Profits before prophets: The threat to our secular state
Beware the magazines and media platforms that peddle hate speech and disinformation in the name of religion
There’s been a lot written recently about the death of magazines in SA, with so many titles closing down. One person on my social media timeline even posted a pic of empty shelves at her supermarket, lamenting that they used to be full of magazines but are now just gaping holes in the tapestry that paints life’s meaning. She might have been talking about shopping, but I think she meant that so many diverse voices — voices that brought colour and context to her existence — have been shut down.
So imagine my surprise, as they say in self-published classics, when I found that the magazine aisle at my local Woolworths is still chock-a-block with brightly coloured magazines. How have these magazines survived, when long-running, big titles couldn’t?
Taking a closer look, it seems the mags with ugly covers have flourished. In the many media training sessions I take part in, nobody ever says: "Make sure you employ a really bad designer, and make your covers look like an inept collage project put together by a six-year-old who loves unicorns and pastel sweeties."
A grievous mistake on the trainer’s part, I feel.
Subject matter also seems to matter (I guess the clue is in the name). Apparently people still love to read about animals, food, the lives of our ex-colonial (and evidently much missed) royal overlords, celebrity shenanigans and God, with a significant crossover in the "God as celebrity" category.
Looking more closely, I was struck by a magazine called Joy. At first, given the startlingly white teeth that dominate the cover, I assumed it was a trade publication for the dental industry. A closer look, and I realised it is a Christian publication, denomination uncertain.
A large photo on the cover of a beaming, avuncular, silvery-haired man with the headline, "Spectacular ORGANS of the World", meant it was almost certainly not Catholic. Those days of sniggering in-jokes are over for our good fathers.
No, it appears to be one of those God (Pty) Ltd-type denominations.
Counting roughly, on the 80-plus pages of Joy there are about 20 requests for your money in exchange for Christian services.
Technological progress has meant that thoughts and prayers and apps can now drive your interaction with God. There are two ads — including a full back page — for a donations app called the Cheerful Givers, with the tagline: "FINALLY available in SA, Text & WhatsApp Giving. Increase the giving in your church and ministry today."
A check of the Cheerful Givers website reveals that this will cost your church R250 a month, plus 3.2% of card-based transactions. Oh, and a R1 fixed fee on each gift.
But you’ll be glad to know that the app hasn’t abandoned heaven entirely. The Cheerful Givers "all-in-one giving dashboard allows you to track your total volume of giving, all in one place, through our powerful cloud base giving dashboard".
It would be a lot more honest if they called it "the powerful taking" dashboard, but perhaps such honesty has no place in commercial religion.
The God industry isn’t new, of course. It’s always been about putting the profit into prophecy, and fluctuating unpredictably between grievous collateral damage and incredible good works.
I previously wrote in the Daily Maverick about how fake news is actually "faith-based news, and its essential motor has been with us for at least as long as recorded history. Yes, religion: a belief in God (or gods) exactly parallels susceptibility to fake news."
It sounded fancy and philosophical at the time, but when quasi-religious figures start actively spreading fake news, it does very real damage to people’s lives, and is actively against the constitutional values of our country.
It’s all very well for us to use artificial intelligence and teams of forensic investigators to monitor hate speech, disinformation and evil on social media. But there are many other platforms in the shadows — or, in this case, in plain view on the shelves of Woolworths — that peddle a religiously sanctioned version of hate speech.
The Family Policy Institute uses the same business model as the neo-conservative Family Research Council in the US — magically turning hatred and fear into hot tubs and Ferraris
In this issue of Joy, we have that representative of all that is mean-spirited in the world, the reprehensible president of the Family Policy Institute, Errol Naidoo, demonising global organisations, spewing the usual concoction of misinformation and, yes, asking for your money.
In a story (they really should just call them advertorials) headlined "Unesco Pledges Millions to SEXUALLY INDOCTRINATE SA Kids", Naidoo tells us that Unesco, Unicef and the World Health Organisation are running a social engineering experiment in the SA schooling system, with the connivance of the "corruption-ridden ANC-led government".
"This dangerous UN-driven programme seeks to drive a wedge between parents and their children and indoctrinate them with destructive abortion and LGBTQ propaganda. And this awful sexual indoctrination of young children … has not gone unnoticed. Paedophiles are now rebranding themselves online as ‘minor-attracted persons’ to avoid stigma."
Oh, Errol, Errol. Call me alarmist if you will, but I think there’s probably still a lot of stigma attached to being attracted to minors.
Naidoo, a man once described by constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos as having "the suave charm of a Verimark infomercial presenter and the fading good looks of a celebrity contestant on Fear Factor", has a long history of using religion to disguise his predilection for advocating the denial of people’s human rights. Who could forget his famous contention that "abortion on demand, driven by radical feminist activists and the homosexual agenda, lies at the heart of the culture of death" that caused the Marikana massacre.
Naidoo’s Family Policy Institute appears to be modelled on the US neoconservative Family Research Council (where he briefly interned, according to the Mail & Guardian, which links to a suspicious error page on the Joy magazine site to validate its claim). It uses the same business model — magically turning hatred and fear into hot tubs and Ferraris.
One of the Bible verses quoted in Joy magazine is 2 Timothy 1:7, which in the King James version goes like this: "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."
If only. Charlatans like Naidoo use fear to make money, and in the process do bad damage to our democracy.
I generally try to end these columns with a pithy warning about faultlines in our country, or a robust call to action about redressing some sort of political or societal ill. I mainly do this to reassure myself that I have actually made some sort of point, rather than just having fun with words. But I also cherish the fond hope that one day, someone will make a T-shirt with a slogan culled from my conclusions.
This time, though, my point is somewhat less direct. It’s just … watch out. Our secular state can so easily be threatened, as can the values that religions still have left. If we let the Joy magazines of the world nibble around the edges of our fragile constitutional rights, we might be in for an unpleasant surprise one day.
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