A dominant feature of fundamentalism is the martyr complex. No matter what power and influence you have, and no matter that your religious convictions represent the majority of the population, you are a victim, standing defiant in the face of the the Satanic horde, your flag held high and your convictions strong in the face of overwhelming forces trying to vanquish you. It’s a compelling narrative, and for many it’s the self-image they maintain even as they use their own privileges and power to force others to live by their convictions on others, yelling “help, help, I’m being oppressed” while doing so.
A screaming ball of fundie paranoia, Todd Starnes is perhaps the leading propagandist for the myth that Christians are persecuted in the US today. Starnes sees persecution wherever he looks, and regardless of what he is actually looking at – he has a narrative to construct, and everything is interpreted to fit that narrative. Accordingly, Starnes finds a lot of persecution: more or less everything Starnes disagrees with, including separation of church and state and the fact that people with actual power may have different religious beliefs than him, Todd Starnes, turns out to be, ultimately, scandalous and shocking persecution of not only him, but all true Christians. Indeed, everyone who disagrees with him on anything seem to be persecuting him and/or the Christians he represents. There is, according to Starnes, a war on Christianity going on, and Christians are the face of this generation’s civil rights movement. But the road to victory will be hard: “We are going to see, within our lifetime, an attempt to outlaw or criminalize parts of the Bible,” says Starnes; if you ask for evidence or reason you haven’t remotely understood what’s going on here.
Todd Starnes is otherwise a columnist, commentator, author and radio host, a long-time guest on Fox and Friends and Hannity, and from 2017 until 2019 the host of a syndicated talk radio show on Fox News Radio – he was apparently fired from Fox News and all affiliates in October 2019 after endorsing the idea that American Democrats worship the pagan god Moloch. It wasn’t his first time getting in trouble with the media outlets employing him: In 2003, Starnes was let go by the Baptist Press after falsifying quotes from an interview with then U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige – the interview had actually spawned national headlines with several members of Congress calling on Paige to resign over comments on religion and the public schools before the Baptist Press was forced to issue an apology noting “factual and contextual errors” and decide that Starnes “no longer will be employed to write for the Baptist Press”. (For some reason we can’t help suspecting that Starnes’s audacity and predilection for journalistic malfeasance didn’t for the most part actually count against him at Fox.)
Starnes’s examples of religious persecution
Starnes has no compunctions about lying in order to support his persecution narrative. He has for instance repeatedly promoted the Raymond Raines story, which has been repeatedly debunked for some 20 years now. It is very instructive that, when asked for examples of persecution, this fake story is the go-to example for Starnes’s and his religious right allies.
And it is mostly for stories like these that Starnes has earned his position among the religious right; indeed, most persecution stories that rise to popularity on the religious right circuit are either Starnes fabrications or falsehoods picked up and popularized by him. Another famous example is the story of Air Force Sgt. Phillip Monk, who was apparently “relieved of his duties after he disagreed with his openly gay commander when she wanted to severely punish an instructor who had expressed religious objections to homosexuality.” As Starnes saw it, the case was an illustration of how Christians are punished for their religious beliefs and how “in essence, Christians are trading places with homosexuals.” The story spread rapidly, and were for instance picked up by Liberty University official Shawn Akers and AFA’s Bryan Fischer – not people known to check their sources if a story pats them the right way – and Monk was, not surprisingly, also invited to share his tale at a Values Voter Summit panel on the alleged trend of anti-Christian persecution. Of course, Monk’s story was false from beginning to end – he was, for instance, never “relieved of his duties” for anything.
And when Starnes accused a Georgia school of “confiscating” a display of teachers’ Christmas cards, the truth was that the display had merely been moved from a hallway to an office to accommodate the privacy concerns of a teacher who had wanted to participate but didn’t want her personal card displayed in a public space. (As school administrators rightly saw it, Starnes’s fabricated story was “an intentional and vicious dissemination of untrue information that disrupted the good work going on inside” the school.) There is a pattern here, of course, and there are plenty of other examples of Starnes trademark fabrications here, including his story – which gained immense popularity in wingnut media – of a six-year-old girl in California who had been stopped in the middle of a class presentation about her family’s Christmas traditions because “she can’t talk about religion in school” (never happened), his reports about the middle school students forced into a lesbian kiss (false), the tale about the athlete disqualified for thanking God (false: the athlete in question admitted he was disqualified for taunting and disrespecting a referee), the story about students at a Colorado high school who were banned from celebrating America (completely false), and the report of the Pentagon blocking a Southern Baptist website (an intentional lie; the Defense Department employees were briefly unable to access the website because it was infected with malware) – indeed, with regard to the latter example Starnes promptly accused Obama of “Christian cleansing”, and claimed that the incidence was part of a general effort on part of “politically correct Obama administration officals” in cooperation with “church-state separation activists” to conduct a “sort of religious cleansing of the military”. It is probably little surprise that his 2013 column about the military getting ready to court martial Christians (picked up for instance by the Family Research Council and Louie Gohmert) was also completely groundless.
