Professor's first book focuses on the world of Christian right radio
In 1994, when Cornell graduate student Paul Apostolidis was looking for the precise dissertation topic that would combine his interests in politics and religion, include contemporary political events, and also have a serious philosophical element, his thoughts turned to the Christian right. When he started talking to scholars observing the Christian right, they said, "Study Dobson."
Six years later, assistant professor of politics Apostolidis sits in his office at Whitman College discussing the result of his foray into the world of James Dobson's Christian right radio talk show Focus on the Family. Apostolidis's dissertation-turned-book, Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio, was published this fall by Duke University Press. The culmination of five years of research, writing, and editing, Stations of the Cross examines the complex world of contemporary conservative religious culture and how it mirrors the contradictory nature of American political society.
The standard way for scholars to define the Christian right and its political importance, Apostolidis notes, is to say the Christian right is a movement that mobilizes people to vote a certain way and to demand of their legislators specific outcomes on public policy issues, such as denying gays' civil rights, banning abortions, and allowing school prayer. But, he continues, "I see the political significance as broader. I'm asking how the movement as a cultural phenomenon helps to legitimate the major institutions of our political economy." This means seeing Christian right radio as "ideology" in a Marxist sense, and Apostolidis employed the ideas of early critical theory, especially those of Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, to illuminate the political and social dynamics of contemporary American culture.
He applied Adorno's theories and methods to analyzing Focus on the Family, a syndicated conservative Christian talk show that is broadcast on more than a thousand radio stations nationwide. "Dobson confronts a variety of issues, some of which are commonly identified with fundamentalists (e.g. abortion) and some of which are not (e.g. health care), but not much had been written about the political significance of Focus because Dobson rarely tries directly to influence elections and public policy as do other Christian right organizations, such as the Christian Coalition." Apostolidis monitored the show for a year, transcribing and intensively studying 80 episodes of the daily half-hour radio show.
He found a consistent religious narrative which is, he says, the key to the program's political narrative. "I was hearing the same story over and over again even though the guests were different and the topics were different — one show would be on abortion, another on welfare, another on health care, another on Jesus — the narrative frame was the same. The main characters had a self-contradictory composition. On the one hand they were filled with love and compassion, with humility and forgiveness; they embodied gospel values. On the other hand there were definite limits beyond which this compassion, humility, and forgiveness did not extend, and then what was left was simply a list of fundamentalist orders that you conform to certain defined norms or roles regardless of the originally proclaimed gospel values." It was very contradictory, said Apostolidis, and the question it brought to mind was, "Why do people credit this program with so much truth if there is this manifest contradiction?"
In looking for an answer to this question, Apostolidis studied the relationship between the radio show stories featuring "compassionate professionals" (played by Dobson or his guests) and the contemporary welfare state. From Apostolidis's point of view, the contradictions in the statements of the "compassionate professional" character reflect the same contradictions that exist in the broader sphere of social institutions that are supposed to aid the poor, provide health care, and meet other human needs. For example, President Clinton and Hillary Clinton talked in the 1990s of creating a compassionate nation committed to leaving no one behind in providing health care and child care. "The harsh reality is that President Clinton, with the support of Democratic and Republican leaders, including Al Gore and George W. Bush, signed into law "reforms" — especially welfare reforms — that made America a much less compassionate society."
"We want to see the Christian right as an anomaly, but it's not. Our culture produced that culture. It reflects what is going on in the mainstream of American society far more than we want to admit," concludes Apostolidis. The Christian right, he maintains, far from being an "extremist" force, actually reinforces mainstream society's tendencies toward a less equal society — supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. According to the critical theorist Adorno, however, the fact that religious narrative can reflect political economic contradictions may have implications that the Christian right would not find desirable, and that counteract these tendencies. This means that listening carefully and critically to Focus on the Family could actually help Americans think critically about the many contradictions in their own society — the society that created the Christian right.
In actuality, Apostolidis said, he doubts that many of Dobson's loyal listeners have such critical thoughts, but the fact that it is possible for them to do so suggests that religion — even in a mass media form — can still contribute much to challenging inequality in America today.
What Apostolidis saw, heard, and learned in his ground-breaking research appears in black and white on the 219 pages of his thought-provoking look inside the world of James Dobson, the Christian right, and the American public.