Right Hook

Howard Stern declares war on Bush's "religious agenda"; Gary Bauer claims gay sex is deadlier than smoking. Plus: Presidential Prayer Team prays for the CIA to nab Osama.

By Mark Follman
Published March 3, 2004 11:47PM (EST)

A second front for Bush's culture war?
Hard-line conservatives have been rallying for the battle over same-sex marriage this election year, and the fight over broadcast indecency may be next. Last week, with congressional hearings looming in the wake of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl burlesque, broadcast behemoth Clear Channel Radio dropped the raunchy Howard Stern show from six of its stations -- including two in Florida, which is expected to be a key swing state again this November. Clear Channel, owned by big-time Bush backer Lowry Mays, announced it was canning Stern in a press release last Wednesday -- just ahead of the Capitol Hill hearings -- suddenly labeling Stern's long-running program "vulgar, offensive and insulting."

Stern has been a vocal Bush supporter in the past, but over the last few days he's been ranting on the air about Clear Channel's deep financial ties to the White House and claiming that he's become the target of a conspiracy since he began trashing the president in recent weeks. Even though the vast majority of stations airing Stern's syndicated show are owned by Clear Channel competitor Infinity Broadcasting, bloggers on the left are buying into Stern's theory and welcoming his change of heart. According to the Down With Bush blog, Stern -- after reading a copy of Al Franken's book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" -- told listeners: "If you read this book, you will never vote for George W. Bush ... I think this guy is a religious fanatic and a Jesus freak, and he is just hell bent on getting some sort of bizzaro agenda through."

But conservatives seem unsure of what to do with the hard-to-classify broadcast personality; so far, even with Stern threatening to lead a "million moron march" on Washington, there's been no pattern to their reaction. While Stern loves to scrap publicly over his lewd material, moral crusader Rush Limbaugh appeared to defend Stern against government meddling last week, while claiming never to have heard Stern's show. The staunchly pro-Bush New York Post offered a terse report on the "foul-mouthed shocker" and his theory that Clear Channel has crumpled beneath an extreme agenda being broadcast directly from the White House:

"Besieged shock jock Howard Stern taunted his government critics [Friday] by skipping his usual congressional and FCC attacks and tearing right into the top guy -- President Bush. Stern also said he fears his 'suspension' last Wednesday by radio behemoth Clear Channel has turned into a firing.

"'I might be taken off all the stations very soon, and my last words to you are G.W.B.,' Stern told listeners...

"'Get him out of office. I'm tellin' you, man, he's in dangerous territory [with] a religious agenda and you gotta vote him out -- anyone but Bush,' Stern railed."

Others on the right are not convinced that Stern is being victimized by a White House morality campaign. Joe Carter, a career U.S. Marine from Texas who authors the Evangelical Outpost blog, believes Clear Channel execs may have genuinely seen the light and decided to clean up their act.

"Normally, I'm not fond of gargantuan media giants. But I have to say that I'm impressed with [Clear Channel's] swift action and their willingness to stand up to their biggest talent. Stern has always thought he was the 400 lb. gorilla that couldn't be touched. Turns out he may have met his match in an 800 lb. media conglomerate."

Or, at the very least, says Carter, the broadcast giant is only worshiping at the traditional altar of the almighty dollar.

"The government didn't can Stern, Clear Channel did. And it wasn't because of 'government intimidation' but because of local advertisers. When the big conglomerates bought all the radio stations [they] took control of the local markets. Small-scale advertisers won't put their ad dollars in a station that relies on 'shock' to get ratings, especially when the ratings aren't there. Look at the Arbitron rankings. Here in Dallas, Stern is on a FM talk station but is getting creamed by local AM talk stations.

"Money, not government censorship is why CC is making the move to 'decency.' It simply makes good business sense."

Some conservative grassroots groups -- which are already giving Bush high marks for his move against same-sex marriage -- are looking to take credit for Stern's ousting. In a letter to supporters last week, Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents Television Council, said it was politics indeed that provoked the Clear Channel crackdown.

"We applaud Clear Channel for taking such swift action, and we now call on the Infinity radio station group (owned by media conglomerate Viacom) to follow the lead of Clear Channel. This is indeed a tremendous victory. But make no mistake: This newfound sense of responsibility on the part of Clear Channel NEVER would have come about without your activism and steadfast support. Because of your continued efforts to push this issue onto the national stage -- by filing FCC indecency complaints, by contacting your Congressional representatives, by sending broadcasters and advertisers messages of your outrage and concern -- positive change is happening on all fronts."

Smoking might kill you, but homosexuality surely will
The battle over same-sex marriage has started to turn as nasty as activists on both sides pledged it would once President Bush took a stand against the practice. Gary Bauer, president of the right-wing religious group American Values, relies on unspecified scientific studies to bolster his argument for why a constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage is necessary.

