Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Rightby Sara Diamond
The book examines the web of grassroots cultural institutions, includi ng publishing houses, law firms, broadcast stations, and church-center ed community programs, that have helped conservative evangelical group s maintain their influence for over two decades. Highlighting the move ment's complex alliance with the Republican Party, Diamond provides a rare
The book examines the web of grassroots cultural institutions, includi ng publishing houses, law firms, broadcast stations, and church-center ed community programs, that have helped conservative evangelical group s maintain their influence for over two decades. Highlighting the move ment's complex alliance with the Republican Party, Diamond provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the formation, organizing strategies, a nd heated internal debates of such powerful national organizations as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition. She offers a richly t extured analysis of how the rubric of "family values" has been used to infuse evangelical beliefs into local and national discussions around such disparate issues as childrearing, gay rights, abortion, public e ducation, and funding for the arts.
The Women's Review of Books
"Sara Diamond demonstrates once again that she is one of the best researchers of right-wing movements in the United States. For those who naively believe that the soldiers of the Christian Right will eventually fade away, this book presents a nuanced and sophisticated exploration of the Christian Right's political activism and resiliency. It is a 'must read' for concerned citizens, activists, and academics." Catherine A. Lugg, PhD, Assistant Professor of Education, Graduate School of Education, RutgersThe State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey
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Where does one begin the project of trying to determine how and why the Christian Right has become a political powerhouse? One might look to the sorts of people involved in this social movement, their grievances, their motivations. This would be a difficult approach because while the movement is somewhat diverse demographically--meaning that it encompasses people from all regions of the country and from all walks of life--it is also homogeneous in terms of race, religious affiliation, and political viewpoint. The agenda of the movement, in terms of what it hopes to achieve, is broad and continually in flux. One year various groups unite to focus on Issue X. The next year the agenda shifts to Issue Y, and then to Issue Z. It makes little sense to try to psychoanalyze the millions of people who have found an affinity with the Christian Right. Their personalities are as varied and their motivations are as complex as those of any broad segment of the population.
Another way to approach the question of a social movement's success would be to try to measure the movement's influence on a series of salient public issues. But this approach would miss much about why people participate in movements in the first place. Movements are not necessarily out to respond to priorities already deemed worthy by the rest of society. Movements seek to reformulate public priorities, to win support for possibilities the rest of us oppose, or have not yet even considered. As such, a movement has to be judged on its own terms. Success may not entail outright victory but simply the power to shift the terrain on which other societal forces must pursue their goals,
This leads to my preferred way of looking at a social movement, in this case the Christian Right. A social movement is a set of interrelated projects, meaning a concerted effort and a plan to achieve a given goal. A set of projects implies the existence of some overarching goals which, in turn, involve incremental steps along the way. For the Christian Right, we could say, the primary project is to remake society in light of one particular reading of Christian doctrine: to make laws and institutions conform to biblical mandates. More specifically, this project involves countless subprojects: outlawing abortion, restoring the male-headed nuclear family, suppressing homosexual rights, removing objectionable materials from schools and art galleries, and so forth. Each of these projects can only be achieved to the extent that the movement creates effective organizations, the more the better.
But, along the way, the organizations of any enduring social movement take on lives of their own. They exist not only to achieve already-agreed-upon goals but also to forge ahead once one set of goals is achieved or abandoned. Organizations, therefore, are projects unto themselves. Yet the longevity of organizations depends on their continuing relevance to other projects, such as changing public opinion or changing the laws of the land. Sometimes a single organization carries water for a movement on a particular issue. More often than not, a successful movement involves multiple organizations working more or less in concert, united by similar beliefs, but employing often very different tactics. Inevitable conflicts between organizations do not spell the demise of a movement. If conflict means that one movement faction will fail, chances are that another faction will land on its feet. Organizations, like other living creatures, survive by evolving and adapting to their (political) climate.
In this book, I use the notion of a movement as a set of projects to analyze the Christian Right. Here we have a movement that encompasses a wide array of religious, political, cultural, and organizational projects. It is the potent mix of all these that has made the movement attractive to millions of participants and that has guaranteed it at least partial success. Yet factors internal to a social movement do not alone yield influence. Equally important is the broader societal context within which movements must contend for power. For the Christian Right, it is the combination of organizational resources, a motivating worldview, and a hospitable political environment that makes the movement a force to be reckoned with. In this chapter I look primarily at the role of religious broadcasting in this equation. Religious broadcasting stands apart from its secular counterparts. Historically, it has been the movement's most important resource. It provides audiences with a sense of shared goals and alerts them to issues they might not otherwise have thought about. In the following pages, I review some of the historical antecedents to the rise of Christian broadcasting.
Spreading the Gospel
The Christian Right emerged out of an evangelical subculture that, until recent decades, was not attentive to partisan politics but instead was concerned primarily with spreading the Gospel. The gradual shift toward political involvement began after World War II, when growth in the reach of broadcast media gave some evangelicals a new impetus to win converts. To ensure at least their fair share of access to the nation's TV and radio airwaves, evangelicals formed two related lobbies, the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Religious Broadcasters association. During the Cold War era, when communist nations were closed to Christian missionaries, and fear gripped the right wing in the United States, evangelicals worried that even the U.S. government might one day restrict their freedom to preach. This fear of religious persecution made it imperative to pay attention to the affairs of government. The cultural project of evangelism facilitated the slow but steady development of a political project.
Evangelicals want to make converts, and during the early post-World War II period they established some new and effective organizations to do just that. Over time they concluded that in order to keep society open to their brand of the Gospel, they would need to challenge trends they perceived as negative; changes in gender and family relations and society's growing secularism were the most pertinent. Gradually the definition of "the Gospel" itself expanded. It was not enough just to preach the story of Christ as savior. By the 1970s, many evangelicals felt a calling to preach on social issues as an integral part of their religious mission. The overarching project of the nascent Christian Right was to insist that questions of faith, morality, and even private conduct belong in the public sphere. Thus, it became part of "the Gospel" to try to outlaw abortion, to reinstate prayer in public schools, and to stop the extension of civil rights to homosexuals.
