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The Role of the Religious Right in the Foley Affair

The Religious Right will condemn others, but never holds themselves accountable.

BY Hans Johnson

Complete lack of independence from the GOP is one reason the religious right has a hand in the scandals like the Foley affair.

A telltale habit of extremism is its refusal to look in the mirror.

Take Focus on the Family: Reacting to the revelation of former Republican Rep. Mark Foley’s predatory behavior, Jim Dobson, the head of the $100-million-a-year mega-nonprofit based in Colorado Springs, sounded neither concerned nor contemplative, but instead like a conspiracy theorist. “(It was released by liberals) on the last day of the session of Congress,” he told a nationwide audience of radio listeners on Oct. 6. “They’ve held it for years, and they threw it out there on the last day of the session demanding that the Speaker of the House resign.”

Dobson has practice in wild-eyed accusation. Indeed, it’s a tone he’s perfected to the point of being stuck in a rut. Whereas most bona fide religious leaders would treat misdeeds by cronies of their cause somberly and look to the scriptures of their faith as a reference point, Dobson and his peers on the religious right shift straight into attack mode.

This incapacity for reflection and failure to direct moral criticism close to home are distinguishing characteristics of extremism. They are also crucial ingredients in the recipe for the Foley scandal. Year after year, by aiming their scrutiny and disgust at Democrats, gay activists and “liberals,” Focus on the Family has created a climate of impunity for conservatives indulging in the very sort of manipulation, endangerment and arrogance at issue in the current scandal.

Dobson’s de facto blessing of right-wing immorality has another consequence. By inviting his supporters to see themselves as passive victims of corrupting trends and behaviors for which they blame “liberal” outsiders, he exempts himself and his supporters from responsibility. This habit defies both common sense and the message of the Christian gospel. In Matthew 7, for instance, Jesus took pains to warn against deficiency of self-awareness, better known as hypocrisy. Cast out first the blocks that are stuck in your own eyes, he told his disciples, so that you can see clearly if you even dare to go after the bits in the eyes of others. Focus on the Family has absorbed this message in reverse.

An examination of its publications shows how deep this perversion goes. Over the past decade, the group’s Citizen magazine has devolved into a monthly 32-page screed attacking gay people. Shorter, but no less soaked in prejudice, are the group’s direct mail pieces. While railing against nude images in print and broadcast media, the organization engages in a kind of antigay pornography meant to incense and titillate its readership.

In a June fundraising letter, Dobson wrote that “homosexual activists and their allies on the far left had crafted an alarming new strategy to gain control of children.” This plan, according to Dobson, involves not sexual innuendo and stalking of teenagers by a Republican congressman, but rather pro-gay indoctrination at public schools run by feckless teachers bent on “controlling children’s minds” through a “required curriculum” of “tolerance education.” According to his imagined scenario, an instructor “must describe the great contributions made by those in ‘the lifestyle’ ” and “cannot mention the contributions to society made by people of faith,” lest school administrators buckle under the pressure of lawsuits and plans to “withhold two-thirds of the school district’s budget.”

It matters not to Dobson that this is pure fiction. In his materials, like the anti-Semitic tracts of the last century, sexual minorities are all-powerful, ever-present and diabolical. In a sign of how jealously religious right groups such as Dobson’s guard their immunity from taxation and the deductibility of donors’ gifts, “liberals” are always imagined as attacking their nonprofit status. The August issue of the magazine includes the ominous question, far out of right field, “Can a group–a church or religious charity, say–that opposes gay marriage keep its tax exemption if gay marriage becomes the law?”

No responsible tax lawyer, Democratic or Republican, gives credence to such fears. But remember: This is not about God, but rather dollars and politics.

Complete lack of independence from the GOP is one reason the religious right has a hand in scandals like the Foley affair. Americans hold it as a kind of axiom that clergy should stand apart from politicians and call out their defects and excesses when necessary. Such was the case in the Lewinsky affair, even among progressive ministers. For instance, in 1998, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches opened the door to congressional censure of then-President Clinton for what she called “sinful acts.” Yet no such independence is observed among the religious right. This June, Dobson had to devote a page of the magazine to coming clean about his ties to Jack Abramoff and the other Republican corruption scandal. In classic Dobson fashion, the disclosure was wrapped in an attack on “liberal” philanthropist George Soros and titled, with the subtlety of a schoolyard taunt, “We’re calling your bluff.” So much for mea culpa.

Far from being a free-standing moral voice, Dobson and Company are part and parcel of conservative political machinery. He has used his organization’s tax-exempt status, radio network and greedy data-gathering techniques for the past 25 years to convert it into bare-knuckled political empire dressed up as a Christian ministry.

Today, beneath the homespun sheen and behind the expert marketing, Focus on the Family is a factory of anti-gay hate and paranoia fueled by donations from its 5-million-person mailing list. Commanding such a constituency in every state makes Dobson the single most powerful Republican outside of Washington, D.C. Presidential candidates come to him on bended knee. His publications boast of backing ballot measures that blast gay marriage and defeating U.S. senators, including Tom Daschle. When Sam Alito took his seat on the Supreme Court, he sent a thank-you note to Dobson.

That’s why it matters what Dobson says–and what he won’t, or can’t. His refusal to shine a bright light of judgment on his own ranks is not just an easy pass for right-wing immorality. His dereliction of duty on the hard work of introspection and policing partisan peers is the very reason he has so much time and so many resources at the ready to spread intolerance and venom toward his neighbors, especially the sexual minorities and progressive leaders he reviles.

Don’t get me wrong. So folksy and approachable in person is Dobson that I was able to walk right up to him once at a restaurant and get his autograph. That was back when I was a starry-eyed adolescent, the same age as Foley’s targets.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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