Rapture on the Right

by Eyal Press

NOT BY POLITICS ALONE: THE ENDURING INFLUENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT • by Sara Diamond • The Guilford Press • 296 pp • $23.95 • November

In his 1963 classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter, like Karl Marx and H.L. Mencken before him, predicted that religious fundamentalism would not survive its bruising encounter with modernity. "The fundamentalist mind," Hofstadter wrote, "has had the bitter experience of being routed in the field of morals and censorship, on evolution and Prohibition, and it finds itself increasingly submerged in a world in which the great and respectable media of mass communication violate its sensibilities and otherwise ignore it."

Three decades later, one can only conclude that it is the fundamentalists who have been doing the routing. At the time that Hofstadter wrote,evangelical Protestantism appeared to be a dying faith confined to the rural backwaters of the South. Today, evangelical churches are among the fastest growing in America, and they are expanding more rapidly in the West than in the traditional southern Bible Belt. Back then, liberalism was the nation's reigning ideology, and fundamentalists barely registered as a political force. Now, evangelical Christians are at the forefront of a broad conservative political realignment. And though America may be the most technologically advanced society in the world, the Bible continues to hover over contemporary debates about marriage, school prayer and funding for the arts, not to mention the Clinton impeachment hearings.

Sara Diamond's new book, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, is an attempt to reckon with the extraordinary vitality and endurance of what is arguably the most activist force in contemporary American politics: the Christian Right. Diamond, a left-leaning scholar who has written several studies of conservative politics and is a frequent contributor to the radical magazine Z, is anything but a movement sympathizer. Unlike many of the Christian Right's liberal critics, however, Diamond sees the movement as a genuine brand of American populism and rejects the complacent liberal notion that the Christian Right is mainly kept afloat by the backing of wealthy sponsors. Asking "Where do they get their money?" she explains to the reader early on, does not tell us much about how a social movement emerges and succeeds.

This is refreshing to hear, particularly since Diamond's 1995 study, Roads To Dominion, portrayed the Right's resurgence as an elite-driven phenomenon, with corporations, politicians, and government agencies playing the leading role. As Diamond shows, one of the keys to the movement's success in recent years has been the creation of a decentralized, grassroots organizational structure that has placed power in the hands of rank-and-file activists. It's true that the Christian Right has many friends in high places. Yet many of the better-endowed Christian Right organizations--notably Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, which collapsed in the late 1980s--have been less successful than their scrappy cousins. When Ralph Reed launched the Christian Coalition in 1989, he consciously departed from the Moral Majority's approach to politics, focusing energy not on raising money but on training activists to wage campaigns in school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. The strategy paid off. While many in the media have attributed the Christian Coalition's success to its strong connections inside the Beltway, the group's popular base outside the Beltway is the reason elites listen to it.

While acknowledging the Christian Right's popular support, however, Diamond doesn't go nearly far enough. You almost feel as though she is so uncomfortable with the Christian Right that she's afraid to get too close to it. Rather than interviewing movement supporters or activists, she relies solely on published materials. Bizarrely, she also insists that the Christian Right is not "a truly radical social movement," since a truly radical social movement "is one that works to eradicate inequality and injustice." By the same standard, neither the Nazis nor the Taliban could qualify as truly radical.

Diamond's book is primarily a study of the Christian Right's vast network of institutions and resources: publishing houses that generate a $3-billion-a-year Christian book industry; Beltway lobbying groups like Gary Bauer's Family Research Council; issue-oriented organizations like Randall Terry's Operation Rescue; sympathetic law firms; and, most importantly in her view, a media empire that now consists of TV stations, newsletters and some 1,648 Christian radio stations.

Clearly, commanding such resources helps. With a TV network that reaches an estimated fifty-nine million homes, Pat Robertson doesn't have to bother with the "respectable media of mass communication," nor need he answer questions about his taste for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about an omnipotent Jewish financial cabal. (Amazingly, his views haven't stopped Jewish neoconservatives from embracing him as a friend of Israel.) The range and flexibility of organizations on the Christian Right have helped the movement avoid investing too much energy in any single issue or campaign. Ralph Reed even tried, with mixed success, to move the Christian Right beyond cultural issues into areas like crime, taxes, and health care.

Ultimately, though, one wishes to know not just what Christian Right organizations do but why so many people join them. One wants not only a description of the movement's organizational infrastructure but an analysis of its members' motives and ideology. There are, after all, other groups in American society with comparable resources that play far less of a role in our politics, notably the labor movement. In the end, having institutional resources--or not having them, as barely subsidized organizations like S.D.S. and S.N.C.C. showed during the 1960s--does not explain the success or failure of a movement. If the Christian Right has proved uniquely capable of motivating large numbers of people to become social activists, it must have something to do with its vision.