This political agenda has never been separate from the goal of winning new religious converts. It is no coincidence that two of the movement's most powerful organizations, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, are outgrowths of broadcast ministries. As we will see in this chapter, a combination of factors gives religious broadcasting its potency. At one level, the broadcast ministries are successful business operations run by shrewd and popular individuals. More importantly, the media outlets feed adherents a steady diet of information, entertainment, and spiritual uplift--just the right mix to keep people tuned in, loyal, and ready to act on what they hear.
In Chapter 3, I deal separately with those aspects of the evangelical media culture that qualify more properly as entertainment, including the Christian book and music industries, and I will show how these, too, carry a political subtext. In this chapter, my focus is on the more overtly political Christian media projects. I highlight Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio ministry because these are exemplary. But I will also deal with other players within the religious broadcasting industry in order to show the strength and diversity of this resource.
The Media and the Messengers
Two aspects of the religious broadcasting industry have made it powerful. One is the sheer scope of the broadcasts in terms of numbers of stations and their reach into most U.S. households. The other is the diversity of formats and personalities found on the airwaves. Radio in particular is a medium that allows for a round-the-clock combination of preaching, interview, and call-in shows.
In 1972, there were 399 full- or part-time Christian radio stations on the air. By 1996, that figure had risen to 1,463, and by 1997 the number of full-time Christian radio stations reached 1,648. In the 1990s, Christian radio has been the third most common radio format in the United States, its popularity surpassed only by country music and adult contemporary music. In 1993, one in ten U.S. radio stations identified its programming as "religious," up 33% from 1980.
On television, by 1997, there were 257 full- and part-time Christian stations. Even more significantly, Christian TV is available as a selection on most cable systems. In 1996, Pat Robertson's Family Channel was carried via ten thousand cable systems into fifty-nine million homes. Of these, more than two million people watched Robertson's weekday 700 Club program. The Trinity Broadcasting Network, with its two-hour nightly talk show and the rest of the twenty-four hours filled with syndicated interview, Bible study, and music shows, reached into twenty-seven million homes through cable and through several hundred affiliated stations that carry some of its programming.
Most of what airs on Christian TV and radio outlets is not overtly political, and when it is, the message is not a blatant call to vote Republican. The content is mostly biblical teachings, combined with programs offering practical advice on personal and family problems. But, typically, Christian radio stations also include several hours of programming on topics geared toward political activism. Radio station KFAX in the San Francisco area, for example, is part of the large Salem Communications group of stations around the country. On KFAX the schedule includes an early morning block of syndicated preacher shows plus the half-hour daily Focus on the Family program, which is often political in content. The midday schedule includes a rebroadcast of Focus on the Family plus the syndicated half-hour Beverly LaHaye Live, produced by Concerned Women for America. This show is almost always political in content; listeners are frequently urged to lobby their legislators on issues ranging from Supreme Court nominees to antiabortion and antigay legislation. In the late afternoon, KFAX, like many Christian stations, hosts its own locally produced drivetime call-in interview show with a mix of topics ranging from church controversies to nitty-gritty politics. The evening schedule is a block of popular syndicated preachers. Each day listeners can hear their pick of favorite Bible teachers plus political programming, and if they so choose, can call the station to interact with guests and fellow listeners.
On TV the content is similarly both inspirational and political. As discussed below, Pat Robertson's 700 Club distinguishes itself as both a conservative Christian alternative to the network news and a place where viewers can call to pray with telephone counselors. On Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the flagship program is the nightly Praise the Lord interview show, on which hosts Paul and Jan Crouch interview a mix of charismatic celebrities and Christian Right organizers. One of the regular shows on TBN is hosted by Jay Sekulow, the lead attorney at Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice. Sekulow's program updates viewers on the latest court cases involving Christians, for example, cases concerning the rights to publicly preach, pray in school, or protest outside abortion clinics.
All in all, it is the mix of programming content that makes religious broadcasting popular. During the 1970s, when the religious broadcasting industry was growing by leaps and bounds, there was widespread concern that Christian TV viewing would cause people to stop attending church. To study the problem, in 1980, a coalition of groups that included evangelicals, mainline Protestant denominations, and Catholics, as well as the National Religious Broadcasters, jointly paid for a study to determine the effects of Christian TV on church attendance. The study, conducted by the Gallup organization and the Annenberg School of Communications, found that religious broadcasting was not causing a decline in church attendance. The research indicated that viewers of Christian TV tended to be active churchgoers and generous contributors to their churches. In other words, religious television viewing was an adjunct to, not a substitute for, genuine church involvement. The study also found that the religious TV audience was predominantly female, older, less educated, and more concerned about society's declining morality than viewers of secular network television. The overall audience size was estimated at about thirteen and a half million people who watched at least fifteen minutes of Christian TV on a weekly basis. This was a far cry from some of the inflated claims made by some of the TV preachers themselves. In 1980, Jerry Falwell claimed he had an audience of twenty-five million for his Old Time Gospel Hour alone. The audience size debate was never fully resolved because various studies, including one sponsored by Pat Robertson's own Christian Broadcasting Network, used inconsistent methodology. Some studies counted all respondents who said they had watched a single religious program in a given month. Some did not correct for duplication, that is, viewers who watched more than one program regularly. Reported figures ranged wildly into the tens of millions, though the most credible estimate was probably in the range of several million regular viewers, including people who watched multiple programs.
Religious broadcasting and face-to-face interaction within a real church serve different purposes for people. The churches and the broadcast industry have their own separate histories. Much of the growth spurt for evangelicalism, beginning in the 1970s, came about through the youthful Jesus movement. These young converts came to the Lord mostly through friendship networks and not because they were glued to the TV set. The establishment of the religious broadcasting industry largely predated both the Jesus movement and the turn toward conservative political activism among evangelicals.
