02 August 2013

Is the Christian Right still a threat?

There's no longer any doubt that our side is winning the culture wars.  Last year's election saw gay marriage approved by referendum in several states.  The rapid increase in the non-religious proportion of the US population has, if anything, accelerated (the figure now stands at about 20%), and acceptance of evolution is rising along with it.  Recent votes to legalize gay marriage in France and Britain and even some Latin American countries, and abortion in Ireland (!), show that the trend extends well beyond just the US.  The enemy, like a dinosaur beginning to apprehend its impending extinction, gazes around at a rapidly-changing world in bewilderment and fear.

So -- is it time to declare victory and stop worrying?

I urge caution.  To begin with, these setbacks have not made the Christian Right moderate its goals at all.  Recent tentative suggestions from the Republican party establishment that the party should curb its hostility to gay marriage, for example, triggered a forceful backlash from the rank-and-file base (which largely consists of the Christian Right), given voice by major figures such as Mike Huckabee.  Any hint of compromise on abortion remains taboo for the party; the barrage of high-profile attacks on it continues, most recently in Texas and North Dakota.  Republican politicians know who their core supporters are.

The US Christian Right has also shown its true colors in its activities overseas.  It has supported vicious anti-gay extremism in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa (Republic of Gilead blog has tracked this in detail, for example here and here), and in other countries such as Belize.  Most recently it has found a soft spot for the Putin regime in Russia, which has cozied up to the Russian Orthodox Church by enacting a series of anti-gay measures.  Comments by some Christian Right leaders involved in these efforts have made it clear that they dream of someday imposing similar policies in the US, if only it were possible.

But will they ever get the chance?  Aren't they clearly in the minority now, and simply too weak to force their will on the country?

As I pointed out two years ago, there are scenarios in which the Christian Right could impose its rule even though it is in the minority.  It dominates one of our two major political parties, and uses that dominance to push its agenda at the state level in states where Republicans are in power, as the campaign of anti-abortion laws shows.  At the moment, they seem unlikely to be able to achieve the same thing on the federal level.  Some polls show next year's Congressional elections alarmingly close, but there's some good news for our side too, and the Republican party has a track record of sabotaging itself with gaffes and un-serious candidates (Akin, Mourdock, O'Donnell, etc.).  2016 is a long way off yet, but polls show Hillary Clinton trouncing any Republican challenger, with the possible exception of Christie.

The de facto situation is that the political power of the Christian Right is determined by the electoral success of the Republican party, and that party remains in trouble due to its incompetence, its inability to adapt to demographic changes, and the very fact of its subservience to increasingly-unpopular religious extremists.

But there is one credible scenario in which all that could change -- a really major economic crash.  Such events have a way of driving people into the arms of demagogues who offer simple solutions and point the finger at scapegoats.  The Great Depression helped bring fascists to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and prolonged economic misery (caused, please note, mainly by the kind of austerity policies that conservatives advocate everywhere, including here) is encouraging extremist movements there even today.

Author Frederic Rich recently issued a warning in the form of an "alternate history" novel titled Christian Nation, set in an America in which McCain won the 2008 election and then died, allowing Palin to become President.  He does not envisage Palin single-handedly imposing a theocracy (an implausible scenario); rather, conservative economic policies would have deepened the recession, creating conditions for extremism to take hold, while two Supreme Court appointments made by Palin rather than Obama would have neutralized Constitutional obstacles to fundamentalist rule.  Watch him here:

If you consider that an economic crash is probably the Republicans' only real chance at returning to national power anytime soon, their behavior in Congress makes much more sense -- staging histrionic confrontations over the debt ceiling, threatening a government shutdown, sabotaging Obamacare, demanding cuts in benefits spending amid a still-weak recovery, etc. would be perfectly rational tactics if the intent were to damage the economy as much as possible in the hope that Democrats would be blamed and voted out of office.

They are unlikely to succeed.  In four and a half years they have weakened the recovery, but have not managed to kill it.  Obama seems more savvy in dealing with them than he was earlier in his Presidency, and a small bloc of less-radical Republicans willing to compromise on at least some issues has emerged.  Then, too, even success could backfire; polls have shown that more voters would blame Republicans than Democrats if, say, the debt-ceiling brinkmanship really damaged the country.

But the fact remains -- in a two-party system, the "out" party is likely to regain power at some point.  We won't really be able to declare the threat of theocracy to be decisively defeated until the Christian Right loses its dominance within the Republican party -- and there is little sign yet of that happening.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Christian Right is 25-30% of our voting population. You have to respect it. I believe the mistake made in dealing with them was not seeing them for what they are. They don't care about theology. If that were the case, they would have spoken out against Reagan's astrology. Their faith for them means money and power. Mormonism's a cult until Romney wins the nomination. We don't have to talk about the Christian response to GOP sex scandals.