Diamond pays lip service to the Christian Right's "motivating world-view," but she fails to examine the passions behind the movement's highly moralistic, indeed Manichaean, view of politics. "This is not a book," she declares flatly, "about why people...join and participate in social movements," as if a movement could be understood without accounting for this.

As Hofstadter noted, the fundamentalist mind "looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil.... The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality." Hofstadter considered this stance a liability, since, like most pluralist intellectuals of his generation, he regarded politics as an art of compromise, with no space for absolutist claims of any kind. For all their insight, these liberal pluralists failed to recognize that in social movements absolutist claims tend to be very useful. In fact, virtually every social movement in American history--from abolitionism to civil rights--has looked on politics as a theater of moral conflict and invoked the Bible for inspiration.

Still, the Christian Right's moral absolutism has not always translated into activist politics. As Diamond points out, from the mid-1920s to the 1970s, the absolutists of the Christian Right tended to stay away from politics, adopting what theologians term "dispensational premillennialism": a belief that the secular world is hopelessly corrupt and that only the Second Coming will bring salvation. "I would find it impossible," a Baptist reverend proclaimed in 1965, "to stop preaching the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else--including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms." The reverend's name was Jerry Falwell. Two decades later, politics had trumped religion, so much so that Falwell and others were joining hands with Pentecostals, right-wing Catholics, and Jewish neoconservatives.

The reason doctrinal purity suddenly took a backseat to politics has much to do with the broader transformation of American culture and politics that occurred in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The Christian Right was clearly emboldened by the new politics of morality that emerged in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, when issues of racial equality and economic justice gave way to battles over abortion, gay rights, and school prayer. Suddenly, there were people in Washington, mostly Republicans, who started explaining the nation's social problems in language that evangelical Christians could understand. Their common enemy was the counterculture and the spirit of rebellion that suffused the 1960s--although, ironically, Christian Right activists like Randall Terry were soon to adopt the organizing tactics of the social movements they despised.

At about the same time, people within the Christian Right started to feel threatened. The Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the emergence of gay rights and feminism, and the transformation of American mores that remains the 1960s' most enduring achievement left evangelical Christians feeling like there was no place to hide anymore and nothing left to do but fight. As the fundamentalist pastor Edward G. Dobson recently explained to the journalist Godfrey Hodgson: "A series of threats caused a community that had been separatist for fifty years to act. It acted because, all of a sudden, the larger secular world was having an impact on its members' 'separated' lives, through gay-rights issues, moral erosion in the public schools, banning prayer."

One problem the Christian Right faces, however, is that the cultural transformation that spurred it to action is here to stay. Unlike the abolitionists of the nineteenth century and the opponents of Jim Crow a century later, the Christian Right has not launched a crusade against an institution that the majority of Americans are likely ever to recognize as a discernible evil. On the contrary, it inveighs against a variety of "sins" (homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion) that a majority of Americans, and indeed a sizable portion of conservatives, readily tolerate. This has not been lost on the Christian Right's more opportunistic political allies, either. As Diamond points out, numerous Republicans count on the movement to mobilize voters at the local level yet wish to keep it at arm's length in national elections. Whoever runs on the Republican ticket in the year 2000 will no doubt attempt to keep a safe distance from the party's religious faction in order to curry favor among swing voters and pro-choice soccer moms.

Then again, the Christian Right may prefer it that way. Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, one of the movement's most powerful organizations, is so frustrated with the GOP's lax approach to social issues that he has threatened to abandon it. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council is contemplating an independent run for the presidency. Republicans, these movement leaders complain, talk tough about abortion and the N.E.A. yet deliver nothing. In a recent National Review, national correspondent Ramesh Ponnuru anxiously brooded that the Christian Right's foot soldiers may soon part ways with the GOP, "revert[ing] to the political quietism they maintained for most of this century."

Yet, as both Ponnuru and Diamond underscore, any predictions would be grossly premature. The last person to make such a prediction was the sociologist Steve Bruce, who, in a special 1994 issue on the Christian Right in the journal Sociology of Religion, argued that the movement would suffer an "inevitable" collapse because no absolutist group can survive for long in a democratic, pluralistic political culture. A few months later, the Christian Right mobilized more than four million voters and helped elect dozens of evangelical Protestants to their first term in Congress. If the Christian Right has demonstrated anything in recent years, it is an ability to disappoint the secular intellectuals who assumed it was too inflexible to survive in the world of modern politics. Which goes to show that, when it comes to religion, the judgment of secular intellectuals has often rested less on rational observation than on a different, but no less blinding, kind of faith. •

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