Religious broadcasting grew out a missionary tradition among evangelicals and fundamentalists. The first wave began in the 1920s when the medium was radio. The first Christian radio broadcast aired in 1921 over KDKA in Pittsburgh. At the time there was little government regulation of radio. Then, in 1927, Congress established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), later replaced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FRC issued licenses and allocated channels and frequencies. Consequently, it became more difficult to get on the air, and only a handful of religious radio programs thrived in the 1920s. Then, in the 1930s, a controversy arose over the question of whether stations should sell airtime or give it away free to religious broadcasters. The Federal Council of Churches, which represented the liberal mainline churches, agreed with the federal government that for religious programs airtime should be donated by radio stations as a means to prevent corruption of the religious message. But most evangelical broadcasters were not members of organized denominations, and they feared that the established churches would get the lion's share of donated airtime. The evangelicals wanted the right to buy as much airtime as they could afford. To ensure access and to lobby for a shift toward paid-time programming, they formed the National Religious Broadcasters association in 1944, under the auspices of the National Association of Evangelicals which had formed in 1942. By the end of the 1940s, the networks began to reverse their ban on selling airtime for religious programs. Thus began a long process by which radio and TV preachers willing and able to raise money on the air came to dominate the airwaves. Preacher-performers such as Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, and Oral Roberts, and, later, Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, were simply more entertaining than the ministers associated with the mainline denominations.
TV became a major project for evangelicals, and they were good at it. Pat Robertson, in particular, took advantage of new technological breakthroughs, including the use of live-by-satellite interviews and, later, cable TV. As we will see in the next sections of this chapter, Christian broadcasting thrives for several reasons. Smart businessmen--among whom Pat Robertson and James Dobson are the best known--used tax-exempt donations to build their respective media outlets into nation-spanning, even global, soapboxes. But they could not have done it without responsive audiences, large numbers of people eager for a message that combines preaching with practical advice and a conservative spin on news events. As I highlight throughout this book, Christian radio and TV often makes a crucial difference in mobilizing evangelical activists to vote and lobby in particular ways. Religious broadcasting is the single-most-important resource for the Christian Right. This is because of the kind of information delivered over the airwaves. It is also because the most successful of the Christian broadcast media emphasize connections between the minutiae of people's personal lives and the larger mission of effecting worldly affairs.
The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN)
Most of the public knew little about Pat Robertson prior to his 1988 presidential campaign, and his entry into that campaign was less than optimal. Robertson exposed himself to the national media limelight precisely at a time when scandals surrounding TV preachers Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart created the impression that anyone appearing on camera with a Bible in hand was cut from the same roguish cloth. Robertson himself was no stranger to eccentricity. One of his best known antics occurred in 1985, when he prayed on-air that a hurricane headed for his Virginia Beach studios would change its course and strike elsewhere. But Robertson's TV ministry, unlike some others, survived the preacher scandals and thrived in the 1990s because he runs a solvent and innovative broadcast operation. He was the pioneer of religious television. He was the first to deviate from standard pulpit preaching on TV by launching the original Christian news-and-interview show.
Business-wise, Robertson runs a tight ship. He made his millions neither by crying on cue nor by selling vacation time-shares for theme-park condominiums. Robertson's secret was to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning cable TV industry and, later, to reap millions in windfall profits from an ethically dubious stock deal involving the network he built from tax-deductible donations. Robertson is every bit as much a businessman as a politician or a preacher. Like any successful businessman, he knows how to spot a good deal, and he also knows how to satisfy his customers.
The Robertson empire began when he bought a run-down television station in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1959. In his autobiography Shout It from the Housetops, Robertson tells the story of how he opened the first bank account for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) with three $1 bills. With help from local Christians, Robertson refurbished the station and, in 1961, he began broadcasting several hours a day. During a 1966 on-air telethon, Robertson came upon the idea for the 700 Club, which became the title of his long-running weekday TV show. He announced that he needed seven hundred viewers who would donate $10 per month to keep the station solvent. By 1978, CBN had three hundred thousand donors. Of these, about one hundred and forty thousand were 700 Club members, which meant that the minimum monthly intake was $1.4 million. By 1985, CBN had an annual budget of about $230 million, and from a single station, the 700 Club spread to two hundred U.S. TV stations, and was also broadcast in some sixty foreign countries.
From the beginning, one secret to Robertson's popularity was his decision not to mimic the standard fare of Sunday-morning TV preachers. Robertson used a set that looked like the one used for the Johnny Carson Show. Instead of standing at a pulpit, Robertson sat behind a desk; instead of preaching fire and brimstone, he interviewed popular Christian leaders and hosted Christian musical groups. Robertson is at the helm, but he is not the sole focus of attention, which makes the 700 Club more interesting than other religious shows. Except during semiannual telethons, Robertson rarely begs for money on air. Instead, he pioneered the use of the phone-in counseling center. While they are watching, viewers are encouraged to call in to request prayer from counselors and to report miracles achieved through prayer. CBN counselors document each call, generating addresses for direct mail fundraising.
In 1978, CBN began a news department headed by Robert Slosser, a former editor for the New York Times who had become a born-again Christian. The news feeds and the increasingly serious tone of the program were made possible thanks to the advent of satellite technology that allowed Robertson to expand his guest list. Instead of relying solely on guests willing to come to Virginia, Robertson set up bureaus in Washington, DC, and New York, from which he was able to interview politicians and other notables, thus making the 700 Club look more and more like the Good Morning America genre of breakfast-hour magazine shows.
But not exactly. Even though, by the 1980s, the ninety-minute 700 Club typically began with news and interview segments, creative forms of preaching remained central to the program. The daily repertoire in the 1980s and 1990s included segments reporting the good fortune of audience members who had tuned in to the 700 Club, had prayed on the telephone with a CBN counselor, and had subsequently experienced a miracle: for example, the healing of an illness, a long-awaited check in the mail, the resolution of a family dispute, or some such divine intervention. Robertson worked with two cohosts, an African American man named Ben Kinchlow and a series of attractive, intelligent females. Together the three often sat around a small table praying out loud to receive what was called a "word of knowledge," a supernatural message that a viewer in a particular city was about to receive a miracle for a designated problem. Viewers were instructed to "claim" these miracles and call the CBN switchboard to report them.
One who did was a middle-aged housewife in Dallas named Mary Brown. She was sick and home from work one day. Her doctor had diagnosed her with a malignant uterine tumor. As she sat working on needlepoint and flipping through TV channels, she found the 700 Club. It was the first time she had seen the program. She watched in amazement as one of the men on the screen said, "God has just spoken to me. There is a woman in Dallas, Texas, sitting in front of her TV with needlepoint in her lap. The doctors have just told you of a tumor on your uterus. God loves you. He is healing you right now." Mary Brown described feeling a "gentle warmth pass through her body." When she later went to her doctor, the tumor had miraculously disappeared.
