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The Information Super Yahweh

I recently received a message from an online services provider which specializes in forwarding prayer requests to God through the Internet.
Joel Schalit

Issue #24, February 1996

Fellowship has always been a key part of Christianity. Today's technology gives Christians an additional way to fellowship and communicate with one another. With the increasing number of churches and Christian homes having computers, an important resource for ministry and fellowship is computer online services.
— Bob Dasal, Christianity Online
It is not in these linguistic forms that reality is to be found, even if beauty still lingers in their midst. Rather, following the course taken by truth, reality has sought refuge in a language whose form and categorical material expresses the awareness that the essential events today are playing themselves out on profane ground."
— Siegfried Kracauer, "The Bible In German"

Saved By Technology

I recently received a message from an online services provider which specializes in forwarding prayer requests to God through the Internet. According to the letter, for the mere price of ten dollars I could send an e-mail to the Almighty through my modem. This service would convert my prayer request into speech, then project it up into the heavens, directly into God's own ear. Why I was chosen to receive such a divine privilege is still ambiguous. Perhaps I've been visiting too many Evangelical web sites lately. But then again, maybe such sites are so becoming so prevalent that detecting their presence on the Internet is simply unavoidable. One thing is clear: if progressives truly want to make technological innovations conform to their vision of a just society, they better start getting acquainted with the Religious Right's forays into cyberspace. There was a time at which right-wing forces looked to the left for cutting-edge tactics. Now progressives must look to the right to see how the latest technology can be made to serve political ends.

The new religious presence in cyberspace represents a deliberate effort on the part of Evangelical and extremist Protestant political organizations to take advantage of the potential of the Internet for missionary activity, consensus building, and political education. The Religious Right's portion of virtual reality is divided up into two principle areas: more mainstream outlets, including a wide range of magazines, news services and discussion groups that are carried by America Online and Compuserve such as Christianity Online and the Christian Interactive Network; and World Wide Web pages, which tend to be more explicitly partisan and activism-oriented such as those run by the Christian Coalition, Christian Identity and Scriptures For America.

Unlike offline Evangelical broadcasting, where one encounters more traditionally mainstream conservative opinions, religious online services and web pages provide us with a sampling of the entire spectrum of Evangelical politics. For example, in the Religion and Ethics forum on AOL, Elder Ronald Schoedel of Christian Identity frequently contributes pro-Nazi tracts dismissing the Holocaust and anti-Semitic 'Jew World Order' conspiracy theories, adding to the traditional stew of homophobic, pro-life and family values literature we tend to associate with the Christian Coalition. If you've ever wondered how far a leap it would be for an Evangelical talk show host to move from gay-bashing to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, here's your opportunity to witness the logical continuum of conservative Christian politics. It didn't used be so transparent.

The openness to all forms of communication supposed to inhere in the Internet has allowed traditional religious broadcasters to continue to break the taboos that liberalism historically imposed on conservative programming. As early as the 1940's, Theodor Adorno wrote that it was difficult to discern the Fascist politics of radio ministers because American democratic ideology had evolved certain prohibitions. He theorized that breaking these prohibitions might jeopardize the subversive activities of pro-Fascist preachers of that era such as the pioneering radio minister Father Charles Coughlin. The twenty years since the end of the Vietnam War have witnessed a discrediting of liberalism that has made these prohibitions obsolete. The collapse of the welfare state and the rise of violent anti-statist protest movements have played a major role in eroding the institutional basis of liberal taboos originally attacked by the student movements of the 1960s. Those liberal taboos have been supplanted by a discursive ideology of free expression perfectly in step with the new base of economic production, information technology. The degree to which individuals communicate among themselves, and the politicization of contemporary broadcasting is a direct reflection of the productivity and growth of the new market under present political conditions.

The openness which we associate with Internet communications has nothing to do with the physical medium of cyberspace itself. If this openness reflects anything, it is the breakdown of American democracy and its concurrent Enlightenment ideologies of free speech and social tolerance. Much of what we mistakenly attribute to the frankness of communications on the Internet is already present in other broadcast mediums such as talk radio, television and rock and roll. The reactionary, common-sense populism of talk radio hosts preceded the 'ideal speech situation' we call the Internet by a long shot. Rush Limbaugh, Bob Larson and like-minded radio personalities have been hosting inflammatory talk shows for years. Just because the Clinton administration decided to wage a smear campaign against right wing organizations who publish their opinions on the Internet after the Oklahoma bombing doesn't mean that the political potential of cyberspace is anything new. The real problem is that the Internet adds new layers of right-wing propaganda to a media landscape already saturated by it.

