My first goal in this series is to define the Christian Right and provide some of their history. The Christian Right has been insinuating themselves into public discourse since the late 70’s. By the end of the 80’s it was generally assumed that the Christian Right consisted entirely of evangelical Protestants, however, many members of the Christian Right were not evangelical Protestants and many evangelical Protestants were not members of the Christian Right. The Christian Right drew support from politically conservative Catholics, Jews, Mormons and sometimes secularists. While some people may generalize that all evangelicals were grouped in with the Christian Right, that is not the case. In fact, there are many evangelical Protestants that have showed little interest in the Christian Right’s political goals. At this point I bet you are becoming a bit confused, but I promise I will clear it all up as I go along.
In my research I ran across a paper written by Harvey Wacker, Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. I found his detailed description to be fairly hard to follow but I will try to translate. In the simplest way possible think of two circles over lapped. On one side you have Evangelicals on the other side non-Evangelicals, in the middle that intersects the two circles you have the Christian Right. For the most part the Evangelicals do share the religious views, but not necessarily the political views of the Christian Right. On the other side you have the non-Evangelicals who do not share the political or religious views of the Christian Right. However on both sides you have individuals who are more stringent in their moral views or have decided they no longer share the political views of their group and align themselves with the Christian Right. Some famous examples of these non-Evangelical members are Joe Lieberman and Bart Stupack. Their political party, while Independant and Democrat respectively, does not mean they share all the party political views and in some cases they more closely align themselves with the Religious Right/GOP. In the past 25 years or so Evangelicals have flocked in large numbers to the mega churches of the Christian Right, however I have found no research to imply that Catholics have converted as well. The Catholic church has a group that label themselves “Charasmatic” and they could conceivably be the people who align themselves with the Christian Right(see link below). In the 1990’s the Christian Right’s numerical strength leveled off but it’s influence in grass roots, national, state and local elections, or in setting political policies has remained in the forefront. With the election of Barack Obama, their numbers seem to have increased again, however I found this interesting report in The Telegraph from almost a year ago. It states that the Christian Right conceded defeat when Obama was elected. I would be skeptical of such an admission being entirely truthful from the Christian Right but it is worth a read.
The Christian Right emerged from both long-range and short-range changes in American life. The long-range lay in the growth of biblical higher criticism in the seminaries, the teaching of human evolution in public schools, and, after World War II, the real or perceived threat of Communism, and when Communisim no longer became a critical issue, the GLBT community. The more immediate beginnings of the Christian Right lay in the enormous cultural changes of the 1960s—civil rights, Vietnam protests, the alternative youth culture, the women’s liberation movement, the sexual revolution, and the rise of ancient religions from obscurity. On the subject of obscure religions, I like to think an enlightened generation became more open to customs that in the past were foreign to us, we began to question authority and that certainly did not fit in with the Christian Right’s doctrine. These transformations seemed to play out in the Supreme Court decisions that banned official prayer and Bible readings in the schools, legalized first trimester abortion, and regulated government involvement in private Christian academies. The Christian Right responsed quickly to counter these developments led by figures like Jerry Fallwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Dobson. The intention of these leaders was to defend their traditional Christian values. These values were; authority of the Bible in all areas of life, faith in Jesus Christ and the “born again” experience and biblical values in sexual and marital arrangements.. What differentiated these Christian Right leaders from other Christian leaders was their linking of traditional Christian values with a simpler small-town life, a life they felt was being pushed in to the past. The Christian Right proved so successful in translating its concerns to a wider audience that in 1976 the founder of the Gallup Poll pronounced that year the “year of the evangelical”. National magazines(Time and Newsweek) ran cover articles on the insurgence of Evangelical Protestant Christianity, and even though many evangelicals did not share the goals of the Christian Right, as is usually the case with the national media they failed to note that distinction.
