A quick guide to stories in wide circulation that just aren't true. Don't get caught spreading these lies!
by Doug Trouten
These are trying times for the church -- if you believe everything you read. According to fliers circulating through area churches in recent years, the church is under attack as never before:
- The organization founded by former atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair (she's not an atheist any more, is she?) is petitioning the federal government to ban all religious broadcasting.
- The head of Procter & Gamble is appearing on talk shows to admit his company's ties with the Church of Satan.
- An Illinois company is making a movie about the "sex life of Christ."
These stories are shocking, outrageous -- and completely false. They are examples of hoaxes which continue to circulate in the church, even though there is no credible evidence to support them. Despite efforts by responsible church leaders to expose these stories for the lies that they are, the rumors have taken on a life of their own and refuse to die.
Christian journalists have a special obligation to be aware of these hoaxes so we can avoid passing them on to readers who trust us.
That FCC petition
The best-known example of this kind of hoax is the non-existent Madalyn Murray O'Hair petition to ban all religious broadcasting.
You've probably been exposed to this hoax through it's most common form: a photocopied petition, warning "Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist, whose efforts successfully eliminated the use of Bible reading and prayer from all public schools fifteen years ago, has been granted a federal hearing in Washington, D.C.... The petition, R.H. 2493, would ultimately pave the way to stop the reading of the Gospel on the air waves of America.... Madalyn is also campaigning to remove all Christmas programs, Christmas songs and Christmas carols from public schools."
The often-photocopied form says that one million signed petitions are needed, and that "This should defeat Mrs. O'Hair and show that there are many Christians alive and well and concerned in our country." Readers are urged to sign and mail an attached form to the FCC, and to make 10 copies of the flier to give to friends and relatives.
The hoax has generated enough response that -- at least at one point -- the FCC had "religious petition" as one of the options you could select with your touch-tone phone when calling the agency's consumer switchboard. That triggers a recorded message declaring that the "rumors are absolutely false." The agency has received more than 30 million pieces of mail on the subject, and has worked to advise the public that the rumor is not true.
FCC spokesperson Maureen Peratino says that despite repeated efforts to kill the rumor, it remains alive and well. "It holds steady," she says. "We receive a couple million pieces of mail each year. We don't see any let up in the phone calls either. Our consumer assistance office handles anywhere from 200 to 300 phone calls a month on this."
Not only isn't there a petition to ban religious broadcasting, but no such petition would have a chance of succeeding, says Peratino. "Under the First Amendment the Commission does not involve itself in the programming content of radio and television stations ... there's nothing under the First Amendment or in the Communications Act that would allow the Commission to ban any particular type of programming."
A kernel of truth
Like many rumors, the FCC hoax has a tiny kernel of truth. Once upon a time, there really was an FCC petition #2493. Presented to the FCC in December, 1974, the petition by California men Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam, asked the FCC to temporarily freeze the awarding of TV and FM channels to religious and government institutions while it studied whether existing non-commercial stations were fulfilling their obligations to broadcast truly educational programming.
Their petition was denied nine months later. Richard Wiley, now a Washington, D.C. attorney whose clients include the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), was chairman of the FCC when the petition was submitted. "We dismissed it while I was chairman of the FCC. There's never been anything since then. There was never any truth to this, and I don't think the current commission would see religion as not being part of the public interest, which would be the issue. That's the way we saw it when I was there, and I wouldn't expect the current commission to see it differently."
The current FCC rumor may have roots that stretch back farther than the Lansman-Milam petition, according to Bob and Gretchen Passantino, cult research experts who direct the California-based Answers in Action. "The rumor has gone through an evolution," says Gretchen. "It started out much earlier as a [rumored] petition by Madalyn Murray O'Hair to ban any astronauts from taking the Bible on space flights, or from saying religious things on space flights. It's kind of metamorphised into the FCC thing."
Rumor won't die
The mail is likely to continue, according to Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor of English at the University of Utah and one of America's leading folklorists. Brunvand, author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker and other collections of urban legends, says, "I don't think it's going to die out or ever be debunked successfully. No matter how hard we try to debunk it, there will be people who haven't seen it and will help spread the rumor the next time around. These things are photocopied and can lie around in somebody's drawer for years and then be brought out again and posted on a bulletin board. The fact that it has a coupon and a petition number and address, makes it seem real."
The ease with which one can respond also gives the hoax life, says Brunvand. "It's not very difficult to fill this thing out, put a stamp on an envelope and send it in. It's not asking for a lot of money, or to take radical action. People can lend their voice to the right side for the price of a stamp."
Lick a stamp
Another rumor driven by a photocopied sheet with shelf-life involves an alleged film being made about the sex life of Christ. The photocopied flyer, which resurfaces from time to time, claims that an organization known as "Modern People News" is planning to produce a film about the "sexual life of Jesus Christ." The flyer claims that Christ will be portrayed as a homosexual, and the part of Mary Magdalen will be played by a notorious French prostitute. Concerned Christians are asked to "do everything possible to halt production of this film." (Halting the film should be easy, since there's no such film being made.)
