issue of the day.