Commentary: Don’t Trust Reporting on Christianity

From Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of two landmark events of American popular culture: the assassination of pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, and the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple cult.

If you remember anything about the mass suicide, it’s probably that cult leader Jim Jones was a fundamentalist Christian demon whose Bible-thumping berated brainwashed followers into drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Harvey Milk, by contrast, is a folk hero. The San Francisco supervisor became a gay-rights saint because he was martyred by a right-wing fanatic.

That’s the received history in both cases. But according to author Daniel Flynn, it’s scarcely truth at all, but rather propaganda. And the way history remembers these men and the time and place that made them offers a dire warning to us today.

Flynn’s new book Cult City: Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and 10 Days That Shook San Francisco (ISI Books) is a bold, at times shocking work of revisionist history that challenges what we think we know about both men and the murderous events that brought them to national prominence.

Flynn reveals that Jones was in fact a socialist fanatic who, far from the theological and cultural fringes, was a key player in left-wing San Francisco politics. Flynn also shows that Milk was an opportunist and a showboater who was willing to use extremist rhetoric — and in one case, indulge in outing — to advance his political career. His assassin was not a homicidal homophobe, but a hotheaded former political ally furious over Milk’s political betrayal.


[Rod Dreher interviewing Flynn:] I was a kid when the Jonestown mass suicide took place, and always assumed that Jim Jones was some kind of fundamentalist Christian. In fact, he and his Peoples Temple were very much the opposite. What were they really about? 

[Flynn:] I had the same experience. I write about it briefly in the acknowledgments. Perhaps we both thought that because media initially reported this Bible-thumping Jim Jones as fact, and that first draft of history stuck.

The New York Times, for instance, described Jones’s preaching as “fundamentalist Christianity” immediately after the tragedy. They knew better. A.M. Rosenthal, the managing editor of the paper, several years earlier ridiculed the first expose on the Temple by a religion writer in the San Francisco Examiner, explaining to a Temple member: “We do expect to be attacked by people like Lester Kinsolving and others who have political axes to grind.”

In reality, Peoples Temple used the trappings of Pentecostal Christianity to win over large numbers of people to socialism. Jim Jones ridiculed the Bible, stomped on it in front of his flock, and instructed his followers to use it as toilet paper when their supply of the luxury ran out in Jonestown. The rest that Temple survivors told me about this really dropped my jaw.

The Nation stood as one of the few outlets to accurately report on Peoples Temple’s outlook in the aftermath of the tragedy. “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church,” the weekly noted. “In the course of the 1970s, its social program grew steadily more disaffected from what Jim Jones came to regard as a ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies.”

Not that many Christian readers need a reminder, but it is this sort of information that serves to reinforce the fact that you simply cannot believe any initial reporting on Christian issues. In a culture war environment–and this environment has existed since at least the 1960s–it is impossible to take at face-value any reporting about a controversial issue like Christianity. Why? Because in too many cases, events that can be used as a weapon to discredit or harm Christianity, will be used as a weapon to do. Winning takes precedence over truth. Of course, this does not mean that you cannot trust the reporting once it is checked and verified, but it does mean that you should view any reporting on Christianity and Christian issues with a solid amount of initial suspicion and skepticism. It’s the only wise way to act in today’s climate.

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