Miami's Blessed Airwaves
"Why are people wondering why the Republicans won the election?" asks Ruthie J with a touch of annoyance. During the course of Kulchur's conversation with the midday host of Miami's Christian radio station WMCU-FM (89.7), this is the only subject that ruffles her eminently patient demeanor. "Why is this such a mystery to so many reporters?" she gripes. Then, arching an eyebrow, she wryly shoots back: "Aren't there any Republicans on your own newspaper's staff you could ask?"
Of course Ruthie J already knows the answer to this question: New Times is but one of the many media outlets whose staffers operate within a bubble of shared assumptions, a bubble sharply punctured on November 2. And while smugness may not be the most Christian of sentiments, Ruthie J has more than earned at least a few moments of vindication. After five years at WMCU -- working long hours, fielding listeners' phone calls, running the news department -- she now hosts her own daily show. Christian radio has become a national force that can't be ignored, and stations like WMCU are being credited as decisive in spurring the evangelical community to turn out on election day and help re-elect President George W. Bush. "The church is saying, 'Enough is enough. We're going to the polls,'" Ruthie J enthuses.
Still, whether it's humility or her radio station's nonprofit status weighing on her mind, she quickly clarifies the details of her on-air partisanship: "I never told people who to vote for. I just told them to vote for the person who you think represents your world view, who has the same set of moral values as you. The war in Iraq, health care, taxes -- those were all important. But if you pick a president who shares your moral views, then you can trust him with the other decisions."
In the end that's precisely what millions did, rendering an electoral outcome that still has many Democrats wallowing in denial, grasping at apocryphal tales of electronic voting glitches. There are indeed "two Americas," as Democratic vice presidential hopeful John Edwards frequently declared on the campaign trail. Yet the divide isn't based on class so much as on culture.
Accordingly many of the liberal pundits obsessed with the 22 percent of voters self-identified as evangelical have cast that demographic as straight out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers: They walk, talk, and dress just like you and me. One may already be your neighbor. Only a stray verbal tic gives them away, perhaps an offhand mention of the "culture of life" or "activist judges." Are they Communists? Canadians? No, they are Christians.
"I was watching Bill Moyers the other night," bristles WMCU program director Dwight Taylor, citing the PBS news host, "and he had a gentleman on who referred to people who regularly attend church as öon the fringe.' Well, there's a number of folks who attend church. We're not part of a fringe group, we're part of the mainstream. "
It's a good thing Taylor didn't spend much time at last week's Miami Book Fair International. Moyers's fan club was out in force for author panels that spotlighted this season's wave of Bush-bashing books. But instead of analysis, an attempt to understand the resounding rejection suffered by the Anybody-But-Bush camp, there was only condescension.
Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair and author of the less-than-subtle What We've Lost: How the Bush administration has curtailed our freedoms, mortgaged our economy, ravaged our environment, and damaged our standing in the world, chalked up Kerry's defeat to nothing more significant than a stiffly Brahmin speaking style. "John Kerry was talking to somebody with a bow tie, a striped shirt, and a blazer," Carter sneered to the packed room before him. "He should have been talking to those people out there, those Wal-Mart people, those people who like to keep their Christmas lights on all year round."
Ah yes, the familiar complaint. If only the Democrats could learn to charm "those Wal-Mart people" -- those not blessed with chauffeurs and a Greenwich Village townhouse like Carter's in which to string their holiday decorations while decrying Bush's tax cuts.
It was left to New York Times columnist and On Paradise Drive author David Brooks to offer one of the few notes of wisdom. "Everyone's giving advice to the Democrats," he scoffed to his Book Fair crowd, particularly when it comes to strategies for wooing areas like Florida's suburban I-4 corridor, so crucial in swinging the state to Bush. His own counsel? Ignore anyone with easy access to the national media: "The people on the coasts and in institutions like the New York Times, which I work for, do not know how to reach people in these fast-growing places. There's a different conversation going on out there. Karl Rove figured it out somehow. The advice the Democrats have mainly been getting has been in one conversation. They need to get in a different conversation."
Dialogue can be difficult, so let's begin with baby steps: Taking a cue from Brooks, if the Democrats are serious about returning from the political wilderness, they should at least know some of what 51 percent of America is talking about. But one hardly has to wait for the Dems' own leadership to come around. Start your own focus group -- tune your radio to WMCU.
If you're anticipating fire-and-brimstone preaching, you'll hear it there -- but only occasionally. The bulk of the station's programming is pop music, sugary songs that mimic chart-toppers from Sheryl Crow and Matchbox 20. Except that when the guitar-driven choruses swell, and a WMCU fave like Ian Eskelin croons, "I surrender as I fall into your arms again," it's no earth-bound paramour being embraced.
Christian rock crossover act Switchfoot, currently in heavy rotation on both Top 40 WHYI-FM (100.7) and WMCU, offers an example of the genre's spread, as well as an easy way in for the curious. And Miamians are making that discovery: This past summer's Arbitron ratings, the most recent available, show significant growth. WMCU draws an average of 117,000 listeners during the day from across its broadcast area, which stretches from West Palm Beach down to the Keys. By way of comparison, the similarly noncommercial WDNA-FM (88.9) averages 23,000 daily listeners while NPR affiliate WLRN-FM (91.3) attracts 253,000.
However, playing music is only part of WMCU's mission, and it's that other portion -- the evening talk shows anchored by the Rev. James Dobson -- where Kulchur's proffered olive branch becomes a bit thornier. Dobson's daily Focus on the Family radio program reaches more than seven million listeners nationwide, and while he may not possess the sputtering self-righteousness of a Rush Limbaugh, Dobson has become no less intent on wielding his devoted following as a weapon.
Flexing his increased influence in the wake of the election, Dobson barely waited for the dust to settle on Bush's cabinet shuffle before taking to the airwaves and urging his audience to demand that the president nominate an antiabortion Supreme Court justice. Thanks to Dobson's lead, pro-choice GOP Sen. Arlen Spector's anticipated chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- once an inside-the-Beltway formality -- became front-page news and Bush's first policy showdown.
Dobson is just getting revved up, though. After overturning Roe v. Wade, he's already laid out his second act: a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage once and for all.
For Ruthie J, such a move couldn't come soon enough. Though she counts several gay people in her circle of friends, they've all learned to leave some topics alone. "You are not born like that," she says of gays and lesbians. There is no anger in her voice, only a firm belief. "The Christian community believes gay marriage is a special right. If you want to live peaceably as a gay person, fine. But don't tell me I have to accept that. Don't tell me my laws should protect their choice."
Forty years ago plenty of folks said the same thing about blacks and whites marrying each other. They even pointed to the Bible and said interracial marriage was immoral. Forty years from now the arguments against gay marriage may seem just as outdated -- and offensive.
"I don't think the church is going to let that go as easily," Ruthie J replies with a laugh. "The Bible doesn't say anything about blacks and whites marrying. But the Bible talks clearly about sexuality."
The more Kulchur suggests the moral soundness of gay marriage, the imperative of gays being treated as equals in the eyes of the law, the more Ruthie J insists on outlawing such same-sex unions, relying on identical logic. "Being gay is wrong," she repeats -- again, with no rancor, only a rock-solid conviction -- "and I don't want you to have the legal right to do wrong." As for Kulchur's own beliefs, Ruthie J counters, "Ultimately you can't change society through legislation."
On that, at least, Kulchur can agree. And for the same reason, Kulchur remains certain that gay marriage isn't only just, it's inevitable -- regardless of both James Dobson's machinations and Graydon Carter's thanks-but-no-thanks suggestions. Because for all the legal setbacks signaled by this past election, for all the despair its results created in the rural gay communities of Ohio and Michigan, it wasn't so long ago that the very phrase "rural gay communities" was inconceivable. Living an openly gay life once entailed moving to the coasts, the "blue" states. Fortunately life has a funny way of ignoring ballot results.
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