This Sunday, leaders of the Christian Right will gather at a Nashville church to stage a live televised rally in support of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The event is known as "Justice Sunday II: God Save the United States and this Honorable Court!" and features such luminaries as James Dobson, Tom DeLay, and Zell Miller. Religion scholar Jeff Sharlet tells Brooke that you have to peel away a lot of rhetoric to understand the organizers' real intent.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This Sunday some of the Christian rights biggest names are gathering at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville to rally in support of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The event, nationally telecast to churches and broadcast on Christian cable and satellite networks, is known as "Justice Sunday II: God Save the United States and this Honorable Court!" Faithful listeners may remember the first Justice Sunday back in April, dubbed "Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith." This weekend's sequel features such luminaries as Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, former Senator Zell Miller, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and MC Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council. For a preview of the big event, we phoned Jeff Sharlet, research scholar of NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He says we should expect an evening of speeches heavy on rhetoric about one of the Christian Right's favorite themes.
JEFF SHARLET: Which is the idea that Christians in America are an embattled, victimized minority. And in this case, since they have John Roberts as a hero, they have a sort of a single man who is battling against the odds. They have a character for the narrative. It's been framed by Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council as really the sort of mother of all battles. And there's an emphasis constantly that this will directly affect you in your life for the rest of your life. Tony Perkins himself has said that this is the biggest fight Family Research Council has really taken on during his career.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned Tony Perkins. Justice Sunday II seems to be his baby. And he's the president of the Family Research Council. So who is this guy? And--what about the Family Research Council?
JEFF SHARLET: Well, the Family Research Council is very closely related to Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family. It sort of grew out of Dobson's work in 1983. Tony Perkins is a former Louisiana state legislator who really made his name in the Christian Right by getting passed in Louisiana a law called the Covenant Marriage Law. And this is a law to make divorce extremely difficult. So he used that to try and catapult himself to the U.S. Senate in 2002, was unsuccessful, and as a consolation prize got the helm of the Family Research Council. In three years he's proven a very skillful organizer. The idea is to politicize the church. That's very explicitly the project. And they've been terrific at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet the media machine that was developed by Perkins is different from that of James Dobson, head of Focus of the Family. And that sensibility is reflected in Justice Sunday II.
JEFF SHARLET: Absolutely. James Dobson's Focus on the Family has a tremendous radio network, publications and so on. And the primary consumers are women and mothers. Whereas the Family Research Council, if you even look at their self presentation, it's a much sterner presentation. It's burgundy colors, the kind of colors you might find in a traditional man's den or study; this is much more oriented toward a male sensibility, toward pastors. Justice Sunday II, in a sense, is a program that is being developed for pastors of local churches who will then organize their churches. I asked a representative of Family Research Council, I said did you have a real sense that a lot of legislators watched this, and do you think that's going to happen again. And she said to me that that wasn't so important, because the last time pastors watched the show, got their churches involved. Their churches called their congressmen, their senators, and a week or two later Family Research Council is hearing back from these legislators saying okay, you've got our attention. And right now you can already get something called the Senate Action Pack from Family Research Council. And after Justice Sunday they're going to encourage everybody to buy Save the Court kits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess we can follow up simply by finding out how many of these message packs they've sent out.
JEFF SHARLET: That will be a good measure of success. But there is a lot of spin and turns of how effective this is, because they can't advertise that this is targeted to pastors. They need to emphasize the populism of it. And you see that even in the music, the music of the promotions; it's almost like they're announcing a wrestling bout. Justice Sunday II, calling it number II like that, like a sequel to a movie. All of this is designed to sort of put out the idea that this is almost summer entertainment. This is a blockbuster. [JUSTICE SUNDAY II PROMOTION SOUNDTRACK]:
ANNOUNCER: Justice Sunday is back. Now the Supreme Court is on the line. (MUSIC, SOFT DRUMBEATS) The President's shaped policy for a few years. But Supreme Court justices impact our culture for generations. Watch Justice Sunday II, and let your voice be heard on Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.
JEFF SHARLET: Now, of course, it has this focused audience that they're really trying to get to. But they want everyone to think hey, this is for me. Everything's going to be in the second person: "You, what you can do, how you can be involved." When I spoke to the Family Research Council I said how did you measure the success of Justice Sunday I. And they were a little squishy on how they measured their success. They trumpeted the 61 million homes that had seen Justice Sunday I.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we know that that number is a bit misleading. That's how many houses were reached--
JEFF SHARLET: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --not necessarily how many people tuned in.
JEFF SHARLET: Exactly. And it's hard to know whether that's a deliberate misstatement. I asked them to clarify, and they repeated 61 million homes. And I said surely you mean 61 million homes were able to see it. And they said well, that's the number we have, we were given 61 million homes--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's our story, and we're sticking to it.
JEFF SHARLET: That's their story, and they're sticking to it. And I think they recognize [LAUGHS] that there is going to be a certain number of media outlets who are going to buy that story and publicize it [LAUGHS] without recognizing that that means almost everyone in America watched Justice Sunday, which of course, was not the case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it's really for the organizers, not necessarily for the grassroots. So it doesn't matter whether they reach 61 million or 6 million.
JEFF SHARLET: I think 6 million would be just fine, and I think 6 million would have, as they want it to, a tremendous impact on politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Jeff, thank you so much.
JEFF SHARLET: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Sharlet is a research scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, and editor of the website therevealer.org.