And then, of course, there was the April 2014 story about an elementary school student in Florida who was allegedly told by a teacher “that she was not allowed to pray before eating her lunch time meal” and that “it’s not good” to pray – which was thoroughly investigated and found to be utterly baseless. The girl’s father, however, happened, by what is surely an amazing coincidence, to be head of sales at the company publishing Starnes’ new book God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values, a book that is precisely filled with these kinds of tall tales. There is, by the way, a criticism of parts of that book here; perhaps the most remarkable chapter of the book is Chapter 5, “So Absurd It Could Be True: The Gospel Of Barack Obama,” in which Starnes explicitly relies on his imagination to illustrate the persecution Christians are facing in the US at present (the other chapters rely more or less solely on his imagination, too, but are less explicit about where Starnes finds his data.)
You can probably imagine how he spun the Kim Davis affair. Yes, it’s persecution, of course, and Starnes concluded by predicting that “jails will soon fill up with Christians.” And if you thought it’s a bit of an exaggeration to characterize Starnes as a theocrat, we suggest you think a bit about what his views on how the courts should work, as expressed in connection with the Davis case, would actually imply.
Meanwhile, atheists and others fighting government prayer or mandatory prayers are basically “Hitler”. But of course. Anyone who disagrees with Starnes is Hitler (who, by the way, often claimed that God was backing his policies in his speeches).
The War on Christmas
We could, of course, continue: Starnes’s December 2013 report that VA hospitals in Texas and Georgia were guilty of anti-Christian bias because VA administrators had banned Christmas cards for patients? Not only false, but obviously an intentional lie. Or his report from the same month that a Georgia hospital had banned Christmas carols? A lie, of course. Or for that matter: his story about how a Texas school banned Christmas trees and the colors red and green? A complete fabrication (the story was picked up e.g. by Sarah Palin). But of course: the accusations nicely fit the popular wingnut “War on Christmas” narrative, so you can rest assured that someone with as little time or taste for truth and accuracy as Todd Starnes will continue to make them.
One final, illuminating example of Starnes’s strategy for marketing paranoia over the alleged “war on Christmas”. In 2013, Starnes claimed that America is transforming into “1930s Germany” under President Obama’s leadership. The evidence? A 2009 story about how administration officials under the then-social secretary debated whether to have a crèche at the White House, ultimately deciding to do so, which in Starnes’s deranged imagination became President Obama personally trying “to get rid of the nativity scene.” Here is Starnes blatantly lying about how Obama handled the Saeed Abedini case.
To combat the perceived persecution of Christians in the US, Starnes has asked God to send more insects. How effective he thinks mosquitoes and gnats would be in combatting religious persecution at Christmas time across the US is unclear, but not the silliest thing about the request.
Starnes has also fabricated a number of stories to oppose marriage equality (also beyond the Monk story above). Moreover, he has, on multiple occasions, suggested that Obama is secretly gay and implied that devastating floods in D.C. were God’s retribution for the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage. Not the least, Starnes thinks that the gay community is largely responsible for the rise of divorce and single parent households (don’t ask us – or him – how) and that gay rights will lead to “cultural Armageddon”, since that sounds appropriately scary to his audiences.
When Michael Sam came out as gay before the NFL draft, Starnes was deeply disappointed and explained that the mere knowledge that there is a gay person on the field was completely going to ruin his enjoyment of football. Apparently we should all feel sorry for him, and Michael Sam should have thought a bit deeper about the sentiments of Todd Starnes before choosing his orientation.