The story was recounted in a charismatic magazine profile of CBN. Countless similar stories have been recounted on the 700 Club itself, often through dramatic vignettes using actors to re-create the tales. It is traditional within the pentecostal/charismatic subculture for believers to publicly testify as to what the Lord has done in their lives. The more detailed the testimony, the better: the further the depths to which one has sunk--through drug use, marital infidelity, or catastrophic disease--the greater the amazing grace that saves. On other Christian networks, such as Paul and Jan Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network, the guests simply sit on the couch with the hosts and tell their long, drawn-out salvation stories.
The 700 Club raised the tradition to a new standard by turning the stories into scripted morality plays. Salvation stories are often used to personalize topics dealt with in the news segments of the show. For example, news reports on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s were typically followed by a story of a "former" gay man who, in his youth, had moved to San Francisco to dabble with drugs and perversion. But after watching so many of his friends die of AIDS, he had renounced his homosexual "lifestyle" and converted to Christ. Thus the salvation story reinforces a worldview that frames social problems--and their resolutions--primarily as matters of individual behavior and/or supernatural forces, not problems to be addressed through collective social responsibility.
The prayer messages, the phone-in counselors, and the dramatized salvation stories have made the 700 Club a highly personal medium. At a time when many people feel disconnected from real communities and real churches, Robertson and his cohosts project the message that they truly care about their audience. The segments devoted to personal salvation and healing make for a receptive audience likely to sit still when the program takes up political topics.
For secular news consumers, there are many less cluttered ways to get one's daily dose of information and analysis. For the general public, there is no shortage of newspapers, TV, and radio talk shows. But for many of the evangelical faithful, it is preferable to bypass the secular spin and get one's news from a reliable fellow believer. Robertson has marketed the 700 Club to a narrow but underserved niche of the national TV audience. He recognized early on that the success of cable TV is based on cornering the market with specialized audiences.
Robertson understood niche marketing as early as the 1970s when he began moving the content of the 700 Club in an increasingly political direction. Robertson used the program to host up-and-coming leaders of the New Right and to interpret affairs in the Middle East in light of biblical prophecy. One of Robertson's persistent themes in the 1970s was that the world was moving toward a nuclear war centered in the Middle East. "When the smoke clears," Robertson once wrote, "Soviet Russia will be reduced to a fourth-rate power and Israel will be the wonder of the world. That is what the Bible tells us will happen, and it will happen!" Robertson's religious views at the time coincided with escalating real-world tensions in the Middle East and with a stepped-up arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In an interview with the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, Robertson said he thought a U.S. war with the Soviet Union was inevitable and that the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was a prelude to this war. But he also predicted that the arms race would burden the Soviet economy and that "by 1990 that system is going to fall of its own weight."
In the 1980s, Robertson largely abandoned talk of the end-times and instead used the 700 Club to air propaganda on behalf of Reagan administration policy in Central America. White House officials appeared frequently on the show, where they gave an otherwise ill-informed audience a distorted picture of the region's politics, all by way of justifying U.S. support for dictators and assassins. CBN was among a number of private organizations that raised money for the Nicaraguan Contra terrorists at a time when a Congressional ban on funding for the Contras threatened to thwart the Reagan administration's goal of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government. Robertson also backed the Salvadoran and Guatemalan military dictatorships at a time when they were responsible for death-squad killings of thousands of their own citizens. For years, CBN ran newscasts slanted to favor Central America's right-wing military forces. During El Salvador's 1984 elections, for example, Robertson ran favorable coverage of that country's most violent and brutal right-wing factions, and repeatedly urged his viewers to lobby their Congressmembers for continued U.S. military aid to the regime there.
During the Reagan era, Robertson also maintained his keen interest in Middle Eastern affairs. News reports on the 700 Club were consistently skewed in favor of the Israeli government despite its consistent human rights abuses. Similarly, the 700 Club in the 1980s reported favorably on right-wing paramilitary forces that wreaked havoc in southern Africa: UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique. Robertson's journalistic advocacy on behalf of these mercenary armies--courtesy of tax-deductible donations sent to CBN--came at a time when the U.S. government was committed to supporting a series of so-called freedom fighter wars, which took their tolls mostly in civilian casualties. Robertson consistently sided with egregious killers, all in the name of fighting "communism," and all with the veneer of news reporting from a Christian perspective.
For the hundreds of thousands of regular 700 Club viewers, the political world according to Robertson makes sense because it is packaged up along with religious ideas they already see as valid. It was only a matter of time before Robertson would use the broadcast ministry for his own political aspirations. It was his TV popularity that made it possible for him to even consider a presidential race. After that, the longevity and visibility of CBN made possible the speedy mobilization of the Christian Coalition.
Between ministry and politics, CBN is also a profitable business. In 1977, when cable TV was still in its infancy, Robertson started an around-the-clock satellite network that was, for a time, the second largest cable TV network in the United States. On this new network, Robertson could have chosen to supplement his own weekday 700 Club program with other syndicated religious programs. That is what Paul Crouch of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Jim Bakker of the PTL Network did when they entered the cable market. Robertson went a different route, adopting a strategy designed to expand CBN's audience beyond strictly religious viewers. CBN Cable, later renamed the Family Channel, competed with the new secular cable networks by purchasing the rights to reruns of old situation comedies and movie classics. These shows are inexpensive to acquire and are guaranteed to draw at least a small audience, some of whom might stay tuned for rebroadcasts of the morning 700 Club show.
By 1987, CBN Cable had an audience of about thirty-four million viewers. Only about 25% of the network's daily schedule was devoted to religious programming. The other 75% of secular programming allowed CBN Cable to attract big-name advertisers. Robertson's business plan allowed CBN to preach the Gospel and to grow into a highly valuable asset. Audience donations to the 700 Club took a temporary dip during 1988 while Robertson campaigned for the presidency. By the early 1990s, pledges returned to mid-1980s levels, when a typical two-week telethon raised between $20 and $30 million. For the fiscal year ending in March 1993, donations to CBN totaled about $97 million.
