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Conservative Christianity and the Creation of Alternative News: An Analysis of Focus on the Family's Multimedia Empire

  • Susan B. Ridgely

Abstract

In this article, I explore how, from 1977 through 2009, the conservative Christian media empire, Focus on the Family, acted as a model for and a creator of alternative news long before the 2016 election. In particular, since 1977, Focus linked proper Christianity with recognition of a world of hazards by defining danger as those people and institutions who refused to submit to God, especially feminists, secular universities, and the welfare state. Through the creation of a closed-media network, Focus taught Christian conservatives to see the mainstream news as undermining biblical Truth by espousing stories that supported postmodern relativism over God's singular truth. Simultaneously, Focus generated its own news sources to fill the vacuum left by the mainstream with stories highlighting the political and social structures needed to support the Focus-defined traditional family. Soon, other conservative media outlets began using these frameworks to attract listeners and to add veracity to their stories. Although mainstream media portrayed Focus as passé by 2009, I argue that the model that Focus developed led seamlessly to the creation of Fox News and, later, to the formation of internet communities around outlets such as Breitbart and to the believability of Russian bots.

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Notes

I would like to thank Ann Burlein, Julie Byrne, and the students at Hofstra University who gave me feedback on an early draft of this article.

1 , Dobson, Dare to Discipline (Wheaton: IL: Tyndale House, 1970), 16, 14.

2 Dobson, Dare to Discipline, 14

3 For more on the interconnections between religion and parenting practices in the United States and the ways in which childrearing manuals are efforts at shaping adults, see Lofton, Kathryn, “Religion and Authority in American Parenting,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 3 (September 2016): 806–41.

4 James C. Dobson, “De-Masculinizing the Military,” Focus on the Family Newsletter, May 1997, 4.

5 For more on Christian Reconstructionism, see Ingersoll, Julie J., Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

6 All interviews were conducted in confidentiality, and the names of interviewees are withheld by mutual agreement; recordings and transcripts are held by the author. For more on my methodology see, Ridgely, Susan B., Practicing what the Doctor Preached: At Home with Focus on the Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1319.

7 Zettersten, Rolf, Dr. Dobson: Turning Hearts toward Home (Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family Press, 1989), 85.

8 “Look Out, Dear Abby! Dobson Column Carried by over 550 Papers,” Church and State, September 1999, 19.

9 Wendy Murray Zoba, “Daring to Discipline America,” Christianity Today Vol. 43 Issue 3, 32.

10 Connable, Sean, “The ‘Christian Nation’ Thesis and the Evangelical Echo Chamber,” in The Electronic Church in the Digital Age: Cultural Impacts of Evangelical Mass Media, ed. Ward, Mark and Stout, Daniel A. (Santa Barbara, CA: Paeger, 2016), 191.

11 Gilgoff, Dan, The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture Wars (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008), 39, 168.

12 McChesney, Robert Waterman, The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008), 428–30.

13 Thomas, Marlo, Marlo Thomas and Friends, Free to Be . . . You and Me (New York: Arista, 1972).

14 Gilgoff, The Jesus Machine, 65–66.

15 “Focus on the Family: Our Faith, Values, Mission and Guiding Principles, n.d., received with the November 1995 newsletter, 5. Although Focus hoped to “bring the message to those in the secular marketplace who may not be familiar with Christian principles,” from 2009 forward it primarily supported white families in creating and maintaining a Christian environment in what they saw as an increasingly secular world. In 1990, Focus's members were primarily mothers between the ages of twenty-five and forty with some higher education; today, they are somewhat older but no more diverse. See Laura Sessions Stepp, “The Empire Built on Family and Faith: Psychologist James Dobson, Bringing his Evangelical Focus to Politics,” Washington Post, August 8, 1990, C1. Contrary to Dobson's ideal, many of these women worked outside the home to maintain their mostly middle-class status. See Burlein, Ann, Lift High the Cross: Where White Supremacy and the Christian Right Converge (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 122.

16 Author's phone call to Focus on the Family Paloma, California, April 1996.

17 See, for example, Dowland, Seth, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Hartman, Andrew, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Hendershot, Heather, What's Fair on the Air? Cold War Right-Wing Broadcasting and the Public Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Kruse, Kevin M., One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015); and Petrzela, Natalia Mehlman, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

18 Balmer, Randall, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 24. For more on the history of Scottish Common Sense Realism, see Marsden, GeorgeFundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5556.

19 Geertz, Clifford, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 84.

20 For the original argument for cultivation theory, see Gerbner, George and Gross, Larry, “Living with Television: The Violence Profile,” Journal of Communication 26, no. 2 (June 1976): 172–99. For more contemporary uses that extend cultivation theory beyond views of violence, see Shrum, L. J., “Television and Persuasion: Effects of the Programs between the Ads,” Psychology and Marketing 16, no. 2, (March 1999): 119–40; Shrum, L. J., Burroughs, James E., and Rindfleisch, Aric, “Television's Cultivation of Material Values,” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (December 2005): 473–79.

