I don’t believe I could construct a political party more diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus than the Republican Party even if I tried. Of course, it’s not that easy to determine what Jesus said or thought about many things because the gospels seem to have been heavily influenced by later struggles of various Christian communities. E.P. Sanders convincingly demonstrated thirty years ago that the Pharisees, whom the gospels portray as Jesus’s primary antagonists, were probably nothing like the caricature of that group we received from the early Christians. More than likely they are an anachronism, a kind of theological foil to the emphases of Paul’s ministry, but I digress. Certain themes and concerns of Jesus still stand out, like concern for the poor, acceptance of the foreigner and the marginalized, grace, mercy, and turning the other cheek. He also seems to have exhibited a stubborn iconoclastic streak, questioning authoritarianism just enough to get himself killed. If he existed at all (and I’m personally convinced he did), he was a subversive troublemaker who reserved his harshest criticism for the greedy and the sanctimonious. He called the uber-religious a “brood of vipers” and told a rich man that he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor. Then there was that crazy moment in the Temple courtyard when he made a whip and started cracking it at people, flipping over tables and running them off, screaming at them because they were making money off of other people’s worship. That most certainly sealed his doom.
Now let’s look at the Republican party of today: Republicans today are deeply divided over strategy, but certain ideas still unite them under a common platform. Supply-side economic theory dictates that the American financial system must above all support the “job creators” in hopes that their prosperity will “trickle down” to the rest of us (not their term, but it fits). Consequently, Republican policies consistently favor the rich over the poor (“it’s in everyone’s best interests,” they tell us), and anyone who suggests the wealthy share more of their abundance with those less fortunate (or less accomplished) gets branded a “pinko commie socialist”, bent on the destruction of the free market. Politicians hoping to garner praise among the GOP today must outdo one another in their efforts to reduce public assistance to the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the elderly. Disdain for immigrants also distinguishes Republicans today to the point that Marco Rubio, a presidential hopeful and the son of Cuban immigrants, had to significantly scale back his previous aspirations for pushing immigration reform through the legislature because it was so unpopular among his party. Republican voters today are “overwhelmingly white, mostly male,” and mostly from the middle and upper classes. They lean in a heavily hawkish direction and they tend to believe strongly that the U.S. should “walk softly and carry a big stick” (soft walk optional).
If I were to paint a broad-stroke picture of the differences between the emphases of Jesus and those of the Republican Party at this point in time, it might look something like this:
Pretty much the opposite, right? It would appear that any follower of Jesus would seek to oppose this party whenever they can. But according to the Pew Research Center, in the last presidential election, white Evangelicals (who consider themselves the most devoted to following Jesus) were four times more likely to vote Republican than Democrat (about 80% of white Evangelicals surveyed said they voted for Mitt Romney). I watched with amusement as hundreds of my Christian friends and neighbors wrestled with what must have been a gut-wrenching decision toward the latter half of 2012. See, we Baptists were taught that Mormons aren’t legitimate Christians, and that their “church” is really an overgrown cult. Where I come from, it is axiomatic that theological similarity trumps all other qualifications for public office, so you should vote for whichever politician most closely matches your own religious views. But the alternative to electing a Mormon was to let Obama resume office again and that was simply unacceptable.
For many, the tipping point came when Franklin Graham arranged a meeting between Mitt Romney and Graham’s legendary father for a much publicized photo opportunity (honestly it was hard to tell if the elder Graham even understood with whom he was meeting). Within a few days, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed the Church of Latter Day Saints from their website’s blacklist, then they paid for full-page ads in more than a dozen national and battleground state newspapers encouraging voters to “cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles.” Which biblical values did they mean? Hammering swords into plowshares? Welcoming the foreigner and the prisoner with open arms? Selling all you have and giving it to the poor? No, the advertisement indicated that opposing abortion and gay marriage dictated which political candidates Christians should support. To read this ad, you would think that all other distinctives of the life and teachings of Jesus take a backseat to these two hot-button issues—two issues, it is often noted, about which Jesus himself never said a word. Justification for opposing same-sex relationships can be found by looking elsewhere in the Bible (although many have argued we’ve misread those passages as well), but any attempt to establish legal “personhood” at conception requires inferring something which is far from explicit in the Bible.