In the 1990s, the CBN media empire began to reap huge dividends for Robertson and his son, Tim. In 1989, the father-son team formed International Family Entertainment (IFE) as a separate corporation, which then purchased the Family Channel cable network for $250 million in 1990. One reason for the purchase was that the "nonprofit" CBN operation was not legally allowed to receive more than a fixed percentage of its income from a profit-making operation. The new Family Entertainment holding company allowed the nominally separate "nonprofit" CBN to continue to broadcast on the cable network free of charge several hours a day. By separating the assets, the "nonprofit" piece of the empire continued to legally accept tax-deductible donations, while the Robertsons used the explicitly for-profit network to bankroll further ventures.
When the Robertsons formed IFE in 1989, they did so by going into partnership with Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the largest cable stem operator in the United States. This partnership signaled to other would-be investors that the Robertson venture was solid. Pat and Tim Robertson paid $183,000 to purchase six million shares of IFE stock, giving them the controlling interest. Then backed by the TCI investment in IFE, they purchased the for-profit Family Channel. The value of IFE's stock rose as advertising revenues climbed from about $40 million in 1990 to $71 million in 1991. Then the Robertsons took IFE stock public, and the market value of their six million shares, originally purchased for $183,000, skyrocketed to a whopping $90 million. The deal was technically legal though ethically questionable. In brief, over the years, Robertson had used tax-free money to create a "religious" ministry, which he then used as collateral to create a commercial cable network, the value of which mushroomed after the Robertsons became the controlling stockholders.
Nor was the stock deal the sole source of continuing revenue for the CBN empire. The tangle of corporations run by Pat Robertson includes the United States Media Corporation, through which Robertson in 1992 made an aborted bid to purchase the United Press International (UPI) wire service; the Founders Inn and Conference Center, a four-star hotel located at CBN headquarters; International Jet Charters, a small charter airline in Virginia; the Standard News radio wire service; and a proposed Founders Village retirement community.
In 1997, there was talk of a possible merger between Robertson and media giant Rupert Murdoch, this despite the salacious programs (e.g., Married with Children and Melrose Place) that air on Murdoch's Fox Network. Murdoch reportedly was willing to purchase a 30% share of IFE, the parent company of Robertson's Family Channel, offering as payment preferred stock in Murdoch's gigantic News Corporation. This mutually beneficial deal would enable Murdoch to air Fox's children programming on the Family Channel, while Robertson would make a fortune with the stock deal.
With all of his wheeling and dealing, Robertson has little time to devote to the day-to-day operations of CBN, so, in 1993, he named long-time CBN executive Michael Little as the new president of CBN. Robertson's own attention is divided between appearing on the 700 Club, overseeing the Family Channel, heading the American Center for Law and Justice legal firm, running the Christian Coalition, and administering Robertson's own Regent University.
The political projects owe their existence to the earlier success of CBN. Without the 700 Club, Robertson could not have recruited a constituency, nor have raised the necessary funds, to build his empire. One cannot measure the effect of Robertson's conservative political journalism, day in and day out, on a small but loyal audience of several hundred thousand viewers. One can say that Robertson established for the Christian Right the standard message of tying one's personal redemption to a gospel of political participation.
Focus on the Family
Tune in to just about any Christian radio station and once, twice, even three times a day, one could well hear the soft, avuncular voice of Dr. James Dobson, dispensing homespun wisdom on everything from patching up a husband-wife spat to quelling a toddler's fear of the dark. Like Pat Robertson, James Dobson started small. Over two decades, the Focus on the Family radio broadcast grew into a media empire--and an affiliated lobbying project--that gets the attention of politicians. Dobson is to Christian radio what Robertson is to Christian TV. For both men, politics came as an outgrowth of their earlier work.
Dobson is the son of a Church of the Nazarene minister, and he was a successful child psychologist years before he took to the airwaves. He earned a Ph.D. in child development from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1967. Then he was a professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine while he also worked at the Los Angeles Children's Hospital. At USC, he conducted research on some of the factors involved in childhood mental retardation. In 1970, he published his first book, Dare to Discipline, with Tyndale House, an evangelical press. It quickly became a bestseller--it has now sold more than three million copies.
In Dare to Discipline Dobson tells parents to spank their kids, not on a whim and not as a sole form of punishment, but as something essential to good parenting. No doubt, some parents might read Dare to Discipline as a license for abuse. But Dobson writes that parents should spank infrequently, only on the buttocks, and not just for any old infraction--but only when children refuse to obey. On a regular basis, Dobson encourages parents to heap on their kids as much praise and love as possible. Dobson believes that a truly loving parent is one who will instill in children a healthy fear of authority, which he views as the basis for becoming righteous citizens and God-fearing Christians.
Dare to Discipline first hit the market at a time when much of the public was appalled by the perceived excesses of the 1960s. By 1970, the baby-boomer generation, reared with a much less authoritarian parenting style than Dobson's, was rebelling on college campuses and heading for hippie communes. Dobson's book was a forerunner to the widely held view that a retreat from "traditional family values" is at the root of current social problems. His book reduces the complexities of raising children to the single notion that parents must take charge of their offspring inside their own four walls. Noticeably absent from Dare to Discipline is any thinking about whether spanking kids into obedience might produce adults overly submissive to secular, governmental authority. Instead, Dobson's popularity stems from the very simplicity of his message.
In 1977, overwhelmed by too many speaking requests, Dobson started a half-hour weekly radio program which he sent to a few dozen stations. By 1978, his public seminars were drawing as many as three thousand people a week and becoming so lucrative that he quit his USC job and started the not-for-profit Focus on the Family. Twenty years later, the radio ministry remains central to Focus. By the mid-1990s, Dobson's half-hour interview and advice program was broadcast on about four thousand stations (counting some that aired the program more than once daily). An additional ninety-second daily Family Commentary aired on dozens of secular radio stations. The flagship Focus on the Family magazine is sent to nearly two million listeners, and a long list of more specialized Focus magazines caters to particular segments of the audience. The monthly political Citizen magazine, with a mid-1990s circulation of about one hundred and thirty thousand, is full of news reports and suggestions for activism. There are magazines for young children, for kids ages eight to twelve, and for teenage boys and for teenage girls, all of which mix Bible teaching with age-appropriate entertaining stories. There are special magazines for parents, teachers, and physicians. Each month Dobson sends a letter to all the people on his mailing list, in which he outlines his thoughts on current political controversies. As of the mid-1990s, Focus had an annual budget of over $100 million. Most of that went to radio production and publishing. But about $4 million of the annual budget went to a "public policy" category that included lobbying and voter education.
