If you only consumed the Fox News Network or books penned by Fox “journalists,” you could be forgiven for believing that the streets of America run red with the blood of Christian martyrs or that Bibles are being burned in the streets of San Francisco by marauding atheists. The claims of religious persecution are laughable even on cursory examination, but this slice of American self-delusion can no longer be ignored. The manufactured war on Christians provides cover for fundamentalist to perpetrate actual discrimination, against gay people, religious minorities and women. With the latest decision from the Supreme Court creating religious rights for billon-dollar corporations like Hobby Lobby, this wholesale nonsense has gone beyond anyone’s capacity to ignore.
To understand the rise of the Christian victim myth, one must trace it to the source: Fox News and especially its affiliated radio and book empire. Even among the intellectually atrophied, there are a few who stand out for being worse than the rest. At Fox News, I would argue it’s the trifecta of Mike Huckabee, Sean Hannity and my personal favorite (and the main subject of this post), Todd Starnes. To understand the creation of the religious victimization myth, I thoroughly examined Starnes’ latest polemic: "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Forwarded by Huckabee and promoted by Hannity, this Fox News corporate product captures everything that is wrong, untrue and stupid about this ongoing narrative.
I have spent more hours than I want to admit trying to understand Todd Starnes as a fellow human being. Like me, Starnes is an obese, white man, and we probably share pants sizes and a love of fried foods. Where we differ is that Starnes has spent his entire life dedicated to Southern Baptists, a group that has only recently recovered from its hatred of dancing and interracial marriage. He is a marginal member of the Fox News brand, but is a constant source of misinformation and social discord, regularly featured on Fox radio and the Fox News website.
Starnes might dismiss my criticism with his favorite insult of “elitist,” but that can’t stick to me. I’m a former military enlisted man, was a libertarian for years and have been clawing my own way out of the pit of angry, white America for decades. My own upbringing should make me love Starnes: undereducated, white, rural, gun-toting and fat. Todd and I could be brothers, except that every word that he writes or utters makes me almost ill. In that way, I’ll label his book a "Nauseātus Magnum Opus." My fascination about Starnes comes from how close I came to accepting his vision of reality.
Starnes shows a decided lack of shame in the central thesis of the book that “liberals and atheists are out to destroy America.” His over-the-top hyperbole only succeeds in exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of the “religious persecution” cry. He also exposes his near genocidal hate for anyone unlike himself, gleefully waxing about many of us burning in hell, for instance. He offers a kind warning to “invest in some fire-retardant underwear” (page 131). The days I spent examining his book would have been more comfortable pummeling my own genitals with a blunt instrument.
The Starnes-led sideshow is designed to cajole mostly blue-collar, lower-middle-class whites to vote against their own self-interest, and it’s a runaway, nefarious success.
Although the word “nefarious” describes the work, you won’t find that word or any other complicated language between the covers of the book. Starnes offers many preposterous suppositions (two other words you won’t find in the book) and unsupported conclusions, but he uses only elementary school prose. Of course, he could claim to be writing for accessibility, but I’d argue he’s manufacturing a fairy tale about good versus evil using childlike language.
To contrast the lack of complexity, there are 13 separate references to “sweet tea” and eight to “sweet potatoes.” One could summarize his book with this much more accurate subtitle: White Southern Person With a Bad Diet = Good. Everyone Else = Satan.
His book purports to find examples of American Christians being victimized by the growing atheist menace. This is not my own hyperbole, but an actual claim (“Angry Atheists Armed With Attorneys,” page 175). Of course, the Pew study on religious affiliation says that 78 percent of Americans identify as some form of Christian, while those who self-identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” hover around 5 percent. Truly secular people are outnumbered 14-to-1, so the entire premise of the book is nonsense.
I consider myself an essayist rather than researcher, but the flaws in the book are so large they can be seen from space. Starnes works hard to give the appearance of scholarship but it would only be credible to the most gullible and unsophisticated reader. Starnes uses the veneer of endnotes as support, but when examined, they show only shoddy research, unsupported conclusions and narcissism.