During the controversy over Chick-fil-A’s stance on gay rights issues, Starnes said that people boycotting the restaurant chain are “un-American” and warned that “the days of persecution are upon us.” That didn’t prevent him from endorsing the Religious Right boycott of the Girl Scouts over bogus accusations that Girl Scout cookies fund Planned Parenthood, of course. (Ha-ha: you really thought this had anything to do with reason or coherence? This is about framing the expression of your position; Starnes could hardly care less about reason and coherence (case in point), unless you compared it with how much he cares about accuracy.) His announcement that he would be boycotting Frito-Lay because of the release of Rainbow Doritos is illuminating, too.
Most importantly, gay rights and marriage equality amount persecution of Christians. Starnes predicted, before the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, that allowing gay people to marry will mean that pastors will be arrested for preaching the Bible as a hate crime, presumably based on the fact that this is what Starnes would do to those who disagree with him if he could and because he is completely unable to fathom that others may be less deranged than himself – I mean, it’s not like he provides any other source for his conclusions.
Here is Starnes attempting to don his postmodernist hat to claim that Obama is “radically deconstructing the family.” (The idea that words mean anything is presumably a liberal myth.)
Starnes’s more forthright views about people with other religious beliefs
In 2015, Starnes managed to court some controversy for his response to the film “American Sniper”, when he stated that Jesus, well-known to people on the religious right for his blood thirst, “would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’ ” for dispatching disbelieving Muslims to the lake of fire.
And while he is pretty clear that government-led prayers should be allowed (or mandatory) in public schools – currently US “public schools have been turned into indoctrination centers” where “teachers are preaching a liberal ideology” – they should obviously be prayers in English to the Christian God. Anything else is pure oppression.
In 2017 Starnes was outraged to see Muslims praying at a protest of President Trump’s immigration executive orders at the Dallas airport, saying that the prayer was evidence of police stepping back and making way for a violent coup against Trump: that Muslims are protesting politics and even praying means that “a good argument could be made that the mainstream media and liberal activists and Hollywood, quite frankly, are … trying to foment some sort of a faux revolution or coup in America”. Once you realize that any religious view that deviates from Starnes’s own, or any other disagreement with Starnes, is inherently tyrannical, you will quickly also realize how much Christians (i.e. those who agree with Starnes) are persecuted win the US. (This one is pretty illuminating when it comes to how Starnes views the world.)
And people who disagree with Starnes are everywhere. Even Superman has become “a propaganda tool for the defenders of illegal aliens” since there is an issue in which he defends a group of Latino men from a gun-wielding racist instead of rounding them up and “flying them back to where they came from.”
Starnes has referred to the removal symbols of the old Confederacy from public places as “cultural cleansing” and compared anyone supporting it to ISIS. Indeed, the decision by the University of Mississippi to stop playing “Dixie” at football games is apparently also just like ISIS. He also commented on Cliven Bundy and his allied militias in their lawless stance against Bureau of Land Management in 2014, suggesting that violence would have been an appropriate response to the authorities who confronted Bundy after his defiance of several court rulings. And here is Starnes trying to claim that Obama wanted tax payers to pay for marijuana for college kids – Starnes’s dislike of Obama, combined with his dislike of facts, actually makes for some interesting commentaries, for instance his attempt to explain how Obama is to blame for violent Trump supporters.
Meanwhile, the 2016 election of Trump was “a miracle”. Later Starnes accused Jeff Sessions for opening “the door for Robert Mueller and his partisan cronies to come in and wage political jihad on the White House” – he has, as usual, at best only a vague idea about what’s going on, of course. Starnes has also, predictably, fabricated several stories about how persecuted Trump is by the liberal establishment.
Here is a report on Starnes, apparently with a straight face, praying that the media will “reject fake news and embrace the good news” of Jesus Christ.
In 2018 Starnes wrote that female protesters who protested the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh were “screaming animals” who “should be tasered, handcuffed and dragged out of the building;” it is unclear whether what made the protestors deserving of such treatment was the fact that they disagreed with him or the fact that they were women. The comment is nevertheless an instructive point of departure if you try to imagine what a society would look like that would, for Starnes, count as not oppressive to his particular brand of fundamentalism. “Capitol police should stand their ground and protect the senators at any cost,” continued Starnes. Just think for a moment about what he means by that.
There is a good Todd Starnes resource here.
Diagnosis: Liars for Jesus have rarely lied more brazenly than Todd Starnes, but his formula has apparently been a huge success, and his stories enjoy wide distribution on the religious right scene. Starnes knows his audience: older, paranoid wingnuts who are already afraid, and Starnes delivers fear, outrage and conspiracy aplenty for his audience. It works. Extremely dangerous.