Dr. Dobson's success, like Pat Robertson's, derives from a combination of good business sense and a supportive constituency. In 1979, Dobson first got involved in politics. President Jimmy Carter was planning a White House Conference on the Family, and a number of already active New Right leaders were asked to participate. Dobson told his radio audience that he would like to be nominated as a representative; after eighty thousand letters poured in to the White House, he was asked to join the series of meetings. The Conference on the Family ultimately yielded nothing in the way of legislative policy but it was, for many in the Christian Right, a first foray into the idea of using politics to bolster traditional family values.
Dobson himself became more interested in politics as the 1980s progressed. In 1988, Focus on the Family merged with the Family Research Council (FRC) which was then a tiny Washington, DC-based think tank headed by Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration aide. Bauer had served in the Department of Education, and he knew the ropes of Capitol Hill lobbying. The association with Dobson gave the FRC new visibility. After 1988, Bauer became a regular guest on the Focus radio programs. The two organizations shared mailing lists. In 1992, Focus and the FRC severed legal ties so as not to jeopardize the tax-exempt educational status of Focus. But Bauer's think tank continues to work closely with Focus and with a loose network of several dozen state-based lobbies geared toward their respective state legislatures. These organizations were formed at a time when high-profile national Christian Right organizations, most notably the Moral Majority, had receded from influence. The Christian Right was becoming more decentralized, more focused at the state and local level, though still reliant on information and direction from national leaders like Dobson and Bauer.
In 1989, Dobson gained national name recognition when he interviewed Ted Bundy just hours before the notorious serial killer was executed. From prison, Bundy had written to Dr. Dobson after learning of the radio broadcast and publications. Bundy knew that Dobson had served on Attorney General Edwin Meese's Commission on Pornography, and Bundy had a confession to make, so Dobson struck up a correspondence with him. In the videotaped interview--which Dobson sold for $25 until he took criticism for being too greedy--Bundy blamed his crimes on his addiction to hard-core pornography. This was music to the ears of conservative Christians, eager for evidence of a direct link between pornography and violent behavior.
For Dobson, the Bundy interview was a rare adventure in sensationalism. Mostly the popularity of Focus on the Family rests on Dobson's soft-spoken offerings of practical advice. He is the evangelical answer to Dr. Spock; at a time when real doctors no longer make housecalls, Dobson enters listeners' homes via radio and assures them that they can find solutions to their problems. The radio advice is supplemented with a question-and-answer column Dobson writes and syndicates in Christian newspapers, and with the monthly Focus on the Family magazine. The magazine features highly personal, down-to-earth stories by readers who share their solutions to family problems. There are articles on how to prepare young children for an overnight stay at the hospital; how to form a support group for stay-at-home moms; how to warn kids about drugs; and how to cope with messy family members. One frequent theme concerns readers coping with their inability to have children. This is a revealing subject. No doubt, infertility is a disappointment for those who want children. But in the world of Focus on the Family, it is assumed that childlessness is a tragedy, just as it is assumed that the best families are those in which father, mother, and kids play traditional roles. Without heavy-handedness, Focus repeatedly reinforces narrow notions of proper family relations, thus laying a groundwork for a further imperative to defend the traditional family through political action.
The attention Focus gives to people's mundane problems is what makes them committed to the ministry, and thus willing to listen when Dr. Dobson pontificates on political issues. Focus receives several hundred thousand letters from listeners each month. They are answered by staffers trained to look for emergency cases, such as people liable to commit suicide, who are contacted directly and given referrals to professional counselors. But, most of the letters are about common problems such as infidelity, custody disputes, workaholism, and the like. Staffers answer these letters using paragraphs from generic letters Dobson compiles. Staff members also send along recommendations for helpful books and tapes, thus giving afflicted letter writers specific tidbits of usable advice. The Focus on the Family correspondents are similar to the prayer counselors who staff the phones at CBN. Both setups provide a bit of solace for people's emotional needs at a time when the rest of society seems to be falling apart. One can live on the same street for twenty years without knowing one's neighbors, and yet one can find some social connection through a Christian radio or TV ministry.
Focus on the Family is more than just a radio program and a publishing house. It is a mindset that moves seamlessly from the details of daily life to the ominous tasks of changing politics. One day Dobson might answer a question about potty training; the next day he might talk about a new Christian legal firm. In God's Kingdom, everything matters, and that is a vital message to convey to listeners not already skilled at changing the course of history. They are encouraged to believe that professional politicos, such as Gary Bauer, are working on their behalf in Washington, DC, and in their state capitols. But they are also taught that humble actions like writing letters to Congress will preserve the traditional family against a putative attack by secular forces.
In 1989, Dr. Dobson outlined how Focus on the Family could increase its political influence in the 1990s. He noted that in 1988 the ministry had directed a million calls and letters to Congress on two separate issues: the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and a federal civil rights bill that expanded protections for minorities and the disabled, including people with AIDS, thus making it more difficult for private businesses to discriminate. The profamily movement lost on both scores, though not for lack of effort. Lobbying by Focus listeners was a quick strike but it was not the kind of sustained action that could set a national agenda even before controversies arise. To do that, Dobson offered a four-part program. Part 1 involved the Focus merger with Gary Bauer's Family Research Council. Bauer would "build relationships with legislators, policymakers, and journalists in the nation's capitol" to "help pro-family activists by providing timely, relevant, well researched information." Part 2 was the formation of think tanks to lobby state legislatures. Part 3 involved the Citizen magazine, which began publishing a monthly four-page insert written by the state think tanks so that readers could lobby on issues close to home. And as Part 4, Focus began Family News in Focus, a new radio spot with breaking political news for Christian radio listeners. Dobson promised that he personally would not abandon his primary mission of helping families solve problems. But it was clear that Dobson also intended Focus to become a major player in the culture wars of the 1990s.