The roots of this rumor can be traced to November, 1977, when Modern People, a weekly magazine then based in Franklin Park, Illinois, published an article claiming that a group of European filmmakers planned to make a film depicting Christ as a bisexual. The article said that the part of Mary Magdalen would be played by a French prostitute.
In a later article, the magazine reported that the producers had given up on the film. But in 1980, a letter began to be circulated claiming that such a film was being made by a group called Modern People News. A year later, the office of the Illinois Attorney General had received more than 40,000 letters opposing the film -- most of them photocopies of the anonymous letter.
The letter urging Christians to take action isn't dated, and doesn't include an address or telephone number of a sponsoring organization, making it difficult for its claims to be verified or for the letter itself to be recognized as outdated.
Procter and Gamble
The third of the "big three" rumors making the rounds in Christendom involves Procter and Gamble. In this rumor, the president of the company is falsely alleged to have appeared on Phil Donahue's talk show and admitted that his company gives its profits to the Church of Satan, and that its familiar "moon and stars" logo is a satanic symbol. Variations have had the president of McDonald's appearing on "The Tonight Show," and Liz Claiborne appearing on "Oprah" to make similar admissions about their corporate ties to satanism.
In reality, the president of Procter and Gamble has never appeared on any talk show to discuss satanism. (Donahue once tried to get him to appear to debunk the rumor, but the company determined that being able to say he had never been on was more convincing.) The company has successfully filed lawsuits over the years against a number of people who were intentionally spreading this rumor -- some of whom were multi-level marketing businesspeople selling products which compete with Procter and Gamble brands.
The company has an information kit it distributes to media which includes a letter from Donahue confirming that the rumor is false, and letters from a number of religious leaders, including Jerry Falwell and an executive with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Hoaxes, hoaxes everywhere
The "big three" hoaxes account for most of the pointless mail and phone calls in the Christian community, but there are many other examples of "things we know that just aren't so" circulating:
- NASA scientists are reported to have been puzzled while calculating the historical orbits of the planets because of a "missing day." In this legend their dilemma was resolved when a Christian member of the team showed them passages in the Bible where God stopped the sun. The stoppages, we're told, exactly equal led the unaccounted for "missing time" that had stumped the scientists. This rumor persists despite NASA's denials, and despite the scientific impossibility of a "missing day" -- a finding that would presuppose a precisely known starting point for the universe.
- The Christian version of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" story has a person, often a pastor, stopping to pick up a hitchhiker, who delivers a prophetic warning (often of Christ's imminent return), then vanishes. The "hitchhiker" is often assumed to be an angel or Jesus Christ. This story recently turned up in Australia and New Zealand.
- Amsterdam and Brussels are popular locations for a rumored super computer that the anti-Christ will use to usher in his one world government. The computer, said to be nicknamed "The Beast" by its operators, will contain information about every person on earth. Some versions of the story have "666" as the code command that activates the computer's plan for world domination.
- Another legend with a "666" component has a retired pastor or missionary going to the social security office to get a check for a missed payment. In this rumor, the director of the office provides a check with the number "666" in the lower left corner, then hurriedly takes it back, explaining that a mistake has been made that those checks aren't to be distributed yet.
- Scientists in the Soviet Union are alleged to have drilled a hole straight to Hell. In this story, scientists on an oil drilling platform in the North Sea drilling the deepest hole ever stopped when they heard human screams of anguish and smelled sulphur, leading them to conclude that they had drilled right into Hell. This supermarket tabloid story was once reported as truth by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). A bogus English-language translation of a non-existent Norwegian newspaper account of the incident was sent to TBN as a hoax by someone who wanted to see if the network would bother to check its sources; TBN didn't check.
- The "satanist on the plane" story was popular more than a decade ago. In this story, which was presented as truth in various cities across the nation, a Christian is flying home from a conference, and notices that their seat-mate is refusing supper. The Christian asks if the person is sick, and is told that they're fasting. With a little more questioning, the person volunteers that they're a member of the church of Satan and are fasting and praying against three churches in that Christian's home town that are giving them particular trouble. Which churches these are varies depending on who's telling the story.
Bob Passantino of Answers in Action offered several tips for identifying false legends. "Use extra caution if the story fits any of the following characteristics," he warned.
- There's no evidence to back it up. "Sometimes there is no evidence because of the very nature of the story," he says. "That doesn't mean such a story can't be true; it just means that it's not a story that can be considered trustworthy research. At most it's an illustration or example."
- It's so detailed or bizarre that we can't believe someone could make it up.
- Its strongest commendation is that it ought to be true. "Be careful that you are not persuaded to believe a particular story simply because you wish it to be true," Passantino concludes. "This can be a strong temptation, but don't give in to it. God won't excuse us for supporting made up stories because they serve a useful purpose."
Here are a few couple of good Web sites to use when researching possible Christian hoaxes: