Over the past year, my maunderings on the fate of the Religious Right in America have gone off in two apparently opposite and contradictory directions. On one hand, I've been making the argument that Evangelicals are undergoing a significant cultural shift, which is changing the face of fundamentalism as we've known it for the past 30 years; and that this may be an occasion for some sunny optimism concerning the future of our democracy. On the other, I've been writing dire reminders that religious authoritarians have been with us from the beginning, and will be with us always -- and these posts have been clouded with warning, caution, and despair.
Contrary to appearances, this is not evidence of incipient schizophrenia on the part of your loyal reporter. Rather, I presented both scenarios because both of them are substantially true. And the future they point to is not one that's either/or. We're now entering new era that's going to be increasingly both/and for a while; and if we're going to read the signs properly, we need to understand the dynamics of the new dialectic that's emerging.
One The One Hand....
On the "new day dawning" side, there's been a lot of buzz this week over David Kirkpatrick's article in the New York Times about the changes that lie ahead for Evangelicals. It's a well-researched, insightful article, and essential reading for anyone who's concerned with the interplay between religion and politics. And it strongly supports the best-case scenario. Kirkpatrick points out that the old guard is passing, and the new guard isn't interested in governing their flocks by manipulating the same old hot-button issues. He's mostly right, and we need to understand why. Taking the long futures view, there are a couple large-scale forces at work that will continue to support this trend.
The first is simple demographics. The existing far-right religious coalition first congealed around people's fear of the social changes brought by the 1960s and 70s. Many of those changes were centered around gender roles, sexuality, and family structures -- which is precisely why the religious right's backlash aimed very specifically at issues like controlling sexuality, shoring up rigid gender roles, and limiting the definition of "family" to one tight script with no deviations (or deviants) allowed. These topics were deliberately chosen as a calculated response targeted to the passions of that moment in time.
These messages are losing their impact for one simple reason: that moment is over. It's all ancient history now. Nobody under 40 remembers the '70s; increasingly, the old-style culture war is an obsession that's only shared by the aging members of the congregation. After all, you can't scare the kids with a boogeyman they grew up living next door to, and learned to get along with better than their elders ever did. As the recent Barna study revealed (and Obama is learning the hard way), over 80% of them see the old anti-gay crusades as simply hateful. While they may never come to terms with abortion, and some are still quite committed to traditional family structures, they're understandably reluctant to throw their energies into the ancient, narrow political battles that have left their elders feeling cynical, defeated, and used. Their generation has its own challenges, and Kirkpatrick notes rightly that they're far more eager to engage those instead.
This is an old and familiar cycle in American Protestantism. Any number of firebrand sects, from the Quakers to the Methodists, have emerged in a blaze of theological passion tailor-made for the issues of the day -- only to find their relevance dimming as times changes, and other issues emerged. It's very typical for these sects to either go mainstream or vanish entirely within three or four generations. The core ideas that made their voices so essential in one moment make them irrelevant in the next. They reach a point where they either re-invent themselves and find some new and more compelling messages, or they die.
A second force at work here is the natural lifecycle of fundamentalist movements. Karen Armstrong writes that, throughout history, fundamentalisms end in one of two ways. The vast majority of movements fall apart due to internal schism, or are betrayed by their (what we would now identify as high-SDO) leadership, long before they ever achieve their goals. But the handful that succeed in acquiring real social or political power face another problem. These movements are, by definition, based on utopian idealism rooted in a literal interpretation of ancient scripture. Unfortunately, when they're finally put in charge, reality bites back hard: there's always a day of hard awakening when they realize those old texts provide almost no useful advice for governing a modern society.
I've said before that the surest cure for fundamentalism is a big, healthy dose of Life In The Real World; and Armstrong corroborates that this same principle works for governments and movements as just well as it does for individuals. Historically, putting fundies in charge always forces them to moderate their positions and reconnect with the complexities of the reality-based world. Suddenly, you hear die-hard Biblical literalists talking about how important it is to interpret scripture in light of the cultural context of its time. People who thought they were going to rule by the word of Jesus suddenly realize just how many of those words were about taking care of other people, including non-believers. They realize that good policy requires good research (and good science, and good history); and that responsible, accountable people don't have the luxury of behaving like emotional six-year-olds. Armstrong says that a big sobering dose of reality moderated the politics of post-revolutionary Iran within just three or four years. People expected the mullahs to actually govern, not just pontificate. And they realized, quickly, that they had to stop being so heavenly-minded if they were going to be any earthly good.
Here in the US, history will remember the Bush years as the explosion that resulted when a wide variety of right-wing utopian fantasies collided with reality. Within the religious right, they're now having to make serious choices about how they're going to wield their new-found power; and work through complex moral arguments about what those scriptures mean in dealing with real-world issues. Nothing, it turns out, is remotely as black-and-white as they thought it was. Learning to see reality in all those messy shades of gray is, in the end, how all successful radical movements eventually calm down and join the mainstream.
On The Other Hand....
It's not all happy news, though. While the softer core of fundamentalists will likely be swept off into the mainstream, we're still left with Bob Altemeyer's bald fact: at any given time, about 25% of the population has right-wing authoritarian tendencies. And the harder core of those people -- the 12% who organize their whole lives around their addiction to anger -- are not going anywhere. Indeed, some of the old-line leaders already working overtime to install some new Pavlovian drool bells on these people, buttons can be pressed at will to stimulate the two-minute hate that gives their followers their daily buzz and keeps those donor checks rolling in.
