Religious Right and Politics

With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America - William Martin

William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University, wrote this companion piece to a PBS series (that I have not seen) that surveys the history of the mostly white, Protestant Evangelical church community and its role in the political landscape over the past forty years, with a brief analysis of its roots in the early twentieth century. Ironically, it was self-professed evangelical and born-again Christian Jimmy Carter who raised the ire that coalesced the religious right movement.

In an attempt to force independent schools, many self-labeled as Christian schools, to accept non-white students, he had urged the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of any school that was racially segregated. Attempts by the religious right – for lack of a better term, for as Martin shows, there were often huge gulfs in beliefs among the so-called religious opposition – to organize followers around issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and other issues had failed on a national level, but when their pocketbook was threatened, they came alive. Removal of tax-exempt status would have inevitably raised tuition and cast the specter of government control over what they could teach or whom they could admit into their schools, and this was anathema. The abortion issue failed to energize the right after Roe v. Wade (Jerry Falwell did not even preach a sermon on it until 1978), and the author speculates that a major reason was the right’s anti-Catholic attitude. Anything the Catholics were against might be OK and anything they were in favor of should be mistrusted. In general, evangelicals were very worried about JFK’s ascendancy to the presidency, fearing he would come under the control of the dreaded pope.

Billy Graham, a major figure in the evangelical movement, initially courted political figures, becoming good friends with whomever was in power, but especially Richard Nixon. It was this association and his shock at Nixon’s immorality after listening to the Nixon White House tapes that lead Graham to warn other evangelicals, against mixing religion with politics. But power continued to attract a wide group of evangelicals and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, ostensibly dismayed by the country’s descent into moral turpitude, delivered the election to Ronald Reagan. Falwell’s star has waned considerably, and he has been replaced by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed although little of their social agenda has been enacted into law, the Kansas anti-evolution textbook stance being perhaps a glaring exception. Martin treats all the characters of the movement sympathetically and objectively, although he’s not afraid to skewer hypocrisy when it appears, and Jerry Falwell’s obvious racism and subsequent dis-ingenuousness about it clearly annoy the author. It’s an important story and well told. Clearly, many of the people involved have honest concerns for a variety of issues that disturb them, and Martin delineates all the sides various of battles including the Kanawha County West Virginia textbook war, the disagreement over how AIDS patients should be treated, and the sex education battles of Anaheim, California.

What I found most disturbing was not the political activism or concern of individuals, but the callous and unprincipled adoption of particular issues by those seeking pure political power. There is also a disturbing attitude on both sides of the issue that there is only one right way of looking at the world and, by God, you better look at it my way or else. It brings to mind the witch hunts of Salem, the Inquisition, and McCarthy, to mention but a few. We must hope and work together so that those periods will never surface again. What the evangelicals and religious right fail to recognize is how harmful any relationship with government can be. That was the genius of Thomas Jefferson in insisting on a separation of the two. Many modern observers have pointed out that religion thrives in this country precisely because there is no official link to whomever is in power. Billy Graham recognized this too late as he read how he had been manipulated by Nixon for Nixon’s own ends. So it’s doubly ironic that the only self-professed born-again Christian president, Jimmy Carter, who recognized the dangers inherent in a political-religious alliance, was such a disappointment to those evangelicals who had championed his election.