Interview with the Blogger, Part 1
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 04:20:26 PM EST
Blogger Faithful Progressive has an interview series which is, as you might expect,  about religion and politics. I was the latest interviewee, and I think the interview came out pretty well. In part 1, FP gets me to cough-up some of the back story on the Left Behind video game controversy and some of the lessons I think I've learned about taking on the religious right over the years.

FP's interview series, also includes illuminating interviews with Talk to Action bloggers, Mainstream Baptist, and Carlos.

The FP Interview:  Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is the co founder of Talk to Action , which focuses on reporting, analysis and discussion of the religious right and what to do about it. He is an independent journalist, author and lecturer who has written about politics and religion for more than twenty years. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, (1997); and the co-author of Challenging the Christian Right: The Activist's Handbook, (Institute for First Amendment Studies 1992; Ms. Foundation for Women edition, 1994) for which he and his co-author were named among the "Media Heroes of 1992" by the Institute for Alternative Journalism. They were described as "especially brave at taking on powerful institutions and persistent about getting stories out...journalists and activists who persevere in fighting censorship and protecting the First Amendment," and "understanding the Christian Right's recent strategy of stealth politics early on, and for doggedly tracking its activities across the U.S." He is often cited by major newspapers and wire services. His many national radio appearances include NPR's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation, Pacifica's Democracy Now, and Air America's State of Belief. His television interviews include Fox News, CNN, ABC's 20/20, and the CBS Evening News as well as the BBC and the CBC.

We are pleased to kick-off our 2007 FP Interview Series with Mr. Clarkson.

FP: I was very impressed with your role in bringing the ("convert or die") Left Behind video game controversy to light. (FP's Note: Check out these articles  from Talk to Action. ) As far as I know, your colleague Jonathan Hutson broke the story . Can you briefly recount your efforts in this matter and those of the groups who worked with you in bringing this story to light?

FC: Thanks. It all came about in a remarkable and unplanned way. Last May, Jonathan Hutson was undecided about what to write for his weekly Talk to Action post. So he called me up to chew it over a bit. He was considering several possibilities. But when he described to me the then-forthcoming video game, I recall jumping up and practically shouting: "What!!!!?" Or words to that effect. It was out of that, and subsequent conversations, that we came to frame the critique, about the convert or kill dynamic of the play among the characters in the game, and how it is best understood in terms of the Left Behind novels as a vision of religious warfare. What's more, the DVD, being mass marketed through churches, meant that the intended audience of children raised in premillennialist theology and in an evangelical pop culture context of the novels, would be different than any other game in history. Additionally, the scenario of this being more of an instructional video, rehearsing LaHayeist notions of end time religious warfare, was gravely disturbing. Chip Berlet immediately launched a series of posts explaining the ideology of Tim LaHaye, and thus the clear context of the game was established. (After the game was released, we learned that sometimes the game comes packaged with the first novel in the series.) Bruce Wilson and I also wrote vigorously about the game; our best sense of what it meant; and why people should care -- at TTA and on other sites. The result of all this was enormous controversy and discussion in the blogosphere, cutting across all kinds of sites, religious, gamers, political, personal... it was quite amazing. Hundreds of thousands of people read Jonathan's original post and others in his series, and people are still reading them every day.

Months later, the Washington, DC-based Committee to Defend the Constitution (DefCon), of which I am on the advisory board, began to consider doing a campaign about the game, and called me to talk about it. Meanwhile, quite independently, CrossWalk America, the Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) and the Beatitudes Society  initiated a separate effort. Then in December, DefCon organized a telepress conference in which Clark Stevens of DefCon, Tim Simpson of CAP and I spoke. The result was the international media firestorm. But it was the original sharp reporting and framing by Jonathan Hutson, and Chip Berlet's explanations of LaHayeism that made it all possible. Talk to Action provided a place for each of us to surface news and analysis, and to report on the emerging and ongoing campaigns and to be a center for the development of well-informed, well-sourced, framing of what was wrong with the video and why people should be concerned. It certainly didn't start out that way, but our role evolved.

FP: The response to the Left Behind game story was pretty amazing. I saw something like 200 Google News stories about it at one point. Why do you suppose this story resonated with the legacy media (MSM) and the public?

FC: I think it was several main things.One was that it was about a pop culture crossover product from the dynamic "Christian marketplace" hoping to snag the nonchristian gamer market. Second, there had already been a lot of controversy about violence in video games, and this was a new twist on that story, with conservative Christians seeming to switch sides on the issue of violence. Third, it was about the the crass abuse of religiosity for commercial gain and the promotion of religious conflict by a celebrity author and "brand." And finally, the framing was sharp and well honed, with a well supported by the body of evidence; articulated by knowledgeable, confident writers and spokespeople. Before the end of December, mainstream Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations were on pretty much the same page about what is so morally wrong about this game, and took a variety of actions -- not always in cooperation, but action nevertheless.

FP: You have been a pioneer in calmly and factually exposing the extremist religious right over many years. What lessons have you learned in taking on the religious right? I wrote a long blog series a couple of years ago and found the religious right Extremely Influential in 2005. How would you rate their influence and power now relative to the past (twenty five years?) that you have been covering them?

FC: The most important lesson is that it really is essential to be able to thoroughly understand opposing forces in order to be able to appropriately and effectively counter them. And yes, this requires some calm, reasoned study and analysis, the use of non-hyperbolic language, and efforts to acheive some clarity in our thought, our writing, and our conversation. If we were talking about business or baseball, everyone would get it. But when it comes to this general subject, for a variety of reasons, it is less obvious, and less easy. I think that the religious right has gained far more power and influence than they have earned, and that this is because of ignorance and, I am sorry to say, incompetance on the part of many of their adversaries. To this day, there are too many smart, concerned, skilled people, who do not know, and do not feel they need to know anything much about the religious right. And it shows. The major institutions of moderate and progressive political and religious life, as well as much of academia and the media, tend to perpetuate this disinclination to adequately understand the religious right. It can be uncomfortable learning about these things. But I maintain that the consquences of not learning about these things is are very serious, and that the level of denial among many otherwise thoughtful and well-informed people, of the problems posed by the religious right, is nothing short of profound.

The religious right movement has grown and matured significantly in the past quarter century, and there is a fresh generation of leaders about to emerge as the founders of the movement and its affiliated institutions age and retire. But the severe compromises the leading organizations made with the Republican Party have damaged the movement, and we are seeing a period of retrenchment and regrouping. Former White House staffer David Kuo excoriating the "betrayal" by the Bush administration is but one telling sign of the divisions and difficulties they face. That said, the religious right remains one of the most powerful forces in American life and politics and is not to be underestimated, particularly at the state level in many places. Let's recall that the religious right has significant institutions and communications infrastructure that it did not have a generation ago. I hasten to add, that some of the newer political leaders, like former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR), defy easy categorization.

Interview with the Blogger, Part 2

Interview with the Blogger, Part 3

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