Before we attribute utopian possibilities for communication to the Internet, we ought to stop to consider why people seem to be expressing themselves more openly these days. The creeping illness we call the religious media, its increasing visibility and influence, is inseparable from the new openness we attribute to American media culture in general. Like all other aspects of popular culture, contemporary religious broadcasting is symptomatic of a collective nervous breakdown that makes us want to scream. The emergence of formerly suppressed discourses like those of the Religious Right must be read as one aspect of a collective call for help accompanying the demise of liberalism. The Religious Right stands out only because it has been particularly successful at filling the void left in liberalism's wake. Its ability to take advantage of all the propagandistic opportunities offered by the new communications technologies is an indication of this success.

This use of the latest technology for reactionary purposes has a strong precedent in the history of Western civilization. As Walter Benjamin once stated, religion persists despite the advent of mass production because the fragmentation late capitalism creates in our lives forces us to find ways of preserving some sense of transcendence in the face of modern industry's secularizing impulses. In the religious colonization of the Internet we see the very same process at work: the democratic promise of the new communications infrastructure is overcome by religion's ability to reproduce ritual values in cyberspace. Like Fascism, the religious need to postulate an indivisible unity between man and God can only be satisfied if the distance between man and technology can be eliminated through the partisan politics of civil wartime.

But the Evangelical baptism of the Internet goes deeper than that. According to Scripture, God created the world out of speech. If the history of Christian broadcasting is any indicator, the Religious Right wants to redefine politics out of language. This is a frightening historical coincidence because cyberspace allows Christians to create virtual reality out of the same raw material that God created nature. The only difference is that the Religious Right is now using the raw material of language to achieve dominance in an information-based economy. When contemplating what kind of future the Christian Coalition has in store for us, we would do well to reflect on the virtual model that the Evangelical community has already built alongside the information superhighway. Judging from the inadequate liberal response to this impending return to paradise, the closure of the gap between the digital and the natural will be overcome very soon.


Virtual Democracy

The current celebration of the Internet's potential to permit transparent communication between alienated subjects perfectly illustrates how badly the burnt-out shell of liberal ideology deals with technological innovation. This ideology presupposes that technology will liberate us from an undemocratic reality where it is impossible to speak freely to one another. According to this ideology, the Internet opens up vast possibilities for overcoming the social differences and class conflicts which we experience in everyday life because cyberspace disguises us from one another in the act of communication. Steve Jobs suggests that this has to do with the democratic nature of the Internet. According to Jobs, web pages illustrate cyberspace's democratic nature because they give individuals the ability to create personalized home pages as large and elegant as that of any multinational corporation.

The liberal doctrine of social equality has never been so aesthetic. Equal home pages have become the same thing as equal wages. Because we are able to represent ourselves as equals in cyberspace we can now overcome class differences in our everyday lives. In effect, Jobs reduces the post-capitalist vision of utopia to the mechanical will of technology. Such visions of post-industrial society acknowledge our incapacity to will a better world into existence. In its search to find a new institutional infrastructure, liberalism takes root in the minds of technocrats like Jobs who turn the Internet into a museum in their quest to recreate the disintegrating social conditions that gave rise to the Enlightenment vision of social equality.

In a recent issue of Wired, Maurice Berger argues that the Internet provides us with the possibility for opening up a real conversation about racial issues because it forces individuals to speak candidly about political problems such as racism. As a social space free from the constraints of society and tradition, on-line discourse offers the possibility of resolving social conflicts by allowing us to observe how it is we really think and feel about one another. In other words, it helps us see racist language, for example, "for the bullshit it really is when spelled out onscreen."