One way Focus has been involved is through Community Impact Seminars, coordinated by the state think tanks and sympathetic local churches, with speakers and literature sent from Focus headquarters in Colorado Springs. In 1994, I attended a Community Impact Seminar in California, along with two hundred other participants, and found it to be very different from the nuts-and-bolts training seminars offered by the Christian Coalition. It was as if Focus assumed its listeners were still amateurs and even gun-shy about politics. The full-day session was run by two motivational speakers who posed the basic question, "Why should Christians be socially and politically involved?" Fear, anger, and hatred are the wrong reasons, the speakers said. Christians should be motivated by a biblical "love of neighbor" to more effectively evangelize and save souls, and by a biblical obligation to be good citizens. The speeches all reinforced the idea that Christians should insert themselves into political institutions, and not fear opposition from secular society. There were no precise instructions given on voter registration and lobbying, nor on specific candidates or issues. Those details were left to subsequent seminars arranged by the leaders of the state think tanks who were best able to decide which seminar participants would make the best recruits.
In this way, Focus on the Family itself does not appear to be meddling in partisan politics. Focus does the educational work and then mostly leaves people to their own devices. This makes it difficult to judge the precise impact of Focus, though occasionally the ministry takes credit for its work. One Focus project has been the production of 60-second radio spots in conjunction with the state think tanks, aired locally on stations that offer free airtime. In Washington State, for example, Focus produced a spot, "A Woman's Right to Know," on proposed legislation that would have required abortion doctors to tell patients about risks. The leader of the affiliated Washington for Family Values received five hundred calls after the spot aired. A similar spot in Ohio yielded fifteen hundred calls for the Ohio Roundtable, which was sponsoring legislation to restrict sex education curricula. Through such public service announcements Focus provides invaluable help to state and local organizers, including those who lack the skills and recording equipment to do their own media outreach.
In 1992, Focus helped Colorado for Family Values (CFV), the group that sponsored the anti-gay rights Amendment 2 ballot initiative. The signature drive to qualify Amendment 2 was floundering until Dr. Dobson aired a nationwide program on it. Immediately, recalled CFV organizer Kevin Tebedo, "Our phones began ringing off the wall. We had volunteers suddenly begging to carry petitions." After that, Focus helped CFV produce public service announcements that aired on nearly every radio station in Colorado.
Aside from focusing on particular campaigns, Dobson primarily plays an agenda-setting and figurehead role within the Christian Right. Politicians know that Dobson has millions of loyal listeners. It made a difference, then, when Dobson began protesting Republican rumblings about watering down the party's prolife plank before the 1996 election.
Normally Dobson does not speak or write in partisan terms. But in his March 1995 letter to his supporters, he threw down the gauntlet. He wrote that the Republican Party was becoming "increasingly squishy on the issue of abortion." He worried aloud that Senator Bob Dole refused to apply an antiabortion litmus test to possible vice presidential candidates. Dobson said he personally would not continue to vote for lesser-of-two-evils candidates when it came to abortion:
I am committed never again to cast a vote for a politician who would kill one innocent baby. These little ones have no defense except that which we provide for them. Never will I use my influence, however remotely, to support the shedding of their blood....
By voting for a moderate pro-abortionist who might be more desirable in the short run, we squander our influence on decision makers. Rather, when a significant number of votes are cast for a third party/pro-life candidate, even in a losing cause, that fact will not go unnoticed by political leaders. They will be more likely to court our support in the future, especially if they lost the last election. That's the way the game is played.
Thus more than a year before the 1996 general election, Dobson raised the specter that supporters of the Christian Right might refuse to vote Republican unless the party remained unequivocally antiabortion. To underscore the point, in March 1995, Dobson publicized a letter he had written to Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour, reminding Barbour that prolife Christian voters were pivotal in the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and warning that the party had better not take them for granted. Dobson's letter sparked similar public statements from Dobson's colleague Gary Bauer, from Concerned Women for America president Beverly LaHaye, and from Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum. Very early in the election cycle, all of them made it clear that the Christian Right would not accept anything less than a staunchly antiabortion ticket. They worried, too, that the Christian Coalition might sell the movement out to "moderate" Republicans. Gary Bauer, in particular, took issue with the Coalition's Contract with the American Family, because its ten-point legislative wish list did not include a denunciation of gay rights and because it took aim against late-term abortions without calling for a ban on all abortions.
To the extent that Dobson and Bauer know "the way the game is played," their game has different rules than that of the Christian Coalition. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council are not terribly interested in winning immediate and direct influence with the existing cast of elected officeholders. While the Christian Coalition wants to help elect Republicans next month or next year, Dobson and Bauer take a longer view. Relieved of the urgent demands of electoral politics, Dobson and others who are primarily broadcasters and opinion-shapers have the luxury of sticking more closely to their principles.
Something for Everyone
It is taking the long view that makes religious broadcasting a successful industry and also a project essential to the continuing clout of the Christian Right. There is a range in the political intensity of the various programs.
Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), with its nightly Praise the Lord interview-and-music show, is much more entertainment-oriented than Pat Robertson's 700 Club. TBN began broadcasting in the late 1970s from a station in Orange County, California. Twenty years later, thanks to the demise of Jim Bakker's PTL Network, TBN ranked second only to CBN. Paul and Jan Crouch built TBN by adding to their own show a full schedule of syndicated preachers who paid for their airtime. TBN aired on some cable systems and on dozens of local stations owned by or affiliated with TBN.
The Praise the Lord program tends to be gaudier than other Christian TV shows. From the flagship station KTBN in Orange County, California, the glitzy mock-living-room set includes a fake fireplace, stained-glass windows, a grand piano, a chandelier, gold-painted furniture, and a big artificial flower arrangement on the coffee table. To the sound of triumphant music, hosts Paul and Jan Crouch make a theatrical entrance. Paul has a full head of white hair and wears bright-colored, double-breasted suits. Jan wears a big platinum-blonde wig, thick false eyelashes, and an endless supply of southern belle dresses complete with hoop skirts, puffed sleeves, lace, and embroidery. From their overstuffed sofa, Paul and Jan conduct long, chatty interviews with a who's who of charismatic celebrities passing through southern California. Jan often dabs at her weeping eyes and looks up Bible passages while Paul asks the questions. A single interview may go on for two hours. Often the hosts and guests gather around a standing globe, lay their hands on a particular part of the map and pray that God will pierce the darkness and let the Gospel reach the region's unsaved masses.
