Note: Back in the infancy of this blog, on June 19, 2006, I posted this piece based on then new books chronicling the rise of the Religious Right. What has change since then? Well, the Tea Party and the aggressive decision by the billionaires funding the movement to cement a wider popular base for their real objective of enriching themselves and establishing an absolute oligarchy has meant that social conservatives have finally been handed real victories in their fight against modernity, science, and for sexual subjugation and the domination of women. And they have returned the favor by endorsing the whole supposedly Libertarian agenda to dissolve most government to empower corporations. Moderates have been driven out of the Republican Party, but neither the Religious Right nor the oligarchs care. They care only for the powerful discipline of lock-step unity. They remain at odds with the majority of the country on issue after issue, but the majority is fragmented, alienated by the political process, and to often apathetic or discouraged. That makes the Religious Right even more dangerous today. Anyway, this is how I saw it six years ago.
Is the United States becoming a Theocracy? Tough question and one much on our minds these days. Two recent books have stirred discussion, Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed money in the 21st Century (whew!) by Kevin Phillips.
These religious forces have been organized by their leaders and the Republican Party into the most disciplined mass voting bloc since white Southern Democrats once held sway over the South. The ascendancy of the Republican revolution owes its success largely to this irreducible and reliable base.
Goldberg, a senior writer for Salon.com, is positively alarmist. Evangelicals, she points out represent 30-35% of the population. Add other religious conservatives including right wing Catholics, traditional Jews, and disaffected members of mainstream Protestant denominations and the figure approaches half of all Americans. That makes this group, by far the largest identifiable and cohesive sub-culture in an increasingly fragmented society. By sheer numbers they are bound to have enormous influence.
For his part Philips, the former Republican strategist who developed the Southern Strategy before defecting to the left, put this raw power in perspective as part of the Republican juggernaught.
Republicans have risen to power in an intricate and sometime contradictory coalition which has included fiscal conservatives, libertarians, neo-imperialists (usually called neo-conservatives), main street business types, and traditional reactionaries. But the two dominate pillars have been the so called Religious Right (RR) and the corporate interests of the super rich. The RR has provided bodies, votes, and fervor. The corporatists have provided unlimited money, a pervasive willingness to engage in flagrant corruption, and a determination to use ideology to free business from all constraint to accomplish the largest transfer of wealth (poor and middle class to the oligarchy) in history. Woven together by the genius of the likes of Newt Gingrich, Carl Rove, Pat Robinson, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, et. al. these two forces drove the Republican Party to unheard of political dominance over all three branched of government in record time. They dragged the other members of the coalition behind them on the roller coaster thrill ride to power.
But just when it seemed that total and permanent power was within their grasp, trouble appeared in Paradise. That trouble came in the guise of a failed war in Iraq which shook public confidence in their leadership and exposed the too, too apparent frailties of the stooge-front man for the operation, George W. Bush.
All of this time the religious conservatives were sure that they were using the corporatists and the Grand Oligarchs were equally sure that the gullible church folks were their tools. They were able to stroke each other’s pet projects—tax reform for action against abortion and Gay marriage.
Yet in the end, despite all of their power, neither side was able to pick the golden fruit of their most cherished dreams. The RR’s dutifully supported gutting Social Security, slashing taxes, rolling back environmental, health, and other regulations. But other than a lot of rhetoric and the appointment of a few judges, they never really got the Mogul’s full support for their most cherished dreams. Despite their best efforts the Corporatists could not get repeal of capital gains or the estate tax, drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, or the dismantlement of Social Security. They blamed insufficient zeal on the part of their religious allies.
