Roots of the Religious Right

Here’s an article about religion in America, which gives me another opportunity to plug My Book.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right by Randall Balmer argues that it wasn’t abortion that turned evangelicalism into a political movement, but desegregation.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. …

…Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Jerry Falwell got his start as a national figure by leading the resistance to school desegregation, and it was Weyrich who finally persuaded him to give it up as a lost cause and instead resist abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, and that was in the late 1970s, a few years after Roe had been decided.

Same thing with birth control, as some of you might remember. I was living in the freaking Bible Belt when the pill became available, and I don’t recall any screams of outrage. Birth control was a “Catholic” issue, so the born-again crowd didn’t care. Now it seems conservative Christians generally have an issue with birth control.

The biblical basis for opposition to abortion and birth control is pathetically flimsy; note that 93 percent of American Jews support legalized abortion. To listen to conservative Christians these days you’d think Jesus’ entire mission was to stop gay marriage and abortion, even though he never addressed either issue and actually did talk about a lot of other, entirely unrelated, things.

One of the points I make in the book is that the more a religious faction gravitates toward extremist fundamentalism or terrorism, the less likely its adherents are to read their own scriptures or follow religious doctrines in any holistic way. Instead, they make a fetish out of some teachings, usually those having to do with sexual and other kinds of purity and veneration of symbols and icons, and mostly ignore the rest of it. This pattern is not limited to Christianity.

I also argue that religion is easily corrupted when it becomes an identity. It then is easily fused into racial, national, or political identity, which leads to beliefs of national exceptionalism (not limited to the U.S.) or political messianism, neither of which ever lead to anything good.

In the case of the Religious Right in the U.S., though, it actually goes back a lot further than Brown v. Board of Ed. Religious reactionism tends to attach itself to political reactionism, so whenever right-wing politics is pushing against progress and modernity, right-wing religion tends to be right beside it, to one extent or another, and this has been true throughout U.S. history. And the same thing happens in other nations as well.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries political and religious progressivism also made alliances, but for some time political progressivism has kept religious progressivism at arm’s length, and that’s a shame. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to argue that things don’t have to be that way.