For instance, he cites his own questionable work published in his own FoxNews.com columns, instances that have often been debunked elsewhere (thank you, Media Matters). When he cites a third party, it’s often a source that cannot be taken seriously, such as his references to World Net Daily, a right-wing website that reports outlandish conspiracy theories such as “soy products make people gay” (among other bunk). When he manages to cite journalistic sources, such as the Associated Press, the articles don’t support the point he is attempting to make. Starnes seems to think just putting numbers after a reference point in a book is sufficient scholarship no matter how irrelevant the endnotes.
Even when he gets the basic facts right, the examples often crumble under their own illogic. My absolute favorite is that of a man “Jailed for Holding a Bible Study” (page 17). That sounds bad, right? Yet a page or two later, the details emerge: “police officers raided the home and a two-thousand-square-foot building (emphasis mine) in their backyard. The family had moved their Bible study into the building after the group outgrew the home’s living room” (page 20). The man built a massive, unlicensed building in his backyard, preached to a congregation of 80 people and collected tithes. Who the hell would tolerate an unlicensed, non-permitted church or business in his or her neighborhood?
Starnes also makes some startling accusations against Barack Obama, claiming at one point that Obama’s “end goal is to eradicate the Christian faith” (page 7). Here again the examples marvelously fail. For example, Starnes includes the accusation that “[Obama] omitted the traditional phrase ‘in the year of our Lord’ on a presidential proclamation.” Wow, that sounds like driving nails right into the hands of Jesus … except that Starnes fails to mention that this proclamation honored “Jewish Heritage Month.” I find the phrase “in the year of our Lord” unnecessary, in any case, but for Jews it makes even less sense, because they don’t consider Jesus “their lord” in the year of reference. The “evidence” in Starnes’ endnote is an article gushing with praise from the Jewish community for Obama’s act of sensitivity to this non-Christian community.
For me, Starnes’ greatest sin (if I may borrow from his constant religious posturing) is that he attacks so many groups and people that are so much weaker than he is. He refers to many of these groups as “bullies” or “bigots,” even when it is he who hurls cruelty and insults. America is overwhelmingly Christian and heterosexual, but to read Starnes, one could believe that he was the last Christian in America and could be murdered any moment by Muslims or atheists. He cites examples where public schoolteachers weren’t able to preach Christianity to schoolchildren. Again, he expends not one drop of ink to ponder the feelings of Jewish, atheist or Buddhist parents. Starnes cannot accept that Americans do not all worships as he does, and his book bubbles with underlying hostility and hate for marginalized groups.
Because I am not Starnes, I can concede when my opposition has found a handful of reasonable examples. There are cases of overreach in political correctness in America, for example, when a valedictorian is forbidden from thanking Jesus in a speech. But there is a difference between a student speaker and a principal who might use his government position to preach to captive students. But even if every single example from the book were true, it still would not prove a war on Christianity. America is a big place, sadly filled with injustice. Innocent people are locked up, discrimination is a reality for many and children go hungry in the “richest” nation on earth. Real, decent Christians would do much more for their faith by ignoring the war on Christianity nonsense and instead working to address injustices in their own neighborhoods. This is the kind of activism Jesus could get behind.
This book proves that the war on Christianity narrative is devoid of merit, yet the Fox News Misinformation Complex continues to peddle it.
Rather than offer a final thought on the book, I instead will take a moment to urge every single thinking person to read this book (and follow the endnotes). Fundamentalist preachers often urge followers to avoid certain books, movies and even people. “Don’t talk to your atheist uncle anymore, because you might struggle in your faith,” one might say. Although this book is a painful read, sensible people must listen to and then combat this deluded thinking, lest American be overrun with 13th century sensibilities. If you get nothing out of it, you will at least learn how not to craft an argument.