Then in 1979 Jerry Falwell established this major group of U.S. Christians into a political sledgehammer. As founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell had been meeting with theologians and lawmakers to plan how Christians could fight back. What were they going to base their fight against? Liberals, Abortionists, the ACLU, Feminists, gay rights activists and the non-believing American population( In recent years what they term as “radical Islam” was added to this list). In that year, Jerry Fallwell and his allies launched the Moral Majority. Falwell not only drew preachers from behind their pulpits into the world of electoral campaigns, but he also brought conservative politics into the church. He helped persuade thousands of pastors nationwide to conduct voter-registration drives in their congregations, contributing to a flood of new voters on the GOP rolls. Sermons in his own church included instructions to his flock on how to spend their Sunday afternoons, campaigning against the Liberal Left. He literally had his members going door to door with an anti-liberal pro-Republican message. The Moral Majority platform mixed traditional Christian values with a strongly conservative world view: They advocated for prayer in public school and more money for national defense.
After years of planning and consolidation the Christian Right helped Ronald Reagan win the 1980 presidential race, Falwell credited the Moral Majority and became the mouthpiece for these newly empowered Americans. Up to this point they had felt their beliefs were disrespected and Falwell’s moral majority empowered them to rise up as activists. However, they soon learned the limits of their political might, abortion remained legal and gay couples were continuing to gain greater acceptance, the ACLU was still strong, women continued to make strides in the fight for equality and Liberals did not fade away into that “dark night”.
In the late 1980’s, activists began to question Falwell’s ability to focus on politics and not fundraising for his religious work. Critics to his right, who advocated old-style isolation from the broader culture, attacked him. In the late 1980’s Fallwell disbanded the Moral Majority and concentrated his energies on Liberty University which he founded. He did not completely disappear, and GOP political candidates continued to seek his backing and treated him as an elder statesman in the party. And he opened the door for the Christian Coalition and others to take up where he had left off, continuing the political activism he started. Liberty University may be the single most important contribution to the Christian Right movement. With a reported 7,700 students, his Liberty University curriculum reflects the minister’s classic fundamentalist beliefs in an inerrant Bible and the imminent return of Jesus Christ(The Rapture) following seven years of tribulation to establish a 1,000-year kingdom. The school annually turns out young Christians who go on to become active in politics.
With all of this going on, the mainline Protestant establishment and the secular media were surprised by this conservative Christian insurgence and were asking who were these people and what were their ultimate goals? To answer these questions, you need to understand the world-view of the Christian Right. As close as I could come, the following are four principles by which they operate, I found this description in the paper referenced above by Harvey Wacker, Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School:
- The assumption that moral absolutes exist as surely as mathematical or geological absolutes constitutes the first. These moral absolutes include many of the oldest and deepest assumptions of Western culture, including the fixity of sexual identities and gender roles, the preferability of capitalism, the importance of hard work, and the sanctity of unborn life. More importantly, not only do moral absolutes exist, they are clearly discernible to any who wish honestly to see them.
- The assumption that metaphysics, morals, politics, and mundane customs stand on a continuum constitutes the second cornerstone of the Christian Right’s world-view. Specifically, ideas about big things like the nature of the universe inevitably affect little things, such as how individuals choose to act in the details of daily life. And the reverse. What one thinks about the nature of God, for example, inevitably influences one’s decision to feed—or not to feed—the parking meter after the cops have gone home. Contrary to the facile assumption of mainline Protestants, influenced by the Enlightenment, it is not possible for the Christian Right to draw easy lines between the public and the private spheres of life. (There is evidence that the Christian Right abandoned Jimmy Carter at precisely this point—when he announced that abortion should be legally protected in the public sphere, although he would not countenance it in the private sphere of his own family.)
- The Christian Right further assumes—this is the third cornerstone—that government’s proper role is to cultivate virtue, not to interfere with the natural operations of the marketplace or the workplace. The Christian Right remains baffled by the secular culture’s apparent unwillingness, on one hand, to offer schoolchildren firm moral guidance in matters of sexuality, truthfulness, honesty, and patriotism while, on the other hand, proving ever-so-eager to engineer the smallest details of the economy. Why should conscientious, hardworking law-abiding citizens be penalized by mazes of government regulations? Why should the irresponsible, the lazy, and the unpatriotic be rewarded by those same public institutions?