By not seeing them as they are, the opposition is made to look weak and stupid. Democrats were too scared to stand with Obama on access to birth control. They turn wuss whenever the Right barks. I'm almost convinced they don't see burying them as a goal or possibility.


02 August, 2013 06:36  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

"We won't really be able to declare the threat of theocracy to be decisively defeated until the Christian Right loses its dominance within the Republican party -- and there is little sign yet of that happening."

A very blunt truth. The biggest mistake that progressives made--in my opinion--was to ignore the CR until it was too late. There has to be caution, not only at the Federal level, but at the state and local level.

President Obama and the Democratic Party have their faults, to be sure--but right now, they are the only effective bulwark against the GOP which has allowed itself to be co-opted by the CR. Some on the left can wail all they want about how Obama is "worse than Bush" and other nonsense insults, but that reflects a blindness to the threat the CR poses.

Thanks for this post. It was well-written, and honestly, this is a subject that we cannot afford to ignore, no matter how many times Glenn Greenwald tosses out bon mots about the NSA.

02 August, 2013 06:51  
Anonymous Ahab said...

"But there is one credible scenario in which all that could change -- a really major economic crash. Such events have a way of driving people into the arms of demagogues who offer simple solutions and point the finger at scapegoats."

Chris Hedges explores this possible scenario in his books -- I don't recall if it's in the conclusion of "American Fascists". "Empire of Illusion", or both. Have you read him? If not, I highly recommend those two books.

I was always baffled when I encountered dominionist, Religious Right thinking among rural working class people. However, your commentary reminds me how poverty and hardship can make fundamentalism appealing.

02 August, 2013 07:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Vic78: It's not quite that many. White fundamentalists are maybe 25% of total US population, but the real Christian Right is a sub-set of that, combined with a small number of hard-line Catholics (the Santorum types).

Also, the theology does matter. If they had been as confident and dominant (and as radical) in the 1980s as they are now, they might well have objected to Reagan's astrology, especially if it had been better known. If it were all about money and power, they would be giving up their bitter fight against gay marriage, an obviously-lost war which is also becoming a public-relations disaster as gays become more accepted.

Explicitly attacking religion is still something of a taboo, and most Democratic politicians (like politicians generally) are old and are the product of a more conservative time, so the taboo still intimidates them.

02 August, 2013 10:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks. It's hard for us secular liberals to take religious extremism seriously because the mentality involved is so alien to us. We always tend to look for a "real" motive for which we can believe the religiosity is just a smokescreen. Sam Harris has covered this point well.

I agree about the absolutists on the left who can't see that the lesser of two evils is still a big improvement on the greater evil. How far out ahead of the country do they expect Obama to get, anyway? There's a limit to what even he can do.

Ahab: Thanks for the recommendations. I should read Rich's book too. Americans, I think, don't quite realize the threat to democracy which the economic disaster fueled by austerity is creating in some southern European countries. The US has always been more stable, but we'd be fools to think it absolutely couldn't happen here if conditions got bad enough for long enough. There's a first time for everything.

02 August, 2013 10:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Infidel: I meant that 25-30% of the voters that turnout are hardcore fundies. You can count on them to show up in every election. I will never forgive the right for catering to them. I wish the democrats would go for the jugular and bury them(GOP).

I should've said that they were theologically flexible to pursue their greater good. They'll accept a gay person as long as he acknowledges his sin. Mormonism and Catholism are now accepted denominations. They've evolved on race a little bit(as long as spit the party line). I'll have to agree that the theology is the strongest part of their system. They can have diversity in everything except belief. I noticed SE Cupp claims to be an atheist. She does the necessary bowing and scraping to sell those books and advance her career. They tolerate everyone that knows their place.


02 August, 2013 12:58  
Anonymous Bacopa said...

Hell TF no. The fundies are not defeated yet. I grew up in the mostly progressive Texas of the 70's and 80's. We were awesome but now Texas is a joke.

There is no other solution to the Christian Problem in the US than crushing them by force.The fundies have no moral reasoning we can appeal to. They have no concepts of right and wrong. They care nothing about harm, consent,and consequences.

They are moral morons. Reason means nothing to them as they cower in fear of their cruel God.

They barely understand reason, so we must resort to force The fundies will never allow secularists to be free until we can make them fear us more than they fear their imaginary god.

02 August, 2013 19:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Vic78: There are now more non-religious people than Christian Right nuts, and with the latter becoming less popular, hopefully the Democrats will see the opportunity presented.

Bacopa: Well, I hope victory at the ballot box will make force unnecessary. If the fundies did take over the way Rich describes, one could hope the military would step in to defend the Constitution as in Egypt, but it's hard to know what would happen.

04 August, 2013 10:25  

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