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November 12, 2009

Thanks to the Internet, some gullible American Christians can engage in one of their favorite hobbies — digging up the metaphorical corpse of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and rhetorically flogging it — more easily than ever before.

Even though the famous atheist’s body was positively identified in Texas — and even though she apparently has been dead since she disappeared in 1995 — patently false rumors about her alleged anti-Christian campaigns continue to spread. Credulous Christians who once forwarded these kinds of rumors in mimeographed chain letters or spread them on talk radio now can broadcast them around the world with the mere click of a mouse.

And, of course, O’Hair is not alone in the annals of perceived enemies of Christ about whom some Christians will spread the most ridiculous stories, not bothering to do the merest hint of fact-checking on them.

From the old Procter & Gamble Satanism accusations to tales of more recent vintage about President Obama’s faith and citizenship, Internet-fueled rumors seem to run rampant. So why are Christians so willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors? And more troubling, why are Christians, who should hold the highest standards of truth-telling, so eager to spread such rumors?

Christians are not necessarily any more gullible than the population at large — and there’s the rub, said Bill Tillman, T.B. Maston professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene, Texas.

“Their gullibility seems to follow the culture’s levels and channels of gullibility,” he said. “That similarity should give Christians pause to think: If I am no different than the surrounding culture on the treatment of e-mails and communication they carry, with what else am I no different?”

Historically O’Hair is the hands-down favorite target of the Christian rumor mill. Some tales tied to her name have been in circulation for more than a quarter century.

The most pervasive and indestructible O’Hair rumor credits her for a campaign to ban religious broadcasting. It links her to a petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — a petition, the e-mails claim, that if approved would remove all Sunday worship services from radio and television. O’Hair typically is identified in the e-mail as the atheist “whose effort successfully eliminated the use of the Bible reading and prayer from public schools 15 years ago.”

Some versions of the e-mail link the petition to an effort to remove religiously themed television shows, specifically mentioning “Touched by an Angel.”

There indeed once was a petition about religious broadcasting filed with the FCC, but that’s the extent of the truth in this rumor. The petition, RM 2493, was filed nearly 35 years ago — but not by O’Hair, and not to eliminate religious broadcasting. 

According to Snopes.com, a Web site that debunks urban legends, e-mail rumors and other myths, Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam asked the FCC to prevent religious organizations from obtaining licenses to operate radio and TV channels reserved for education.

The petition was not intended to ban all religious broadcasting. The FCC turned down the petition in August 1975. And O’Hair never had anything to do with such a petition.

There are other problems with the latest rumor. O’Hair’s famous court case — in 1964, not 15 years ago — didn’t eliminate Bible reading and prayer from public schools, but rather led to the Supreme Court decision that said government-sanctioned school prayer and school-led, devotional Bible study are unconstitutional.

Moreover the FCC would not have the authority to ban religious broadcasting, since such a rule would blatantly violate the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

But the rumor just won’t die. According to Snopes, the FCC has received at least 30 million letters, faxes or e-mails expressing opposition to this petition since 1974. The only new element in this later incarnation is the mention of “Touched by an Angel.” Laying aside any curiosity about why anyone would be bothered by the cancellation of a TV show that’s been off the air six years, there remains the problem of how someone who’s been dead for nearly 15 years could testify before the FCC.

But O’Hair’s posthumous powers really shouldn’t surprise us. Labeled by Life magazine in 1964 as “the most hated woman in America,” O’Hair is considered enough of an enemy by many Christians that they are willing to believe just about anything about her. The advent of the Internet only made the rumors easier to spread and harder to correct.

Rumors like the ones tied to O’Hair become more powerful when they tap into the hostility and distrust toward government that is widespread among conservative Christians. It’s easy for the average evangelical to believe any rumor that fits this larger political paradigm. Some Christians are so willing to believe rumors that reflect well on their heroes and poorly on their opponents that they abandon even a modest concern for the veracity of the rumors. Yet the Bible clearly prohibits “bearing false witness” and spreading rumors and gossip.

Tillman called on Christians to examine their biases and prejudices, which forces Christians to explore the influences that shaped them.

“I suggest to my students, ‘Tell me something about your fears, and I will tell you something of your theology,’” Tillman said. “Dealing with our fears — an action usually dismissed or ignored — may be one of the keys to understanding just which e-mails we forward and those we don’t.”

David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, agreed Christians who spread tall tales by e-mail reflect a significant slice of American culture and act out of deep emotion.

“Certainly many Christians seem attracted to conspiracy theories and urban myths and these mass e-mails that propagate them,” he said. “But I am not sure if that is because they are Christian or because they are just Americans of a certain type — people who feel angry about the way the world is, who feel alienated from ‘elite culture,’ who feel embattled by cultural trends that they cannot control and do not at all like, and who often feel looked down upon by those with more education or higher social status.”

The key to confronting such bad habits among Christians is proper spiritual formation on the ethics of truth-telling, gossip and rumor-spreading, experts said.

“Congregations should nourish true spiritual friendships — relationships in which others will love us enough to instruct and correct us,” said Robert Kruschwitz, director of Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics in Waco, Texas. “If we are gullible, we need some help to sort out the nonsense we should question from the truth that we should spread. … If we are fearful and envious, just too quick to gossip or criticize, we need that deep love that calms our fears and removes the need to impress others. That love comes from God through Christ, but the Holy Spirit often communicates it to us through our good spiritual friends.”

Tillman said Christians should learn the “put off” and “put on” pattern of behavior the apostle Paul taught in Colossians 3.

“With the ‘put off’ side of his guidelines, he told the early Christians to put away vices, one of the primary ones being gossip. … That term, by the way, is understood off the pages of the New Testament as tale-bearing, tattling, slandering — the acts which should not be attached to any Christian,” he said.

Gushee pointed to New Testament principles such as loving one’s neighbor and one’s perceived enemy, not participating in gossip and not judging others.

“In general, we need to help Christians act like Christians in public life and not just in private life, and not to get sucked into the polarization, partisan idolatry and demonization so common now in media and government,” Gushee said.

Then maybe Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s body can rest in peace. ABP)

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