While the pillars of the coalition are under strain, the fringe participants are jumping ship. First to go were the traditional balance-the-budget fiscal conservatives, appalled by the Bush spending frenzy yoked to relentless tax cuts which has sent the budget from surplus to mega-deficit in just six years. Hot on their heels are the social libertarians equally frightened by the RR’s zeal to regulate every aspect of personal behavior on one hand and the neo-imperialists gleeful embrace of a coercive security state on the other. Small and mid-level business types, the back bone of the Eisenhower Republican Party, no longer see their interests tied to those of ruthless multi-national conglomerate corporations. The neo-imperialists are frustrated by the neo-isolationists. And to top it off the immigration issue pops up cleaving corporate interests from the nativist populists.
This bodes ill for the political future of true theocracy. But never discount its tenacity and power.
There are also problems within the RR itself. It was never as monolithic as it seems from the outside, where it is identified almost exclusively with Evangelical Christianity. Certainly the Evangelicals are the biggest part of the pie, but they are not the whole bakery. Most deny that they are actually seeking temporal power, only that their cultural sensitivities be respected and their moral norms adhered to. The vast majority, even of the leadership, do not seek a Christian theocracy.
The Southern Baptists, now the nation’s largest Protestant church and surely its most muscular, is the eight hundred pound gorilla of the RR. At their recent convention, they elected a “moderate” who seemed less interested in making cultural and political warfare the central mission of the church. A move to direct Baptists to withdraw their children from public schools as inherently and irredeemably secular, failed. But in an ominous move, Baptists were instructed to return to their communities and capture school boards, library boards, and local governments. Essentially the Baptists were telling the national Republicans that they were withdrawing their focus on Congressional action, where they cannot win their goals, to the local level where they know they can demographically hold sway over most of the South and a good deal of the West. That’s bad for the Republicans nationally, but may also be bad for proponents of church/state separation locally.
One relatively small sliver of the RR actually has its eyes set on true Theocracy. The Christian Dominionist movement grew out of Calvinism arisen from the ashes just about everyone one thought it was consigned. It lived on in a few academic corners and in a strain of rock-ribbed Presbyterianism that long split from their now liberal main denomination. Taking Calvin’s dictatorship of Geneva as a model, this hearty band advocates the establishment of a Christian Nation with only certified Christians able to vote or hold office. This group has grown from a handful of intellectuals and thinkers into a real movement which has infiltrated the larger RR and the Republican hierarchy. Several top [Bush] Administration figures are at least tangentially associated with this movement.
Ironically the main allies of the Dominionists are Catholic intellectuals rooted in Natural Law philosophy on one hand and an admiration for rigid hierarchy on the other. Bob Jones University not producing many first class legal minds, it has been from this group that Catholic lawyers have been recruited to top justice department posts and the judicial appointments so dear to the RR. These are the men, and they are almost exclusively male, that George Bush taps to take over the appellate bench and Supreme Court. They are the insurance policy that even if Republicans loose power in the legislative or executive branches, their revolutionary changes to American governance and society will remain in place.
But there is something inherently unstable and ultimately unsustainable about an alliance of resurrected Calvinists and Opus Dei Catholics.
Another shaky alliance is between Evangelical Protestants and the neo-imperialists, largely Jewish intellectuals keenly interested it the use of American power to advance Israeli safety and interests. Evangelicals have become a powerful block in the pro Israel lobby. But that comes not out of any fondness for Jews, indeed Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals have a history of anti-Semitism, but out of their end-time fantasies in which Armageddon is played out on the ashes of the Holy Land.
All of these stresses mitigate against the ascension to power of a true theocracy, but none prevent it. Vigilance and action are always needed or the nation can, as many hope it will, slip quietly into a virtual theocracy draped in the empty forms of Enlightenment democracy.
Unitarian Universalists, the religious heirs of the Enlightenment, have a special responsibility to fight the good fight. But we can’t do it alone. We must find allies among the fading Mainline Protestant denominations, progressive Evangelicals like Jim Wallis of Sojourners and former President Jimmy Carter, Reform and other liberal Jews like Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, and other spiritual voices to present an authentic religious voice that stands against Theocracy and in defense of Democracy. Fortunately, that effort is now underway in organizations like the Interfaith Alliance.