Over at Talk2Action, Rob Boston of Americans United argues that reports of the demise of the old-line religious right are greatly exaggerated:
One recent poll found that 27 percent of Republican voters would bolt the party if a pro-choice candidate is nominated. It's a good bet these are Religious Right voters, and their defection from the GOP could not help but alter the dynamic of the race.The money will always be there, as long as there's a Reverend Moon, a Howard Ahmanson, and a Richard Sciafe to fund them. Selling authoritarian hate is a big business in America; and those who do it well will never want for backers.
The recent "Values Voter Summit" is further evidence of the Religious Right's continued power. The turnout of more than 2,000 activists rivaled the numbers the Christian Coalition brought to Washington during its heyday. Every Republican candidate was there, pledging fealty to the Religious Right's pet issues. One wonders why they came to woo a dead movement.
We must also look at resources. A recent report by Americans United found that the nation's top Religious Right groups are better funded than ever. James Dobson's Focus on the Family took in $142.2 million in 2006, a $4.4 million increase over the previous year. Tony Perkins' Family Research Council took in $10.3 million in 2006, an increase of over $900,000 over the previous year.
It is true that some Religious Right leaders have died recently, notably Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy. But movement leaders come and go. Falwell's son, Jonathan, is already working to take his place. (The younger Falwell is mobilizing pastors on behalf of the GOP in state elections next month.) Behind the scenes, figures like far-right pastors Rick Scarborough and Rod Parsley are working to build a national presence.
But money is only half of the survival equation. The other is finding a new red-meat issue. The right wing needs a new boogeyman: it cannot survive without one. The ghosts of their ancient failed campaigns against blacks and gays (and, occasionally, Asians and Jews -- either of whom, for good measure, can also be read as code for "Communist") will always be invoked -- but since those fights are over, they don't generate the emotional heat required to keep the country's current authoritarian leadership in power. They need a fresh target that's worthy of a renewed chorus of eliminationist rhetoric -- some group that can reliably keep those rallies full and those checks rolling in.
For a while, fronted by the Minutemen, they tried to declare war on Mexicans. Unfortunately, they forgot one important criterion for the any hate campaign: you need to pick on someone that the target audience doesn't actually see every day. Too many Americans actually live or work among Mexicans, which makes it much harder to mass-market cartoon stereotypes about them. And (perhaps more importantly) too many of our high-SDO authoritarian class make a handsome living by exploiting them, and don't want that fact to become part of the public discussion. As an issue, Mexican-hating has some limited potential; but it's doesn't generate hysteria and panic on the vast scale that race-baiting and gay-bashing did. Compared to those past campaigns, it's small potatoes. They need something bigger. Much bigger.
And it appears that they've found it. It turns out that there are a billion people to hate -- and even better, they're all way over on the other side of the world where there's no danger that RWA followers will ever meet up with them (unless they're sent as soldiers to kill them) and have their stereotypes challenged. Building on post-9/11 insanity, religious and political authoritarians are working overtime to cement the frame that the entire Muslim world constitutes the new existential threat to America. You can hear it in the pulpits; you can hear it on Fox News. Muslims are the New Frontier in American hate, the coming investment in the authoritarian future, the place where today's ambitious hatemongers are now staking their claim to glory in the decades ahead.
It's a powerful narrative, with a lot of potential for future mischief -- the best bet for a big, gnarly, long-term enemy they've had since they lost the Commies. And there's a significant portion of the younger generation for whom hating ragheads, whom they don't know, has far more appeal than hating gays, whom they do.
This sales job is going to be big trouble if it succeeds. It will justify endless war in the Middle East, which will, very soon now, bankrupt America and destroy any hope we may have for future greatness. (Disaster capitalists, on the other hand, stand to profit handsomely from this meme.) Tagging all Muslims as terrorists not only results in humiliating gaffes and massive injustices; it also blinds us to the fact that people of other races, religions, and nationalities can be terrorists, too -- a wrong assumption that may someday prove fatal. Fanning a white-hot fear of Muslims now will add extra fury to the "stabbed-in-the-back" argument when it's used to persecute liberals at war's end. The more Muslim-hatred they can foment now, the worse this "treachery" will appear to be. So it's very much in our interest to strangle this idea before it takes hold.
But there's even more at stake. It's possible that the ultimate success or failure of the new, re-directed authoritarian right will directly depend on how well they can sell the fear of the Muslim boogeyman in the months ahead. Without it, they will have no control over their followers -- and hence, no political leverage. Right now, they're still rolling it out; it hasn't spread too far even within far-right circles yet. If we can contain it while it's still a fringe idea, the implications for our future political discourse will be truly world-changing.
Americans are notorious for succumbing to the appeal of the boogeyman as a means of self-identification; sometimes, it seems our entire sense of ourselves has always depended on having an enemy to contrast ourselves with. It's time to recognize that this soul hunger for an enemy to hate is a classically authoritarian instinct; and throughout our history, nobody but authoritarians have ever profited from indulging it. If the dominant culture confidently rejects the new enemy they're offering now, we'll go a long way toward cutting off the right wing's ability to influence our future.
Kirkpatrick is right. The soft core RWA followers are finally melting away (as I predicted they would a year ago), finding ways and means to re-join the real world and re-engage with American society. But Boston's right, too: the hard core is going nowhere. It will be smaller -- and without the soft-core to keep them in touch with real-world concerns, it will be far more rigid and angry, too. Ironically, our best hope may be that the more extreme they become, the more anathema they'll be in the eyes of the rest of America. Nobody serious will want to be seen with the crazies.
This discussion about "whither the religious right" will keep unfolding over the next several months, as people look for signs and wonders indicating the arrival of one predicted future or the other. But the clear-eyed course is the one that refuses to pick. Both stories are true. Both factions are in the process of re-negotiating their places in American society, and both will inevitably undergo large-scale changes as a result. It's in the way those re-negotiations unfold, and the choices that get made, that the real future of the religious right will be written.