"Marriage is about families and children ... Children need a mother and a father. Girls need a mother to whom they can relate and boys need a father to whom they can relate. Boys and girls also need a parent of the opposite sex as an example to learn from as well. The well-being of innocent children, who cannot choose their parents, must be governed by what is proven to be best for them. Study after study shows that parents are not interchangeable puzzle pieces -- mothers and fathers bring unique and different contributions to parenting and children need both."

Bauer seems to think there's always been a common understanding of the "definition of marriage" -- but in any case, he says, it's a "documented medical fact" that homosexuality is a public-health liability.

"While marriage law has traditionally been a state issue, the definition of marriage has never been an issue ... More importantly, however, the government has an obligation to promote public policy that is best for the general welfare and to discriminate against behaviors that adversely impact society and public health. Tobacco use is heavily regulated by the state and smoking is strongly discouraged. A major study conducted by Oxford University demonstrated that homosexual conduct is three times more deadly than smoking. Homosexual behavior is fraught with adverse health affects. Again, this is not opinion, but documented medical fact. Public policy must not be ignorant of medical facts associated with this lifestyle and from a public policy perspective, the behavior should not be encouraged by affording it the status of marriage."

Bauer does not provide the major study conducted by Oxford University.

As the same-sex marriage debate erupted last month, Protestants for the Common Good, a religious education and advocacy group based in Chicago, saw fit to publish an anonymous opinion piece in its weekly newsletter, which outlines a marriage amendment perhaps worthy of the Taliban. The piece alarmed many liberals and was fast circulated on the Web as the latest example of hard-line conservative propaganda:

"The Presidential Prayer Team is currently urging us to: 'Pray for the President as he seeks wisdom on how to legally codify the definition of marriage. Pray that it will be according to Biblical principles. With any forces insisting on variant definitions of marriage, pray that God's Word and His standards will be honored by our government.' This is true.

"Any good religious person believes prayer should be balanced by action. So here, in support of the Prayer Team's admirable goals, is a proposed Constitutional Amendment codifying marriage entirely on biblical principles:

"A. Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5)

"B. Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives. (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21)

"C. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deut 22:13-21)

"D. Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden. (Gen 24:3; Num 25:1-9; Ezra 9:12; Neh 10:30)

"E. Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9)

"F. If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10)

"G. In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your dad drunk and have sex with him (even if he had previously offered you up as a sex toy to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. Of course, this rule applies only if you are female. (Gen 19:31-36)"

But apparently the opinion piece was widely misconstrued: The managing editor of the organization's newsletter, Bridget Stevens, told Salon that Protestants for the Common Good viewed the piece as pure satire and posted it to spark debate about the perils of appropriating the Bible to define marriage law.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Presidential Prayer Team -- a private organization claiming to be entirely nonpartisan so that it is "free and unencumbered to equally serve the prayer needs of all current and future leaders of our great nation" -- is appealing to the big guy upstairs on several important issues:

"Pray for the President and his team in the effort to codify marriage as being between one man and one woman. As more than 2,000 couples have now been wed and hundreds continue to flock to San Francisco for unlawful unions, pray that the legal questions surrounding this practice will be soundly answered, resulting in a godly recognition of the sanctity of marriage as being between one man and one woman. Pray that a spirit of moral decency will arise in America.

"Pray for the release of vital intelligence that will lead to the capture of Al Qaeda operatives and the arrest of Osama Bin Laden.

"Pray for the President as he meets with 9-11 Commission Chair [Thomas] Kean and Vice Chair [Lee] Hamilton. He will discuss information relevant to the Commission's work, providing testimony that will help with their mission."

"The bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever"
Critics continue to blast Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," conservatives included. The movie pulled in more than $117 million during its first week in theaters, and some have grudgingly credited Gibson's "mad genius" for fanning a media firestorm ahead of the movie's release. But whether Gibson was motivated by commercial ambition or pure religious vision, many are worried that his gory, provocative version of the Crucifixion will do grave damage. Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire says Gibson has effectively hijacked religion and sent the standard for film violence plummeting to a dangerous new depth.

"The word 'passion' is rooted in the Latin for 'suffer.' Mel Gibson's movie about the torture and agony of the final hours of Jesus is the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen.

"Because the director's wallowing in gore finds an excuse in a religious purpose -- to show how horribly Jesus suffered for humanity's sins -- the bar against film violence has been radically lowered. Movie mayhem, long resisted by parents, has found its loophole; others in Hollywood will now find ways to top Gibson's blockbuster, to cater to voyeurs of violence and thereby to make bloodshed banal..."

With the global reach of American pop culture and technology, Safire wonders -- as have many of the film's detractors -- whether Gibson's "Passion" will fuel a rising clash of civilizations.

"At a moment when a wave of anti-Semitic violence is sweeping Europe and the Middle East, is religion well served by updating the Jew-baiting passion plays of Oberammergau on DVD? Is art served by presenting the ancient divisiveness in blood-streaming media to the widest audiences in the history of drama?"

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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