Prayers around the globe usually coincide with Paul Crouch's latest trips abroad. Crouch travels energetically, and frequently reports on the deals he has made with foreign leaders to broadcast TBN in their countries. The monthly TBN newsletter carries photos of Paul meeting with heads of state from Central America to the former Soviet Union. Crouch even met with Yasser Arafat to discuss broadcasting TBN in the Palestinian territory.
Crouch's trips abroad allow him to come back and pontificate on international affairs. Otherwise the political content on Praise the Lord is determined by the guest list. There are occasional interviews with elected officials, "recovered" homosexuals, antiabortion activists, and people concerned about "obscenity" in the entertainment media. But mostly Praise the Lord is late-night entertainment for pentecostals. There is raucous music. Jan often reads the prayer requests of viewers afflicted with disease and personal travails. The political content on TBN is left for the experts. Attorney Jay Sekulow hosts a weekly program on legal issues. Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida has a program combining Bible preaching with alerts about homosexuals, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Planned Parenthood, and other dangerous liberal organizations.
This is tame compared to some of what has passed for "religious" programming in recent years. While the secular talk shows became increasingly vulgar in the 1990s, the same was true of some Christian programming. Jerry Falwell tried to make a political comeback by using his Old Time Gospel Hour to rail against President Clinton, first over charges of sexual harassment, then by hawking a pair of videotapes alleging that Clinton was involved in unsolved murders and drug dealing back in Arkansas. The broadcasts were so disreputable that a Florida station pulled the plug on Falwell's show.
But that did not stifle Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, who sold the same tapes and used his weekday radio program to denounce Clinton, leaders of both political parties, and all sorts of other targets on a daily basis. In May 1996, when the Supreme Court ruled against a Colorado anti-gay rights law, Terry took to the airwaves enraged. He condemned to Hell, by name, each of the six justices who had ruled against the Colorado law, and he charged them with fomenting a cultural war in the United States. This was standard fare on Randall Terry Live, syndicated on several dozen stations.
Each of the radio stations can pick and choose from the many agitators eager to seat themselves before the microphone. Yet there is a trend in Christian radio similar to the changes underway in the commercial broadcast media. Just as an increasingly smaller number of corporations are assuming ownership of secular outlets, there is also a trend toward more concentrated ownership of Christian radio stations. By 1995, about fifty Christian radio groups, each working in at least three different regions, owned four hundred stations, or about one-fourth of the stations in the country. The largest networks included Bott Broadcasting, Crawford Broadcasting, and Salem Communications. Along with more concentrated ownership, there is also a shift in the stations' key source of revenue, from sale of airtime to numerous syndicated program producers, to an increased dependence on local advertising. There has been a drop in the sheer number of program producers. In 1991, the National Religious Broadcasters listed 742 radio producers; by 1994, there were only 383 listed, a decrease of nearly 50%. The smaller number of programs, each heard on a greater number of stations, does not necessarily mean a loss of diversity because many of the inspirational half-hour broadcasts are barely distinguishable one from the next. What the trends do indicate, however, is that Christian radio is profitable and competitive, and subject to a drift toward homogenous programming across the country. That is good news for popular, politically minded broadcasters, such as James Dobson, Marlin Maddoux, and Beverly LaHaye. When controversies arise--for example, over gays in the military or proposed restrictions on homeschool teachers--they are able to mobilize listeners quickly because they have such large audiences.
There is also a trend toward mo re call-in programs, reflecting the popularity of the secular talk medium. As I mentioned earlier, Christian radio stations typically include one or more of their own call-in shows, often aired during drivetime and usually with a political bent. One Christian talk show host, Warren Duffy of KKLA in Los Angeles, explained that this type of radio is popular because his listeners see that "their Christian values are being attacked in the political arena on many levels [and] that an active faith requires involvement in the political and social causes that affect our freedom to live godly lives." Along with his counterparts throughout California, in 1994, Duffy's show was instrumental in getting listeners to lobby successfully against a controversial public school achievement test.
As I said with regard to Pat Robertson and James Dobson, it is the seamless content of religious broadcasting that makes it useful for political mobilization. Programs or segments of shows that seem merely to entertain or offer personal advice are, in fact, instrumental in keeping people tuned in and ready to absorb more challenging political material. When people feel connected to a favorite talk show host, when they enjoy hearing their own views repeated by other listeners, they are more likely to want to participate in suggested collective action, for example, calling or writing an elected official.
Part of a Package
Through a revolving door, leaders of the Christian Right often find themselves becoming radio and TV hosts, and vice versa. Organizations rely on the Christian media to reach their constituents, and the media outlets rely on activist spokespersons, lest they have nothing to put on the air.
The backbone of the movement is a multitiered complex of organizations. There are large national outfits geared toward lobbying and distributing information to profamily supporters. Some of the big national lobbies work through state branches and local chapters. Also at the local level, groups form to wage specific campaigns: against abortion clinics or to sponsor anti-gay rights measures, for example. As with any successful social movement, there is a dense overlap with people working for and donating to multiple organizations. Each group has its own prerogatives. But each group is also part of a larger project, whether the goal is to win an election or to make Christians more aware of the political process.
In Chapter 4, as I trace the recent history of the Christian Right, I show how the movement's major political organizations have evolved. The Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and other established outfits have an explicitly political agenda. But what makes their message reverberate loudly goes beyond Christian TV and radio. It includes seemingly less political forms of media, including fiction, magazines, and music. Evangelicalism is a cultural phenomenon and, as we will see in the next chapter and elsewhere in this book, its political themes are amplified as much through entertainment as through direct forms of organizing. Songs and suspense can influence minds just as surely as a handbill.
Meet the Author
Sara Diamond, PhD, a leading authority on right-wing movements in the United States, holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of California. She is the author of Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States; Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right; and Facing the Wrath: Confronting the Right in Dangerous Times. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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