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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Religious Right

In a private email exchange my correspondent, someone I don't really know, wrote that he “cannot stand the religious right”. I'm not sure he meant that to be a personal insult at me - I don't know that he knows me any more than I know him.

I suppose I am the religious right. I’m a born-again Christian and politically I certainly fall under the conservative label as it is currently used. I consider myself a liberal (in the eighteenth century sense) but that’s not really useful in conversation. If you go down the list of positions currently called ‘conservative’ I probably support them.

“Cannot stand the religious right”? I wonder if, when people say this – and I imagine there are others that do – they would be able to stand a conservative that is not religious, or a religious person that is not conservative? That is, is it the religion, the politics, or what such people might consider the particular combination that they cannot stand?

If I try to think of positions particular to the religious right, I’m not sure what they are. Creationism taught in schools? Do most Christian conservatives want that? I don’t know. I don’t want it. On the other hand I certainly would be quite upset to hear that any teacher might be out there telling students that the theories of the big bang and evolution have somehow proven that there is no God. But I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to do that and if they do it, I imagine they try to keep people from finding out. Certainly if teachers were to denigrate Christianity in particular by word or implication I would consider that beyond their mandate and would demand they be reined in. Does holding such a view cause otherwise rational people to not be able to stand you?

Abortion? Are only Christians opposed to abortion? Is opposition to abortion considered “right”? That is, are you not allowed to call yourself a liberal if you believe in every single liberal cause other than abortion? What if you’re a devout protestant socialist, yet you oppose abortion? Does that make you part of the religious right? If not, does that make you easier to stand than a devout protestant free-marketer that opposes abortion?

Is it so-called gay marriage? There are certainly solid non-religious arguments to make against a fundamental re-definition of marriage. If you’re an atheist against so-called gay marriage does that make you as hard to stand as someone in the religious right?

Just rambling here. I don’t know where I’m going with this but the statement “I cannot stand the religious right” just kind of struck me in a new way today. I wanted to get a couple thoughts down before I forget the incident.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

A Taxonomy of the Religious Right

Maybe I should have put the words "religious right" in italics, but I don't like interrupting the visual flow of a title in that manner.

I don't know that anyone has done a really precise taxonomy of the religious right, or looked into which aspects of that group are found to be offensive, and by whom. I read Kevin Phillips's book American Theocracy last year - or was it earlier this year - and Phillips pretty much contented himself with ostensive definitions. That is, he pointed out groups that were religiously conservative, and he pointed out groups that were conservatively religious, and talked about the overlap and the location.

That's sort of an epidemiological approach, I suppose, and it does identify one characteristic of the people commonly known as the religious right: They are concentrated in certain areas, and that concentration, in turn, tends to reinforce their certitude in some of their ideas and attitudes.

I'd rather use a Venn diagram sort of approach, which lends itself to logical analysis. Agim, you sort of point to the possibility of a disjunction between some groups commonly conjoined by their opposition. So let me look at that.

First, let's take someone who was undoubtedly a member of the religious right, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell was (1) a member of one of the evangelical Protestant denominations. I'm not sure if he was in the Assemblies of God, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Disciples of Christ, but he was a Protestant evangelical, and something of a fundamentalist. That means something in terms of Biblical inerrancy, reliance on scripture as an authority, and a rejection of "the higher criticism."

I don't know how many people who share those characteristics, i.e., how many Protestant evangelicals, are also Southerners, Republicans, and political activists, but Falwell was certainly all of those.

Falwell was (2) a Southerner, and the various evangelical, holiness, and fundamentalist Protestant denominations are concentrated in the South. They are also numerous in states bordering the South, and in states to which many Southerners have migrated. Take a look at the Central Valley of California.

Falwell was also (3) Republican. The move of white evangelical Southern Protestants to the Republican party is often attributed to Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. I think Nixon merely exploited something that was happening anyway: As the Democratic Party became dependent upon the votes of Northern African Americans, White Southerners were going to leave the Democratic Party.

Finally, Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority, was (4) a political activist. That is, he, and those like him, preached the opposite of the Social Gospel. They preached that religious, scriptural religion, scriptural religion in keeping with Southern mores, should express itself in political action.

Now, as everyone knows, politics is about getting other people to do what you want them to do, or to refrain from doing what you don't want them to do. So, much of the reaction to people like Jerry Falwell is based upon the perception (accurate or not) that they wanted to impose their beliefs about right behavior, through the power of the government, upon people who did not share those beliefs.

Let me mention one example, from a different setting. Many people understand that the Catholic Church opposes abortion. I know lots of people, who will say that the Church has a perfect right to oppose abortion as a matter of doctrine, and even to expel (excommunicate) members who don't conform to its standards in this matter. It's a voluntary organization, and it can set its own standards for membership.

But many of these people bitterly resent any attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to insert itself into politics in an effort to get the government to enforce church doctrine on non-Catholics (or on unwillin Catholics, for that matter).

So I think it's the constellation of factors. It is the combination of a set of religious beliefs and social teachings, with the attempt to implement those doctrines throughout the society by political means that characterizes the religious right.