The Real Context Of The “Taliban Dan” Ad

Yesterday NPR aired a segment — part of its “Truth Squad-ing” of campaign ads — with PolitiFact, which joined Factcheck.org’s assessment that the “Taliban Dan” ad took Republican challenger Dan Webster’s statements out of context. PolitiFact’s Bill Adair:

The real distortion here is the use of the “submit to me” repeatedly. That’s completely taken out of context. What Webster was talking about in this case was a biblical passage that he was urging husbands not to use. And Grayson has taken that and repeated it as if Webster believes that, so we’ve rated that false on our Truth-o-Meter.

In the ad, about which both Sarah and I have written here and here, Webster is shown repeating a verse from the Bible in which wives are told to submit to their husbands while the voiceover claims that Webster is a religious extremist.

For the record, I do not like the ad. I think throwing around the comparison with the Taliban, like the label “Hitler,” is not constructive for civil discourse and actually weakens the effectiveness of the labels when we really need them.

Still, contrary to both FactCheck.org and PolitiFact’s assessments, Webster’s 2009 talk is actually an excellent example of the point made in the Grayson ad: that Webster holds views that are outside the mainstream. He is unself-conscious about his sense that God is on his side and that God opposes his opponents. And he has aligned himself with organizations and individuals who advocate the application of biblical law to contemporary society, including wives submitting to their husbands.

It is true that Webster’s emphasis in his 2009 talk to a male audience (I have watched a clip which is nearly eleven minutes long) was on the actions the men should take. He was telling them to focus on their own obligations rather than those of their wives. As Kathryn Joyce told Sarah this week, in this view, wives’ obligation to submit to their husbands is actually a mandated obedience to God. When Webster says the “she should submit to me” verses are “in the Bible,” and that women should pray them if they want to, he’s saying they must do so in order to be obedient to God’s word.

Webster only urged his male audience “not to use” the submission verse as their own prayers. Notice that in defending himself against the ad, Webster has not claimed that he does not believe that the appropriate relationship of wives to husbands is submission–only that that was not what he was talking about in the segment. Nor does he argue that the other views in the ad attributed to him are not his.

In his talk, he explains how he picks other Bible verses for particular situations. He explains that he writes a journal in which he asks God at what events he should speak and what offices he should run for. “I write them down because I want God to let me know, should I do those things. . . . I’ve written down, should I run for Governor? . . . . I put a question mark, what that does is tell God: I haven’t decided, I want you to decide for me.”

He picks Bible verses:

for every situation so I’ll know what God’s will is.  For instance. . . . I wanted to became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, several years ago. In order to do that we had to become a majority of the members. And that meant we needed more seats. And in Luke 1:52 it says, “He hath put down the mighty form their seats. . . .” And then I thought about being Speaker. . . . I began praying Psalm 140 verse 11: “Let not an evil speaker be established. . . .”

In 1983 he began praying “a hedge of thorns of protection around the voters of the district that [he] wanted to represent that they would believe the truth.”  After the election he changed the “a hedge of thorns” prayer “that no evil would come upon [his district] and those who desired it would lose interest.” He went on to attribute the fact that he has often run unopposed to God’s intervention as a result of these prayers. 

But even more than these quotes — put entirely in context — Webster has aligned himself with an organization that espouses an orientation to the Bible and its role in civil society that is certainly relevant to his campaign for public office, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its affiliated Advance Training Institute International (ATI). He claims to pray for IBLP founder Bill Gothard “every day,” has traveled with Gothard, has spoken at Gothard’s conferences (2009 and 2010 programs are online), and has contributed to “Wisdom Booklets” training materials that include David Barton and his Christian American history. These include The Light and the Glory, a Christian American history textbook popular in fundamentalist Christian schools and home schools. Webster’s section itself cites Christian Reconstructionist Gary DeMar’s work in “Optional Resources.” 

Over at AlterNet, Bruce Wilson writes that Gothard wanted to use Christian Reconstructionist R.J. Rushdoony’s seminal Institutes of Biblical Law for his programs if it weren’t for their disagreement over divorce. In his post, Wilson focuses too much on the issue of the capital offenses for which some Reconstructionists advocate stoning. That emphasis favors sensationalism over more pressing issues in our political culture — like the fact that this wing of the home school and Christian school movements wants to eliminate public education by replacing it. In the meantime, they want public schools to teach their revisionist Christian history as well as Creationism. (If you think they can’t accomplish that, consider, as Lauri Lebo has documented at RD, the fundamentalist revision of the Texas public school curriculum, and Barton’s role in that.) They believe in an entirely second-class status for women (some believe women shouldn’t vote). They are virulently hostile to gays and lesbians. They believe that any social safety net should be eliminated and replaced by church programs—available only to believers. (And they succeeded in getting an exemption from the health insurance mandate for believers.)

So whether the Grayson ad takes Webster “out of context” or not depends on how big a context you consider. He embraces and works with IBLP, which advocates wives’ Biblical submission to their husbands (something he hasn’t renounced) as well as an entire worldview that is outside the views of mainstream Americans, and which can certainly be considered a threat to religious freedom.

jingerso@unf.edu'

Julie Ingersoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles and is currently writing a book on the influence of Christian Reconstructionism.