Berger takes it for granted that heavenly bodies are always projections of imperfect earthly ones. This is unfortunate, because in an ideal world all forms of reactionary discourse would be emptied of their supposed truth content by the force of a better argument. The belief that racism could be overcome through speech is a sign of frustration over our inability to concretely resolve such problems within the context of everyday life. The social basis for such abstract resolutions of real political problems is a characteristic feature of liberal cyber-ideology.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein accidentally defines this form of consciousness as one in which we are free to define ourselves performatively because the ahistorical content of cyberspace allows us to create a virtual society without precedent. He suggests that in such a world it would be possible to overcome problems of race and class because cyberspace allows us to discursively redefine society without recourse to the forms of identification conferred upon us by history.

This new ideology of freedom is an alienated expression of the emancipatory possibilities inherent in communications technology. During the transition to a post-industrial economy individual identities have to be free to reconfigure themselves to cope with the new information-based mode of production. Searching for something to hold onto is not easy. We have to be able to linguistically reinvent ourselves in order to be recognizable as citizens. By redefining ourselves as a discursive citizenry we empower ourselves with a kind of symbolic capital that we need to survive in an economy in which language has become the raw material of production.

What is lost in the continuous struggle to adapt to new modes of production is the memory of how we are constituted by historical forces which anticipated such monoliths as the information superhighway. In our celebration of the Internet, we forget to remember what it is about technology that is so old and dangerous. Religious online services, bulletin boards and web pages are a case in point. Faxing God the text of our spoken prayers in order to alleviate our real, this-worldly suffering is only the tip of the iceberg. No matter how much individuals convinced of the Internet's potential strive to escape history, they will always be confronted with forces like the Religious Right that want to make new technology subservient to a particular vision of history.

The liberal view that communications technology is a vehicle for consciousness-raising is shared by the Religious Right. Whereas the liberal community sees cyberspace as an image of the ideal polis, the religious right has turned cyberspace into an effective means for advancing the construction of a technological theocracy. Perhaps it's because the weight of history is on their side. Regrettably, so is the meaning of communications technology. Unlike the left, the religious community has spent over a half a century perfecting its use of electronic broadcasting to achieve its hegemony. This should not be forgotten. When politics appears to have been driven so far right that we accept Republican claims that National Public Radio and The New York Times constitute the leftist counterpart to the New Right's media apparatus we have declared defeat before even beginning to battle.

The problem is that liberals have carried over their naive commitment to ethical neutrality to the Internet without recognizing that the social basis for being objectively confronted by facts has never existed. When information is the new Platonic form of capital, there is nothing neutral about its content: truth is always partisan. What is so disturbing about Jobs' notion of virtual equality is that it confines human agency to the level of representation. This leaves liberals subject to the tyranny of information. The Religious Right is able to avoid this problem because it is able to contextualize technological change within an all-encompassing cultural narrative derived from Scripture. If the left simply learned to contextualize its deification of technology within a historical context, it would cease to project its own repressed desire for social equality onto the very technologies the Religious Right is using to defeat it.

Turning Modems Into Swords

The key to unlocking the success of Evangelical propaganda in cyberspace is to view it as a text designed to spur the believer into action. The agitational methods employed by Internet ministers are fairly sophisticated because, unlike religious radio and television programming, Evangelical web pages are fairly straightforward in their depiction of the hidden agenda we often detect in off-line ministers employment of phrases like "forces of darkness," or "there's a war going on between the children of light and the armies of evil." For example, The Christian Coalition posts excerpts from scholarly texts such as Robert McAfee Brown's Religion and Violence where the author delineates the components of Catholic "just war" doctrine in seemingly neutral terms:

  1. The war must be declared by a legitimate authority.
  2. A war cannot be just if it is waged with the wrong intention, such as the desire to secure vengeance or to satisfy lust for domination.
  3. The war must be undertaken only as a last resort.
  4. The war must be waged on the basis of proportionality.
  5. The war must have a reasonable chance of success.
  6. The war must be waged with all moderation possible.

This hyperlink proceeds to summarize Brown's account of the history of Christian violence beginning with the recruitment of Christians into the Legion Fulminata in the second century, proceeding to the Crusades, and ending with a summary of Jenny Teichman's Pacifism and Just War, in which she discusses the clerical justification for killing unbelievers despite the prohibitions placed on priests and monks who engage in acts of violence. The purpose of posting this excerpt is clear. Within the context of the Christian Coalition's activities, it responds to the theological soul-searching going on in Evangelical America's conscience as right-wing Christians try to justify the use of violence against abortion clinics and, more broadly, the secular state.