So what gives? With these campaigning points, how on earth did the Republican Party achieve such a near monopoly on the voting loyalties of a population which considers themselves devout followers of Jesus? To understand how this incongruous conflation of values occurred, you have to go back to the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964. For the first time since the end of the civil war, a Republican presidential candidate carried five of the Deep South states (even though that was all he carried besides his home state of Arizona), inspiring Richard Nixon in the next election to employ a tactic people would later dub “the Southern Strategy.” Nixon’s strategy so effectively won the Southern white vote that Dixieland went from being a “Solid South” for the Democrats to being solid red for the next fifty years (as it is still today). What the Republican Party did was tap into the white South’s deep-seated racism and anti-federalism* (the latter arguably being a product of the former) in order to capitalize on their disapproval of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Because the Democratic Party aligned itself with the progressive social reforms of the civil rights movement, Southern whites flocked to the GOP en masse, bringing with them both their strong tendency toward Christian fundamentalism and their equally strong disdain for “the negro.” Unfortunately for the Republicans, they also brought with them a sectarian faith which greatly disapproved of Catholicism, thereby threatening to undermine the party’s numerical leverage at the national level. Evangelical distrust toward Catholics ran so deep that John F. Kennedy had to make a special trip to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association just to assure them that he would keep matters of the state utterly separate from the matters of his Church. That famous speech helped settle a key issue in his campaign without which he may never have won the 1960 election. But this alone wasn’t enough to forge a lasting alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals (particularly the Baptists, who together with the Catholics still make up the two dominant religious subcultures in America).
Enter Paul Weyrich. Have you ever heard of ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, or the Moral Majority? Did you know that all three of those powerhouses of conservative politics were founded by the same guy? Weyrich was an archconservative with a caustic personality who orchestrated one of the most effective coups of American political influence in recent history. Randall Ballmer recounts that Weyrich had tried for years to mobilize Evangelicals over issues like school prayer and abortion, but their separationist theology disinclined them to get involved in politics. Abortion had already congealed Catholic voters (who traditionally oppose even birth control), but the Baptists just didn’t see what the fuss was about. W.A. Criswell, often called “the patriarch” of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Conservative Resurgence” (or “Fundamentalist Takeover,” depending on which side you take) and the man Billy Graham called his pastor, offered the following response to Roe v. Wade:
I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.
In the absence of any clear biblical pronouncement about fetal stages or timeline of “personhood,” most Evangelicals just didn’t have strong feelings about the matter. What did get them riled up, however, was when in 1975 the IRS revoked the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because their segregationist school admissions policies violated the Supreme Court’s 1972 Green v Connally decision, which ruled that any institution that practiced segregation was not a charitable institution and therefore no longer qualified for tax exempt status. This move both challenged Southern Evangelicals’ racism and simultaneously hit them where it hurt—in the pocketbook. Just as Nixon’s strategists had done a few years earlier in the wake of Johnson’s Great Society, Weyrich saw a golden opportunity here to weave together an alliance of Evangelicals around a common cause. Once Weyrich had amassed sufficient financial support, he tapped Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church to become the mouthpiece of the newly formed “Moral Majority” (a term Weyrich coined himself).
After energizing Evangelicals over government intrusion into their “religious liberties,” Falwell saw an opportunity to unite Catholics and Evangelicals into a much more powerful unit than either could ever hope to be separately over another issue which he felt could have even greater traction in the growing culture wars. He quickly used the momentum of Weyrich’s financial backers (lead, ironically, by the Coors family) to launch a nationwide media blitz calling for unity among Christians of all demoninations around “the sanctity of life” (with a side of anti-homosexuality and anti-feminism). Before the Republican convention even took place, Falwell announced his support for the presidential candidacy of pro-life Ronald Reagan, and subsequently poured $10 million into radio and TV ads asking churches to mobilize in support for him in the 1980 election. Reagan handily won two-thirds of the white Evangelical vote, thus cementing a pro-life stance in the Republican platform for many years to come. Through the work of the Moral Majority (along with several other organizations Weyrich created), the Republican Party acquired a firm grip on the loyalties of the much-flattered Evangelicals, who quickly came to cherish their special place at the table of national politics. Falwell’s organization fizzled by the time the Clinton era rolled around, but the marriage of white Evangelicals to the GOP has endured through many election cycles and continues to guide conservative politics in America today.
That at least partially explains how abortion and gay marriage went from being matters of sectarian religious faith to being shibboleths of a national party which prides itself on limiting government and “getting the government out of people’s business.” But how does cutting assistance to the poor fit into this? And why haven’t Evangelicals demanded that their favored party take more responsibility for advancing those concerns which more centrally concerned the founder of their religion? I’ll write about that in my next post
* I’m here using the term “anti-federalism” according to its earlier meaning, which signified an emphasis on states’ rights as over against the Federal government. Over time, the term has changed meaning for some to indicate almost the exact opposite.