Blacklist to starboard: conspiracy theorists of the right and left
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I first read this book in 1993, and dismissed it as the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. Most of the conspiracy theorist books I’ve read have been written by right-wing types who fear a vast left-wing conspiracy, and they were books that I was given to review, and usually found they had little merit. One author who is known for such books is Ian Greig, who wrote a book with Harold Soref called The puppeteers, which led to the authors being successfully sued for libel by Christian Action in Britain. Another that comes to mind is Traitor’s end by Nathaniel Weyl.
Paul Gifford‘s book is a bit unusual in that the author apparently has left-wing sympathies, and rants about right-wing conspiracies. Much of it seems just as prone to jumping to conclusions and adding 2+2 to make 5 as the right-wing conspiracy theorists who see the threat as coming from the left.
Why did I re-read it now, if I thought it so bad 17 years ago?
The reason is that I’m writing a book on the history of the charismatic renewal movement in Southern Africa, and I remembered that Gifford’s book had some information that is hard to find elsewhere, and also to see if recent developments had validated his thesis in any way. In the last 17 years, for example, there has been a huge growth in Neopentecostal churches proclaiming the prosperity gospel, so much so that they are perceived as a threat by traditional African Independent Churches (AICs).
Gifford first examines American Christianity, and basically, according to him Evangelical + Fundamentalist + Charismatic = The Religious Right. He acknowledges that there are some exceptions, but lumps everything else together in a way that seems calculated to tar everyone with the same brush, which is a typical tactic of conspiracy theorists.
He then does the same thing with South Africa and Latin America, and then moves on to repeat it for Zimbabwe.
I have no doubt that there is a real Religious Right, both in the USA and in South Africa. The trouble is that Gifford does not devote much space to it, and his simplistic approach means that one has to work quite hard to sort out hard information from the disinformation in which he packs it.
Gifford’s approach reminds me of a satirical comic book by Walt Kelly, The Jack Acid Society Black Book. The Jack Acid Society, like the John Birch Society which it satirises, is compiling a black list of all the communist sympathisers among the inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. Two characters, the cowbirds, are known communists, and demand to know why they are blacklisted from the black list. The compilers of the black list, Deacon Mushrat and Molester Mole, explain that it is a list of suspects, and the cowbirds are not suspects, but are known communists, and so there is no place for them on a list of suspects.
Paul Gifford seems to adopt the same approach. He briefly mentions Arthur Lewis, an Anglican priest in Smith’s Rhodesia, whose Rhodesia Christian Group undoubtedly represented the Religious Right, but devotes much more space to organisations like World Vision, which may have had individual members with right-wing views (though I suspect that the hard Right would steer clear of them and despise them for being bleeding heart liberalists), but as a group claimed to be a-political.
He also briefly mentions Ed Cain in South Africa, whose Christian League of Southern Africa likewise represented the real Religious Right, and which was considerably further to the right than the National Party government. The Christian League’s newpaper Encounter received subsidies from Department of Information slush funds, and the former head of the Department of Information, Connie Mulder, broke away from the National Party to form the far-right Conservative Party.
Encounter was an interesting paper, in that it cited with approval people with diametrically opposed theological views, as long as their political views were suitably right wing.
Gifford, however, fails to mention Francis Grim, another prominent figure of the South African Religious Right, whose booklets An ideology for South Africa and Pray or perish were widely circulated. It was quite clear that the central feature of the gospel preached by Grim was that salvation from communism was far more significant than salvation from sin, or the world, the flesh and the devil, except insofar as the devil was located in the Moscow Kremlin.
The groups that Gifford mentions as representing the Religious Right in Zimbabwe are Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth With a Mission (YWAM), the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI), Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, World Vision International, Christ for all Nations (CFaN), the Rhema Bible Church, and the Unification Church (Moonies).
In research for my book, one of the things I am trying to discover is why the charismatic renewal movement in southern Africa began to disintegrate after 1980. One possibility is that the rise of the Religious Right in the USA affected it. Unfortunately Gifford’s simplistic approach is of no help in this — for him, all these organisations are part of one vast right-wing conspiracy.
So I read the book, make notes, and realise that I am going to have to continue looking for more reliable information in less tendentious sources.
An additional note to the blog version of this review.
It might be argued that, in comparing Gifford’s book with the works of right-wing conspiracy theorists like Soref and Greig, I am guilty of the same smear tactic that I accuse Gifford of using — imputing guilt by association.
And I must plead guilty to the charge, and also acknowledge that Gifford does try to qualify some of his more far-fetched accusations more than Soref and Greig do, though he usuallly nullifies it in the following paragraph by writing as if his previously qualification makes no difference to the organisation converned being part of a great right-wing conspiracy.
The moral of the story is, of course, that one should read books like Gifford’s critically, and reviews like mine no less critically.