While refusing to explicitly endorse the use of violence in constructing a theocratic society, the Christian Coalition helps Fundamentalist net surfers see that there are legitimate historical precedents for Christians taking up arms against the state. Such acts must have adequate theological justification. The deeper meaning of this list of justifications for religious violence is chilling. Its presence unconsciously admits that a war is going on in American society in which Christians must consider taking sides.

There are no ambiguous references to abstract demonic forces or racist innuendoes designed to facilitate a feeling of in-group solidarity among the faithful. What we get instead is an implicit acknowledgment by the Christian Coalition that it condones violent means of seeking power despite its commitment to participating in democratic party politics. The fact that the Christian Coalition is positioning itself in a leadership role for such purposes is very revealing, especially when we recall that Brown states that 'the war must be declared by a legitimate authority.' The Christian Coalition wants its web page readers to know that it is the vanguard of the new Evangelical insurrection.

In light of the proliferation of Christian militia organizations throughout the country this suggests that there might be more coordination between these nationalist groups than is ever publicly disclosed. Conversely, the implication that the Christian Coalition has the theological right to leadership of such a struggle may also be an attempt to draw in those disenfranchised Christians who belong to organizations like White Aryan Resistance which regard the Christian Coalition with suspicion for being too friendly to Jews and big business. Maybe Pat Robertson needs better-trained shock troops than inept Presbyterian ministers and rural Oregon housewives who always get caught killing doctors.

For those of us who are prone to dismissing such right-wing literature as a corrupt politicization of a tradition which preaches an ideology of love, Internet ministers such as Pastor Pete Peters of Scriptures For America proudly declare that such politics articulate the heart of the Gospel message. In a tract entitled "The Bible: Handbook For Survivalists, Racists, Tax Protesters and Right-Wing Extremists," Peters argues that the Christian rhetoric of charity and forgiveness is in fact a distortion of the true gospel message because in reality "God is no respecter of persons." Peters proceeds to explain that the archetype for the right-wing Christian is found in such characters as Noah, the proto-survivalist whom God told to build an ark in order to survive, and Phineas who was an avowed "Bigot And A Racist," who heeded God's prohibition on race mixing and interreligious marriages. Peters proceeds to find other examples in the Bible to support his contention that the political theory of Christianity is inherently conservative, particularly when it comes to providing legitimation for racism.

While many Christians would go to great pains to distinguish themselves from populist theologians such as Peters, both the Scriptures For America and The Christian Coalition homepages illustrate how the new religious conservatism is drawing upon a fairly faithful reading of Scripture to justify its reactionary politics. It appears that the Religious Right reduces Scripture to the status of a Christian version of Mein Kampf. Still, we must remember that history is filled with examples of people mining complex and ambiguous traditions for their worst qualities. Just because those traditions have also provided the impetus for outstanding humanitarians and progressive activists does not make them immune to reactionary appropriation. Indeed, in this respect religious tradition is an awful lot like technology. What must trouble us is that the version of the Gospel with which we are now contending in cyberspace is simultaneously its most authoritarian and dangerous one.

The significance of the Religious Right's presence on the Internet comes as a surprise to those of us who assume that cyberspace represents a post-historical world where we can recreate ourselves independent of history, tradition and society. The Evangelical colonization of the Internet disproves such blissful illusions. Organizations like The Christian Coalition are dragging the Internet down into the muck we call history. Hopefully, once the transition period to the new mode of production is over and the Internet becomes more prevalent in our everyday lives, we'll stop imbuing it with the kinds of utopian aspirations for self-realization and justice with which liberal ideology currently endows it. If liberals keep thinking of the Internet as an end, not a means, they will succumb even faster to the onslaught of right-wing forces using cyberspace to speed up the Kingdom of God's arrival on earth.

Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. student in the Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University in Canada. He is also a member of the leftist montage 'band' The Christal Methodists, famous for cranking up the heat on right-wing religious broadcasters. For more information on his work on the contemporary Religious Right or his efforts with The Christal Methodists, you can contact him at the following Internet address: