Christian Right Rhetoric

Janice Irvine explores antigay politics online

By Joyce Nishioka

Janice Irvine has examined the inner workings of a culture war and seen first hand the power of propaganda. She has dodged fist fights and endured screaming matches. Her work, at times, has left her depressed.

Irvine studies the Christian right.

Since the ’60s, she says, the right wing has used rhetoric to mobilize communities and gain political clout. One of the group’s earliest targets was sex education; their tactic was to spread untruths and demonize sex educators. Depravity narratives—that teachers were taking off their clothes for anatomy classes, that young children were being taught about sodomy—riled otherwise calm individuals.

“We have a culture of sexual shame in general,? Irvine says. “The rhetoric of the Christian right taps into that. They don’t have to say much to make people scared.?

More recently, Irvine, a sociology professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has looked at how conservative Christians direct similar strategies toward sexual rights. Her latest article, “Anti-Gay Politics Online: A Study of Sexuality and Stigma on National Websites,? appears in Sexuality Research & Social Policy (Vol. 2, No. 1). For the study, Irvine examined the websites of six groups that were prominent in opposing gay rights—Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association, and Americans for Truth—monitoring and analyzing the content for six months. She found that rather than using extreme stigmatizing rhetoric, as has been done in the past, these groups tended to present biased information as objective news and opinions as scientific argument.

The websites of Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) and Concerned Women for America contained the strongest language, depicting sexuality as degrading or embarrassing, and linking gay men to child molestation and other depraved acts. For example, in September 2003, Irvine points out, TVC featured a story titled “California Congresswoman Proudly Supports Obscene Bisexual Conference?; a summary of the article read, “San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis (D) attended a bisexual conference over the weekend that featured full female and male nudity and workshops on sex toys.? In the same month, the group published two articles online, “North Carolina Homosexual Teacher Arrested on Molestation Charges? and “Two Homosexuals Arrested on Child Molestation Charges,? in addition to posting its regular link “Homosexual Child Molesters.? TVC describes itself as the largest nondenominational church lobby in the United States with a membership of 43,000 churches.

Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association had much less anti-LGBT coverage on their sites, Irvine found, and yet, they are leaders in antigay politics. To get their word out, these groups used other media outlets, such as radio, email, and newsletters.

“In November 2003, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage; there was a volatile reaction,? Irvine says. “I expected more use of the Internet for organizing. Focus on the Family sent representatives to Massachusetts and launched a legal challenge, but there was no mention of the issue on their website. It seems that some of these organizations are at an early phase in the use of the Internet.?

Historically, conservative Christians have been at the forefront of utilizing communications technology to spread their messages and sway politics, according to Irvine’s research. In the 1920s and ’30s, she writes, they established radio broadcast ministries. Father Charles Coughlin, who spouted anti-Semitic rhetoric and defended fascist policies on his radio show, reportedly received 80,000 letters weekly in the mid-1930s. Conservative Christians were also quick to realize the potential of television, Irvine writes. Jerry Falwell, a popular televangelist in the 1970s and ’80s, heads The Faith and Values Coalition, a political action committee, and has raised $2.5 billion for his causes.

Today, there are roughly one million online religion websites. Cyber-religion could become the dominant form of religion, according to scholar Brenda Brasher, who is cited in Irvine’s study. “If online religion … has the capacity to transform the future of religion,? Irvine writes, “it will also transform the future of politics, because the escalation of conservative religious political activity has been one of the hallmarks of the late 20th/early 21st century political landscape.?

During the past 25 years, national Christian right organizations have been the most politically mobilized opponents of LGBT rights. Their rhetoric—calling gay materials pornography or gay men pedophiles—associates lesbians and gay men with negative and frightening meanings, Irvine says.

TVC’s online “Homosexual Urban Legends? series is an example of that. One article of that series, “Exposed: The Myth That ‘10% are Homosexual’ Updated,? challenges Kinsey’s analysis that 10 percent of males are “more or less exclusively homosexual? (rating a 5 or 6 on the Kinsey scale). TVC’s article cites a National Health and Social Life Survey, which found 2.8 percent of the male population and 1.4 percent of female population identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. TVC’s article, however, fails to include data from surveys regarding men and women who reported same-sex behavior and attraction but didn’t identify themselves as lesbian or gay. Irvine writes that TVC’s article “argued that homosexuals used the ‘bogus’ figure in order to ‘recruit children into the homosexual lifestyle and to lobby for … special legal protections for homosexuals.’?

Irvine says, “The Christian right uses data in a distorted or misleading fashion, much of it based on methodologically problematic studies. The uninformed may be less able to evaluate these seemingly scientific reports, and there is potential for journalists to take this material directly from sites.?

Since the election of President George W. Bush, Irvine says, the right wing feels it has been given license to continue and expand its rhetoric.

In the case of marriage equality, conservatives often warn of a domino effect. When the Supreme Court struck down a law banning sex between adults of the same sex, for example, Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent argued that if sodomy laws were illegal, laws against incest and bestiality would become illegal too. The Village Voice lampooned his opinion in an article “Petaphilia: The Great American Man-Dog Marriage Panic.?

Irvine says, “People who want our country to value individual and civil rights, and a quality of openness and freedom, need to be involved in educating people about the problematic rhetorical strategy the right is engaged in and neutralizing it, even through parody.?

Irvine’s research, which she started more than a decade ago, provides a strong response to Christian right rhetoric. She first became interested in the phenomena during debates in the 1980s and ’90s on sex education. Her book, Talk About Sex: The Battles over Sex Education in the United States, was published in 2002.

In 1981, the U.S. Office of Population Affairs began administering the Adolescent Family Life Act, providing funding for what is now known as abstinence-only sex education. “This curriculum showed up in communities and generated huge culture wars,? Irvine recalls. “I was living in Cambridge and the surrounding communities were completely coming apart over this. I knew this was the issue to take on.?

At one town hall meeting she attended, people were screaming and scuffles were breaking out. Parents were pushing and shoving. One of the organizers of the right got up to speak but collapsed. No one knew what had happened, Irvine remembers. Then, they were informed he had had an anxiety attack. “That has stuck with me. It was emblematic of the intense emotions of that time.?

Even under the more liberal Clinton administration, issues of sexuality remained taboo. In 1994, for example, then Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said at a U.N-sponsored conference on AIDS that masturbation “is a part of sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught? as a means to prevent AIDS and as part of comprehensive sex education. Less than two weeks later, Clinton asked for her resignation.

“Clinton fired her and no one spoke out to defend her,? Irvine says. “People were afraid of being stigmatized by the right wing as a pervert.?

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