Fundamentalist political power in America


( Free Inquiry - February-March 2005 )


By James A. Haught


Bizarrely, the 2004 U.S. presidential election was decided by voters who oppose the theory of evolution, or await the Rapture, or speak in the "unknown tongue," or seek faith-healing, or send money to television preachers, or think Satan is a real spirit stalking America.

White evangelicals and fundamentalists -- mostly puritanical people who hate homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research, Hollywood, etc., and who tend to favor guns and the death penalty -- tipped the ballot balance to their hero, President Bush. The "three G's" -- God, guns and gays -- were a crucial factor in the squeaker election.  Exit polls credited born-again voters who ranked "moral values" as their chief concern, more important than the Iraq war, job losses and other issues.

"There are roughly 70 million people in America who do not believe in evolution, and those are Bush supporters," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh said just before the election, when asked to explain the president's mammoth backing. Other estimates of what has been called the Bigoted Christian Redneck realm range as high as 100 million, counting narrow-minded members of mainline churches. This segment of the U.S. population isn't monolithic, either denominationally or politically. Nonetheless, it's a mighty force in the electorate.

How did the Religious Right rise to power? It's a long story, involving America's amazing moral change over the past half-century. Ponder this social history:

Back in the 1950s, when I was young, moral values were oppressive: You could be jailed for looking at the equivalent of today's R-rated movies or Playboy magazine -- and gays were sent to prison for "sodomy" -- and it was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket in most states -- and blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, etc. -- and it was a crime for interracial couples to marry -- and Jews were banned from some clubs -- and birth control was still a crime in some states -- and "blue laws" made it illegal for stores to open on Sunday -- and divorce or unwed pregnancy were hush-hush -- and police might jail an unmarried couple for sharing a bedroom -- and a doctor who performed an abortion faced prison -- and schoolchildren were led in government-mandated prayers every morning -- etc.

Of course, there was "sin" in the '50s.  Bootleggers furtively supplied illegal booze, and pornography circulated illicitly, and some unwed couples hid away, and so forth.  But it was generally an era of narrow taboos.

Then came the historic civil rights movement and the youth rebellion, mostly in the 1960s, America's liberal heyday. Young protesters fought the Vietnam draft, blacks marched for equality, courts struck down censorship, and human rights laws were passed. The sexual revolution snowballed.  Bigotry became unlawful.  Despite the adolescent excesses of the 1960s, it was a time of moral improvement, in my view.  Many old prejudices were swept aside.

Then a backlash occurred in the 1970s and '80s.  Fundamentalists, who previously had seemed a mere fringe, began mobilizing against the wave of "wickedness" that had arrived. The historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and '63 against government-led school prayer, plus the 1973 opinion legalizing women's right to choose abortion, along with the easing of social stigmas against gays, etc., all convinced them that Satan was gaining control of America. 

Evangelist Jerry Falwell coalesced this group by forming the Moral Majority. He demanded restoration of school prayer, crackdowns on porn, recriminalization of abortion, ostracism of gays, etc.  This group yearned for a return to the "moral" 1950s -- seemingly unaware that it had been a time of harsh prejudice. It was more proof of the age-old axiom that the most intolerant people in any society are religious hard-liners.

Although fundamentalists are mostly blue-collar folks, and previously had tended to be Democrats, they began finding an ally in the Republican Party.  In 1980, they were instrumental in electing Ronald Reagan president.  When the Moral Majority faded, it was replaced by evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, again solidly Republican.

Gradually, white evangelicals and fundamentalists became a wing of the GOP -- anchoring the "base" that strategist Karl Rove milks for votes. The group is especially devoted to George W. Bush because he underwent an emotional conversion after years of heavy drinking -- which makes him their hero, "one of us." Conservative Catholics joined this base.

Meanwhile, liberal mainline Protestant churches -- which advocate somewhat more tolerant and humane values -- have shrunk in America, losing millions of members. The national tide has flowed toward fundamentalism and narrow morality.

Today, some in the latter camp even say born-again President Jimmy Carter isn't a real Christian because he doesn't embrace the Religious Right political agenda. He quit the Southern Baptist Church in protest of its hidebound outlook. Oddly, Carter's piety would have galled many U.S. voters around 1970, but by 1976 the evangelical upsurge buoyed him, yet now he's reviled by the same group. A cycle has been completed.

So, today, born-again whites are a potent political element in the United States. Over the past decade, many researchers have found that Americans who attend church more than once a week are the most ardent Republican voters -- while those who don't worship generally vote Democratic. This gives the GOP a huge power base, because America is more religious than other advanced nations.

Is this lineup permanent? I hope not. Although the future is unforeseeable, thinking people should hope that America gradually will follow Europe, Australia and other societies where churchgoing has faded. U.S. secularism is rising. In 1993, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that only 9 percent of U.S. respondents said they have no religion, but this group rose to 14 percent by 2002. During the same period, the ratio of Americans identifying themselves as Protestants fell from 63 to 52 percent.

Two 2004 reports -- by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Institute for Jewish and Community Research -- both raised the "none" group to 16 percent of the U.S. population. This trend toward rationality, away from supernaturalism, someday may weaken the Religious Right.

Right now, however, America must endure a political powerhouse of mean-spirited believers who can sway elections. For the good of the nation, let's hope that 2004 was the nadir, and an upward path lies ahead.