It’s not news anymore, but it bears remembering what made the Republican Party the new home of America’s white Protestant evangelical voters starting late last century.
I myself was reminded of this while reading an interesting academic paper by Hilary Rhodes this week: “Faith and Politics in America: The Rise and Demise of the Religious Right, the Need for a Religious Left, and the Changing Terms of Engagement.”
I remain unconvinced by Rhodes’ envisioning of a possible emergence of a U.S. political demographic she terms the “Religious Left” — nondenominational faith voters who are more aligned with liberal attitudes on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage — but I’m grateful for the rich historical refresher she provides on the genesis of the modern Christian Right.
Rhodes’ historical analysis of the rise of Christian right politics squares with my own long-held understanding that it was fueled by fear of creeping secularization and perceived threats to traditional conservative Christian culture in America by the federal government, especially in the South. Indeed, the war is ongoing today, except that the government is now firmly allied with the Christian Right, and top officials, like Attorney General Bill Barr, are in official public speeches now increasingly railing against encroaching secularism and proposing a national government akin to a Judeo-Christian theocracy.
A strong argument can be made that the radical Christian Right nationalism of the moment stems almost entirely from the rural, Protestant South’s defeat by the more secular industrialized North in the horrendously bloody U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865. The defeat meant African-American slaves were suddenly given legal emancipation, which represented a painful loss to a Southern culture that had long believed slavery — and inherent white supremacy over blacks — were biblically justified by God himself.
Rhodes’ paper focuses mainly on what happened starting in the 20th century but also notes importantly that the “entanglement of religion and politics” in America has been endemic since the first devout Protestants — the so-called “Pilgrims” (who were actually called “Brownists” at the time, after the leader of their sect in England) — arrived on the shores of the New World at Plymouth Rock.
“[The Pilgrim story] has frequently served to legitimate the myth of the New World being established as a ‘Christian Nation,’ and [immigrant Puritan leader] John Winthrop’s ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ speech made the association explicit,” Rhodes’ writes. “But how should this overwhelmingly popular and prevalent claim be evaluated?”
Religion has always been an “extremely important force” in American politics, Rhodes explains, from passage of the First Amendment of the Constitution codifying freedom of religion (and nonreligion) and from government interference.
However, Rhodes concludes that the U.S. is explicitly not a Christian nation, because the language the Founding Fathers embedded in the Constitution, while protecting religious diversity and expression in all its forms, was also “intended to insulate the democratic state against the rise of a theocracy.”
Rhodes believes the seminal moment in the emergence of the modern Christian Right movement in the U.S., and the switch of white Protestant evangelicals from the Democrat to Republican parties, was the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s.
She encapsulates the momentous political/religious paradigm shift in this passage:
“Before the civil rights watershed, religious voters constituted roughly equal proportions of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and the litmus test for distinguishing between the two was primarily in regards to economic policy. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a massive realignment of white evangelical Christians into the Republican Party to the point where their policy platforms have become virtually indistinguishable. Republican politicians cannot aspire to electoral success without pleasing this core constituency. In fact, their ideological, social, and cultural homogeneity has secured Republicans the votes of a reliable and self-sustaining segment of the electorate — a bloc-building success that Democrats, since the collapse of [late President Franklin Roosevelt’s] New Deal coalition, have largely failed at replicating.”
By 1964, the Democratic Party contained about 60 percent of white Protestant evangelicals who frequently attended church. But by 1976 that had deeply sagged to 40 percent, after Christian Bob Jones University’s religious tax-exempt status was threatened due to its discriminatory policies toward African-Americans and others. It was interpreted by conservative Christians as federal government meddling in long-observed traditional cultural practices.
Thus, today’s evangelical Republicanism has significant roots in racism and religious bigotry in the South.
When new federal civil rights legislation were put in place in the 1960s and afterward, such laws ending school segregation and coerced prayer, Southern evangelical Christians moved to avoid the changes by, for example, transferring their children to private Christian “academies” that were allowed to segregate and made to pray. It was a modern iteration of what happened after Civil War emancipation, when the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, paramilitary terrorist groups arose to intimidate blacks into not voting or standing up for their newly granted rights.
That’s the racist roots of today’s evangelical movement.
The outlawing of abortion, the paramount political goal today of the Christian Right, with federal government support, reflects the evangelical heart of the movement. As Southern Christians once believed (and maybe still do) that the Bible condones enslaving blacks, the Christian Right now believes that the Bible also unqualifiedly condemns abortion.
Those are some of the movement’s religious roots.
Rhodes laments that the Christian Right and the current Secular Left present an unsustainable dichotomy. She said the culture wars have left in their wake “conservative, rural, religious, gun-toting, Bible-believing Americans who vote Republican” on one side, and on the other “liberal, urban, atheist, latte-sipping, Volvo-driving” Democratic voters.
“No reconciliation was possible or even desirable” in alleviating that massive cultural divide, she said.
She envisions the possible emergence of a “Religious Left” as a kind of curative bridge between warring parties, where “the good intentions of liberal political theory” would be united with “the driving moral and spiritual fulfillment of religion at its best.”
The inherent problem with this proposal, in fact, is that, religion offers otherworldly fantasies, not real-world solutions.
At least “liberal political theory” is earth-bound.