Anatomy of a Smear
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 01:06:38 AM EST
A few weeks ago in New York City, the publisher of Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, held a panel discussion as part of the launch of the book. Scheduled to speak were co-authors Sheldon Culver and John Dorhauer, Michelle Goldberg, Chris Hedges (author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America) and me. Hedges, a divinity school graduate and former New York Times reporter who teaches at Princeton, was ultimately unable to attend -- but we were joined by a young spy from the Washington, DC-based neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.
This was not really a surprise. IRD uses a mix of staff and freelancers to infiltrate events of all kinds -- denominational and related interest group meetings; as well as events that have no obvious connection to their purported mission of "renewal" of the mainline protestant churches in the U.S. In this case, the spy was Rebekah Sharpe, a 2005 graduate of the University of North Carolina, who has written a series of apparently freelance reports for the IRD web site.  

Usually when I write about aspects of the quarter century campaign by IRD and its neoconservative and religious right allies to disrupt and divide the mainline prostestant churches -- I am writing from a distance. But this time, it's personal. The writer and/or her editors have published a piece that grossly misrepresents what I said that evening in New York.  In short, it's a smear.

It is worth a brief examination of this bit of propaganda, not only to clear the air about what I said and what I meant that night, but use Sharpe's screed as a case example of the way that IRD staff and contractors spy on and seek to discredit their critics.

Sharpe's report is titled:

Event Denounces Conservative Christians as "Fascists"

That is certainly a provocative article headline, but it does not remotely represent the event in which I participated. No one denounced conservative Christians in general -- nor would we. Nor did we generalize to describe conservative Christians as fascists. In fact, I don't recall any of us using the words fascists or fascism all evening. What's more, if professor Hedges had been there, I am certain that he also would not have made such a generalization

Now it is certainly true that the event was billed: "Nationalists, Fascists, and Fanatics: The Christian Right's Threat to the Future of Democracy in America." But in the absence of professor Hedges, there wasn't anyone there to discuss fascism. Perhaps the IRD will send someone to one of his many public appearances and report on what he actually has to say, rather than trying to stuff distorted versions of his ideas into the mouths of others.

Again, the title of Sharpe's report not withstanding, no one on the panel denounced conservative Christians or any one else as fascists, and Sharpe does not quote any of us using the words fascist or fascism.  The main way that Sharpe seeks to justify the headline, is a mention of Hitler -- by someone else. During the discussion period, a questioner mentioned pre World War II era policies of appeasement in response to Hitler, and asked me what I thought about some contemporary issues of political appeasement. I did not address the matter of policies of appeasement to Hitler or to fascism in general, nor did I draw any analogy the current situation:

In Chris Hedges' absence, the inevitable analogies between more orthodox Christians and Nazis only arose during the question and answer session. One participant, playing off of Goldberg's earlier comments, stated, "[20th century author Eric Fromm] talks about... how the young Hitler was hardened and toughened and became more extreme and he says one of the things that made him more extreme was that so many people...in Germany tried to appease him and he saw right through it ... and ... it increased his hatred of them.... And what I see in the Democratic Party is an attempt to co-opt the evangelical political block by giving them some concessions.... Mara Vandersleiss, whom Michelle brought up; I think she's part of the culture of appeasement."

In response, Fred Clarkson provided a lengthy critique of present-day appeasers. He gravely warned, "This is the area of appeasement, make no mistake.... What happens when we have evangelical movements in the church? Not just evangelicals in the church, but people who say 'We want to bring things back to the way they ought to be in the church, the true orthodox Christianity, that somehow all those ... people have somehow abandoned and they don't believe in God and Jesus, and we have to bring it back.' How do you appease people like that?" Specifying a political example of the supposed Hitler-esque appeasement attempts, Clarkson said, "In order to include pro-life Democrats, you can no longer stand for your own principles. That's appeasement. And that's the advice the Democratic Party leaders are getting now."

Leaving aside the question of whether Sharpe fairly represents my points, in response to the question, I discussed some of the dynamics of the Democratic Party and mainline protestantism and the problems caused by the appeasement of those who cannot, in fact, be appeased. Now hear the method of the propagandist:

"Specifying a political example of the supposed Hitler-esque appeasement attempts, Clarkson said..."
This is putting words in my mouth. I did not characterize anyone or anything as "Hitler-esque" nor did I "specify" anything as an example of such. This is a fabrication, and it is as outrageous as it is dishonest.  (BTW, the correct spelling of the name of the prominent Democratic consultant mentioned above, is Mara Vanderslice.)

Using a similar tactic, Sharpe tries to claim that I said or believe that all conservative Chrisians are "totalitarian." That is not what I said and it is not what I meant.

Clarkson stated that like "anyone who is a totalitarian of some sort" a conservative Christian "understands that dilemma of democratic pluralism and will exploit it at every opportunity. Because a liberal is an easy mark: "Oh, you're intolerant aren't you liberals?!" and the liberal goes, "Oh, I don't want to be intolerant! I don't want to paint myself that way!"" He added that, "the Right has used this very successfully."

My point was that many, including IRD and its minions, exploit what theorist Gary North calls the dilemma of democratic pluralism. This is essentially the idea that those who believe in democratic pluralism, as a matter of profound conviction, are necessarily tolerant of views with which they also may profoundly disagree. The dilemma comes when people feel they must "tolerate" even those views that are committed to the destruction of democratic pluralism itself.  This knowledge is smartly exploited by totalitarians of many sorts, including some conservative Christians. Note that Sharpe does not have any quote marks around the phrase a conservative Christian in the quote above.  That's because that is not what I said, and clearly did not mean.

I have also been consistent on this over the years. I first wrote about the dilemma of democratic pluralism in my 1997 book Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and more recently at Talk to Action. (Here, for example).

People familiar with my work know that I am careful with facts and with language. I avoid making broad brush claims about conservative Christians -- or anyone. The apparent effort here is to try to discredit my work by leaving the impression that I compared conservative Christians to Hitler, when I did not; and that I also described conservative Christians in general as "totalitarian" when I did not.

It's possible that all this is not Rebekah Sharpe's fault -- but it nevertheless carries her byline. And it is not the first time that she has worked for this disreputable agency.

When reading anything that the IRD puts out or if you happen to see an IRD spokesperson quoted as an authoritative source in the media, consider this: The IRD spends tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to deploy staff and consultants like young Ms. Sharpe around the country to attend events small and large, and produce numerous reports like this one; edited and published online by a professional staff. But their tremendous efforts at information gathering and writing and publishing not withstanding, one has to wonder -- how much do they just make up?




Display:
There is an exchange in Plato's Republic where the dialogue discusses who is better, the just or unjust man. The character Glaucon tells Socretes that it is perhaps better to be unjust but seem just rather than being just.

It seems that whatever issues these neocons touch this mentality permeates. These are nasty folks for whom propriety is not as important the ends justifying the means.

Well, some means cannot be justified and this continuous mendacity is one such example. Obviously they feel threatened by what we are doing. And the reasoned why they feel threatened is because we are standing up to expose their vile means to an end.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 07:22:05 AM EST


But amongst those dealing with the IRD & Co. is there a distinction between "conservative Christians" and "the Religious Right"?  

I'm thinking that the former is a pretty big group but the latter are a subset of politically motivated, rigid, frightened, agenda driving folk.

But I'm not sure the distinction is always understood.  Thoughts?

by Don Niederfrank on Fri Jul 06, 2007 at 10:00:42 PM EST

Yours is a distinction that is roughly the same as any reasonable person would make.

These terms are broad and overlapping, but certainly not synonymous.

To my knowledge it has never been an issue among the people I know who write credibly in this general field.  

That said, people on all sides use these, and many terms somewhat differently from one another, and there are no generally agreed upon definitions. Even in the news media. The Religion Newswriters Association has taken a stab at definitions of terms, with mixed results in my view.

http://www.religionstylebook.org/

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Jul 07, 2007 at 12:03:27 AM EST
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