Just how religious is the “religious right?” Very. Just ask them. They will tell you moving stories about how they were lost sinners but gave their hearts to Christ, and have been living the blessed life every since. If being “religious” means being able to give a moving testimony, then they are certainly religious people. Or, perhaps, you are religious if you vigorously assent to every point of doctrine, even the flatly irrational ones. Surely, for someone to believe that, for instance, the earth is only 6000 years old, or that the universe was created in six literal days, or that all human languages had their origin at the Tower of Babel, requires, as Hume put it, a faith that “…subverts all the principles of his understanding…” Surely, only religious motivation can induce such spectacular credulity.
On the other hand, being religious also normally implies a serious commitment to a set of ultimate values, values that are supposed to transcend every mundane or temporal interest, agenda, or desire. These values are supposed to be absolute in that they imply imperatives that are categorical, and never merely hypothetical. Thou shalt or thou shalt not; no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” Activists of the religious right are quick to appeal to such supposed values, holding them up as shining, permanent ideals, not to be surrendered to wishy-washy relativism, moral fads, or political correctness. For instance, “family values” were loudly and intransigently proclaimed against the supporters of LGBT rights, and were taken to supersede all temporal authority, such as that of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet, it is truly breathtaking how the stalwarts of the allegedly religious right will drop those values in a nanosecond as soon as they become politically inexpedient. Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the support evangelicals give to Donald Trump and Roy Moore. When the Access Hollywood video became available, with Trump bragging about how, as a star, he could just grab women by the [Bleep], I thought “OK, that’s that.” Surely no evangelical Christian could support a candidate who boasted of such gross indecency. But they did—overwhelmingly. A higher percentage of evangelicals voted for Trump than they did for Mitt Romney or John McCain.
Yet now a number of women have stepped forward claiming that when they were teenagers, Moore, then in his thirties, committed acts of gross indecency or sexual assault against them. Moore furiously repudiates these claims, but their prima facie credibility has led many prominent Republicans to question Moore’s fitness to serve in the U.S. Senate—a low bar, indeed. However, Moore’s evangelical base has not wavered in its support. According to polls reported last night on MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Show, a third of Moore supporters have actually declared themselves more committed to vote for Moore since the accusations were made.
Clearly, then, evangelical Christians of the religious right are deeply committed to moral values. Except when they are not. They are not the moment those values threaten to interfere with political aims. This makes me wonder how genuinely religious the religious right actually is. If political aims instantly eclipse supposedly religious values, then you must wonder whether, despite mealy-mouthed protestations of piety, those alleged values really matter at all. Actions, of course, speak louder than lip-service. It appears, then, that the “religious” part of the religious right serves mainly to drape a rhetorical fig leaf over naked politics. Politics is about power, and power is clearly the one true value of the “religious” right.