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.

11 thoughts on “Roots of the Religious Right

  1. Well, just to get the comments started… I’m glad that Jerry Falwell is dead. What a big fat obnoxious slob he was. I wouldn’t be surprised if Satan rejected him when he showed up on the doorstep of Hades.

    Somewhere out on the internet there is a video titled “The eyes of Tammy Faye” that tells the story of Tammy Faye Bakker. Part of that story includes the story of the loss of the Bakker’s Christian theme park Heritage USA, and how Falwell screwed the Bakkers out of all the money they had rightfully acquired in building up that theme park. What was so disturbing to me was that Falwell used the guise Christian righteousness to portray the Bakkers as unrepentant sinners while he snatched control of their empire and their purse.
    I guess there is no honor among thieves, but watching Falwell screw a fellow human being while wearing his robes of righteousness was a particularly sickening experience.
    Even if Satan tormented him for a thousand years.. it still wouldn’t be enough of a penance for the misery that that slob sowed.

  2. 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.

    Now it’s become difficult to determine who is in the drivers seat. Who is attaching to who? I know that there is a symbiotic relationship between the political and religious right but the balance in that relationship seems tilted toward the religious side of the relationship. Like dancing with the one who brung ya ?
    There’s always the exceptional dolts like Louie Gohmert* who are true to their intellect, but for the most part it seems that the politicians on the right are embracing religious causes out of political expedience.

    * King Solomon was the wisest man who ever ever lived.

  3. I agree that this brand of Christo-Conservatism had its roots in desegregation.

    Now, on top of that, add on what happened regarding School Prayer in the early-60’s, and then busing, and you have what lit the fires under Conservative Christians.

    I was in HS when Roe was decided, in a pretty religious part of Upstate NY – a lot of Catholics, Evangelicals, a handful of Jewish families, and main stream Protestants. And I don’t remember any big deals made about it – either way – if my memory serves me correctly.
    The ERA was close to passing, so a lot of people felt it was a natural extension of the Civil and Human Rights movements. Besides, back then, people knew women who had to leave school – shunned – or had to go to some back alley quack. Many of them never came out of those back alley’s, and more still, were irreparably damaged.

    Abortion first became a bit of a big deal under Carter, but really accelerated when Reagan invited The Moral Majority Manichean’s to join in the political process – something that even Goldwater, the Great Father Figure for Conservatism, was adamantly against doing.
    He brought the Dominionist Evangelicals to be the Republicans loyal foot-soldiers.
    Which, they were.
    And now, they’re the Generals.

    And after 30 years of recalcitrance on the part of Republican politicians to reverse Roe any way the could on a national basis, they decided to erode women’s rights state-by-state.

    FSM save us if some Christo-Fascist loon wins the Presidency, and has a Congress of like-minded loons in Congress.
    I don’t think today’s Republican politicians can hold back their rabid base of Christo-Fascist loons.
    It’ll be a redux of The Puritan Era.

  4. “Now it seems conservative Christians generally have an issue with birth control”

    Or you could just say: Now it seems conservative Christians generally have issues!

  5. @ gulag
    “FSM save us if some Christo-Fascist loon wins the Presidency, and has a Congress of like-minded loons in Congress.”

    Time to move to Canada/NZ/Oz/UK…

  6. BlueLoom,
    I’d love to.
    Sadly, I can’t leave my old, diabetic, mother.

  7. The biblical basis for opposition to abortion and birth control is pathetically flimsy

    I disagree. Jesus talked about “caring for the least of these” and about caring for widows and orphans – in other words, the defenseless. An unborn child is pretty defenseless in my book. He didn’t explicitly use the words “abortion” and “birth control” but the underlying concept of defenselessness applies.

    Now, I would agree that Jesus talked a whole lot more about economic issues and about people’s attachment to money. And that’s where Conservatives get squeamish and trot out some flimsy defenses that are pretty easy to cut through.

  8. Maha.. Speaking about plugging your book…Here’s a little tidbit that coincides with some of the points you make in your book.

    Here is one paragraph that I found that dovetailed nicely with the misconception many people hold about the concept of religion.

    First, those people who are already disposed to seeing faith as a bludgeon (or who are at least wary about the possibility) hear “God hates certain kinds of people” and find themselves justified in rejecting faith as a medieval form of crowd control. In a culture increasingly filled with people who believe religion is a problem, Franklin affirms every stereotype of religion as filled with a bunch of slack-jawed goons who can’t wait to rid the world of heresy. Put more simply, at least one of the things driving the “Nones” away from religion are folks like Franklin Graham who believe that God has bestowed on a few special people a line-item veto on God’s guest list.

    • Swami — yeah, Franklin is pretty much the living embodiment of everything that’s screwed up about contemporary Christianity in America. Thanks for the link

      BTW, if anyone has slogged most of the way through the book and could give it a nice review on Amazon, I would appreciate it muchly. If you didn’t like it, of course, please keep it to yourself. 🙂

  9. Maha.. Regarding that book review…In the words of Jimmy Olsen.. “I’ll get on it right away, Chief!” How many stars do you want? 🙂
    Your book wasn’t a slog for me. I devoured it and loved every minute of it. I particularly liked your thoughts and explanation on the need for and the importance of doubt. Coming from a background rooted in Christianity I found your writing on that topic to be soothing like a confirmation from above.
    I came away from reading your book with a sense that my time and effort in reading it was well spent. I was well satisfied, and I commend you on your work.

Comments are closed.