21 “Focus on the Family: Our Faith, Values, Mission and Guiding Principles, n.d., 5.

22 Gilgoff, The Jesus Machine, 54. For more on Focus president Jim Daly's biography, see: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/about/media/jim-daly/.

23 May, Elaine Taylor, Homeward Bound: American Families of the Cold War Era, 20th Anniversary Edition (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 13.

24 Cited in Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking Press, 2005), 202.

25 For a history of the myths of the American family, see Coontz, Stephanie, The Way We Never Were (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

26 Miller, Nathan, New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 271; Pike, Sarah, “Youth Rites: Religion and the Cultural Construction of Adolescence,” in Children and Religion: A Methods Handbook, ed. Ridgely, Susan B. (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 3435.

27 Dobson, Dare to Discipline, 83.

28 Dobson, James, Bringing up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Men (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 1921.

29 Dobson, James, Bringing up Girls: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Women (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2010), 29.

30 See, for example, “Lesson 10—The American Experiment: Stepping Stones,” in The Truth Project Lesson Guide (Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family, 2006).

31 Hemmer, Nicole, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 101107.

32 Hemmer, Messengers of the Right, 252–56.

33 Kintz, Linda, Between Jesus and the Market (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 113. Within these political organizations, Dobson came into contact with Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Phyllis Schlafly, Bill Bright, and other leading conservatives. The list of guests on Focus on the Family broadcasts made these connections overt, while the similarities between Dobson and the other members may signal the success of efforts to present America with a more coherent conservative Christian message, such as the Council for National Policy (CNP). For more, see Ericson, Edward Jr., “Behind Closed Doors at the CNP,” Church and State, Vol. 49 Issue 6 (June 1996), 4.

34 “Resources for the Home: The Citizen Magazine,” Focus on the Family Magazine, January 1987, 4.

35 Gustav Niebuhr, “Advice for Parents, and for Politicians,” New York Times, May 30, 1995, A-12.

36 Niebuhr, “Advice for Parents.” Niebuhr's article describes a 1992 random survey telephoning 1,204 people on its mailing list, which found that the Focus audience (primarily educated women, ages 30–49, married with two or more children) were primarily interested in marital issues (91%), followed by parenting issues (85%), and then abortion.

37 “Coming Broadcasts,” Focus on the Family with James Dobson, November 1983, 14.

38 Rolf Zettersten, “The Sinking Credibility of the Press,” Focus on the Family with James Dobson, January 1990, 23.

39 Julie Johnson, “Child Care: No Shortage of Proposals” New York Times, March 26, 1989.

40 Beth Spring, “Having It All—At Home: More than 70 Percent of Married Moms Do Not Work Full Time Year Round,” Focus on the Family, October 1989, 5–7.

41 Beth Spring, “Having It All—At Home: More than 70 Percent of Married Moms Do Not Work Full Time Year Round,” Focus on the Family, October 1989, 5–7; David Wagner, “Congress Threatens to Usurp Parents: The Senate's ABC Day-care Bill Shuns Stay-at-Home Moms, but the House Version Is More Dangerous,” Focus on the Family Citizen, September 1989, 13.

42 Dobson, “De-Masculinizing the Military,” 4.

43 James C. Dobson, “Responses to Focus on the Family Public Policy Aspect,” Focus on the Family Newsletter, May 1997, 1.

44 Viefheus-Bailey, Ludger H., Between a Man and a Woman? Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 8.

45 John A. Lawrence, “Cartoon Character . . . or Political Animal?” New York Times, January 25, 2005, A-18.

46 Tackett, Dell, “Lesson 7: Sociology: The Divine Imprint,” in The Truth Project Video Series (Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family, 2006).

47 “The Truth Project Tour 11—Labor: Created to Create,” in The Truth Project Video Series (Focus on the Family, 2006).

48 “The Truth Project Tour 9—The State: Whose State?” in The Truth Project Video Series (Focus on the Family, 2006).

49 Olga Khazan, “Why Fake News Targeted Trump Supporters,” Atlantic, February 2, 2017, accessed December 5, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/02/why-fake-news-targeted-trump-supporters/515433/. For more on how liberals and conservatives view the media, see Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Jocelyn Kiley, and Katerina Eva Matsa, “Politics, Polarization and Media Habits,” accessed April 14, 2018, http://www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/political-polarization-media-habits/.

Conservative Christianity and the Creation of Alternative News: An Analysis of Focus on the Family's Multimedia Empire

  • Susan B. Ridgely

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