- Finally, the assumption that all successful societies need to operate within a framework of common assumptions constitutes the fourth cornerstone. Since the Western Jewish-Christian tradition has provided an eminently workable premise for the United States for the better part of four centuries, it makes no sense to undermine these premises by legitimating alien ones. The key issue is not so much what would be permitted as what would be legitimated. Many, perhaps most members of the Christian Right feel that it is one thing to permit dissidents to live in peace, quite another to say that any set of values is just as good, or just as functional, as any other set.
With the election of George Bush, the Religious Right surged again. When you look at their principles and then evaluate the Presidency of George Bush you can see the hand of the Religious Right guiding his decisions. They felt that without their support, he would not be in the position he was in, they were ready and waiting for their just reward and reward them he did. Bush appointed staff throughout his administration that were fresh off the Christian Right farm. Most notably interns and such from Liberty University. But he did not stop there, John Ashcroft, AG was a very devout “born again” Christian. We all know how he covered certain statues at the DOJ. Donald Rumsfeld, SOD had no problem adding religious cover sheets on his war memos to the President and many Christian Right believers were assigned to the newly instituted Office of Faith Based Iniatives in the government, a result of an executive order by then President Bush. And they took full advantage giving preference to like-minded believers. In her book “Kingdom Coming,” Michelle Goldberg devotes a chapter to her research on the Faith-Based program. While she confirms many positive outcomes with clients, she concludes that there were myriad abuses in the program. The chapter is entitled “The Faith-Based Gravy Train.” Her evaluation concluded that the federal government has become a major funder for the recruitment programs of the Christian Right.
Professor Wacker describes the Christian Right in this way:
The Christian Right has developed this sense that they are constantly under siege and are always defending their civilization from outside attack. Perils posed by the “mainstream media”, public schools, enemies of traditional family values are particularly sinister. They feel they are attacked constantly by the media and they especially object to the “perceived” way their children are treated in our schools. Their children are manipulated with the teachings of evolution, while “creationism” is not a part of the public school ciriculum, they are not allowed to pray in school, unless they do so privately. They claim the old-fashioned academic standards have been watered down and schools do not “clarify values” but rather teach students that their parent’s ideals are replaceable at will. They feel the traditional family is beseiged on all fronts, the media, schools and the government whose policies encourage abortion. They also believe that the ERA encourages divorce and fatherless families as it denies security to woman and corrodes the tether that has kept men bound to responsibilities of home and family.
In Glenn Greenwald’s book, A Tragic Legacy he addresses this mentality in terms of George Bush and his declining popularity:
The same people who had previously been writing books praising his greatness as a leader were denouncing him as a weak and stubborn failure, claiming his was a “closet liberal”. This so-called conservative movement is also not responsible for the destruction brought on by the Bush White House and republican congress. They claim the conservative movement is actually a victim because it’s lofty principles were betrayed and repudiated by the President and Congress from 2001 through 2007. This, from the same Conservatives who were cheerleading the Bush administration and their ideas and policies until the wheels fell off and their ideas were repudiated. Then they became the victims of their own actions. They acted as though they stood by helplessly while Congress and Bush destroyed the country while the whole time they were anything but passive.
The Religious Right would have us believe that while they touted their direct access to a president who appointed people from their organizations up and down the White House staff that they had nothing to do with the utter failure of the Bush administration.
I wonder if many of these Christian Right leaders are now lamenting, “if only we had had more time”. When I think of all the damage done to our country in 8 short years, I shudder to think what could happen if they come in to power again.
If we let our guard down and let these people slip under the radar, they will be back at it again in 2012. They will use all their influence on the right to establish another candidate like George Bush. All I can say is I will be waiting, watching and speaking out when that happens.
The second part of this series, The Mindset of the Religious Right will be posted on March 15, 2010.
Glenn Greenwald – A Tragic Legacy – How A Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency
Michelle Goldberg – Kingdom Coming
Dr. Robin Meyers – Why The Christian Right is Wrong
Chris Hedges – American Fascists – The Christian Right and the War on America