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Stealth Evangelicals in the Digital Age

Stealth Evangelicals in the Digital Age

Bill Berkowitz
April 18, 2012

In early March, the organization, Invisible Children, burst onto the world stage with its KONY 2012 video promoting its "Stop Kony" campaign. The video focused on Joseph Kony, the Uganda warlord and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla group with a long and violent history that includes turning the kidnapped children into child soldiers. The KONY 2012 video went mega-viral; surpassing 100 million views in six days and breaking previous records set by Susan Boyle's April 2009 appearance on the television program "Britain's Got Talent" which hit that mark in 9 days, and Lady Gaga's Bad Romance video, which took 18 days to surpass 100 million views.

Not too long after the organization became a social media phenomenon, its co-founder, Jason Russell, suffered a public mental breakdown caught on a video - which garnered over 1 million views -- showing him running naked along a busy San Diego street, cursing and ranting about the devil.

While the video, and Russell's mental breakdown, have been extensively reported on, Invisible Children's broad connections to the Religious Right have not received much media attention. Invisible Children has adopted the stealth campaign approach of other Christian Right campaigns.

KONY 2012: a not-so-spontaneous viral video

The KONY 2012 video going viral may not actually have been so spontaneous. In mid-March, SocialFlow, which describes itself as "the first social media optimization technology to apply a scientific approach to understanding the real-time value of content on the social graph," excavated this process.

SocialFlow identified "dense clusters of activity ... [that] were essential to the message's spread: networks of youth that Invisible Children had been cultivating across the US for years. When Invisible Children wanted to promote this video, deploying the grass-roots support of these groups was essential."

Their research found that "Invisible Children enlisted the help of their supporters in barraging celebrities to come out in support of the campaign, making it incredibly easy to Tweet at Taylor Swift or Rihanna within two clicks. Once celebrities came on board, the campaign was given multiple boosts."

In addition, "Contrary to what many people may think, all of this attention didn't happen overnight.... a pre-existing networked infrastructure was already set in place, triggered at the start of the campaign. Invisible Children has already been building an on-the-ground network of young supporters across the United States, activating them all at the same time, as the campaign began."

According to SocialFlow, major activity came from users in "small" to "medium sized cities" like Birmingham, Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and Noblesville, Indiana. And, it discovered, "It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios."

Invisible Children and the Religious Right

Late last month, Bruce Wilson, a researcher whose work on the Religious Right has consistently broken new ground, reported that Invisible Children "has ... partnered with politicians and governments, in America and Uganda, which seem intent on annihilating diversity - by law or, if necessary, through violence. And, while Invisible Children bills itself as primarily devoted to human needs, the nonprofit's choice to spend less than a third of its budget last year on African programs is consistent with a less obvious mission, as a multimedia-based, stealth evangelical performance ministry that targets young Americans in the ‘millennial' generation."

Wilson pointed out that while IC "has positioned itself as LGBT rights friendly," the organization was "launched with support and funding - including from one of the top financiers [the "Caster Family Foundation" and Terry and Barbara Caster] of the campaign to pass California's now-notorious Proposition 8 [the anti-same-sex marriage ballot initiative] - by leading funders of the antigay evangelical right such as the National Christian Foundation, and since 2006, or earlier, the nonprofit has worked closely with and enjoyed political support from virulently antigay politicians such as Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and United States Senator James Inhofe."

Last November, speaking at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Invisible Children's co-founder Jason Russell, whose father founded a chain of Christian youth theaters across North America, said: "A lot of people fear Christians, they fear Liberty University, they fear Invisible Children - because they feel like we have an agenda. They see us and they go, ‘You want me to sign up for something, you want my money. You want, you want me to believe in your God.' And it freaks them out."

Earlier this month, Truth Wins Out, an LBGT civil rights organization, "discovered [audio] from a 2005 Christian conference in San Antonio, during which ... Russell called his organization a ‘Trojan Horse' designed to infiltrate secular institutions and surreptitiously promote his group's version of Christian fundamentalism."

The audiotape has Russell saying: "Coming in January we are trying to hit as many high schools, churches, and colleges as possible with this movie. We are able to be the Trojan Horse in a sense, going into a secular realm and saying, guess what life is about orphans, and it's about the widow. It's about the oppressed. That's God's heart. And to sit in a public high school and tell them about that has been life-changing. Because they get so excited. And it's not driven by guilt, it's driven by an adventure and the adventure is God's."

Truth Wins Out's Executive Director Wayne Besen said that Russell's talk "vividly reveals Invisible Children's invisible agenda": "This group is not simply about exposing LRA leader Joseph Kony," said Besen, "but engaging in stealth evangelism. Invisible Children sold themselves as romantic idealists, but the evidence suggests that they are more like fundamentalist ideologues."

In a Truth Wins Out post dated April 10, Wayne Besen reported that "In May 2007, Invisible Children's CEO Ben Keesey, and IC's Development Director Chris Sarette, submitted an application, which identified Invisible Children as a "ministry", asking for support from the Barnabas Group - a politically far right-wing Christian [501(c)(3)] nonprofit which helps cutting edge stealth ministry evangelizing efforts that target Jews and Muslims, youth, Hollywood, and even apartment dwellers around the globe."

This is a significant finding because on its web site, Invisible Children insists that it "is not affiliated with any religious organization."

In a recent post at Talk2Action titled "KONY 2012, Invisible Children, and the Religious Right: The Evidence," Bruce Wilson concludes by writing: "Invisible Children's key support base was evangelical, as is much of its leadership; the IC nonprofit was launched with key, early funding from religious right funding sources; Invisible Children, and its leadership, is extensively connected to what is probably the most influential evangelical network on Earth, The Fellowship; IC's programs in Uganda appear to have become intertwined with Fellowship projects in that country."


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