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How the Religious Right is Politically Wrong

Readers of The 7-10 know that I currently live in South Carolina while I pursue my doctoral studies. South Carolina is probably the most conservative state on the East Coast and is the only state on the coast that has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1976. Blacks constitute about 30% of the state's population, but the state is overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. South Carolina has a Republican governor, a Republican lieutenant governor, two Republican senators, a Republican-controlled state legislature, and a majority Republican congressional delegation (4 out of 6 congressional members are Republicans and one of the Democrats represents a majority Black district). There is currently only one Democrat holding a statewide elected office, and that is the superintendent of education.

Needless to say, the Palmetto State is a conservative stronghold. This state is full of military veterans, active duty servicemembers, gun owners, fiscal conservatives, and descendants of the old Confederacy (the Confederate battle flag still flies in front of the Statehouse in Columbia). There is nothing wrong with any of these demographic and ideological constituencies. However, there is one component of the Republican Party that is threatening the party's long term viability. This constituency is alive and well in South Carolina, throughout the South, and in rural areas in general: religious conservatives, also known as the religious right, or more specifically, Christian conservatives.

The paradox of Christian conservatives as they pertain to politics is that they comprise the bedrock of the Republican Party. So the Republican Party can ill afford to leave them behind when it comes to policy. However, the issues that Christian conservatives rally behind are often polarizing cultural wedge issues that people who would not describe themselves as Christian conservatives either don't care as much about or hold views that Christian conservatives find unacceptable.

Thus, the dilemma that Republican politicians face is whether to keep their base satisfied or risk angering it by trying to appeal to a broader coalition of voters in the political center. The Washington Post's David Broder aptly observed that the regionalization of the GOP to the South, the Western Plains, and the Upper Mountain West has pushed the party considerably more to the right, potentially at the expense of the electorally rich Midwest, the Pacific Coast, and the Northeast.

As I mentioned earlier, South Carolina has a large Christian conservative population. The power of this constituency is reflected in local ordinances (e.g., blue laws), local advertising, and media reporting. South Carolina's largest newspaper, The State, recently filled its opinion pages with letters to the editor about the never-ending debate between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" and whether South Carolinians should be allowed to purchase Christian-oriented license plates from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The problem for the religious right is not their socially conservative views. Their problem is that they commonly get mired in cultural issues that nobody will ever reach a consensus on while issues that affect far more people's lives are ignored.

Every year, Christian conservatives claim that there is a "war on Christmas" and that "God is being removed from the public square." And with the license plate controversy, these same Christian conservatives believe that a judge's refusal to allow the sale of license plates with the words "I believe" and a golden cross on them is an attack on their religion. South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer is aggressively pushing for these license plates to be allowed under freedom of speech grounds even though no other license plates for followers of other religions exist.

Meanwhile, South Carolina is experiencing a $600 million budget shortfall (which is ironically being attributed to too many tax cuts) which is resulting in harsh cuts in funding for all state agencies, including public schools and universities.

Which issue is more important? Being able to purchase a special kind of license plate to allow you to express your Christian faith, or finding ways to improve the state economy so that school bus routes don't have to get canceled, new teachers can get hired to serve in public schools, and university courses don't get dropped? (One of the courses required for my own degree program was cut, thus potentially delaying my own graduation.)

It would seem that the license plate issue could easily be remedied by purchasing a Christian bumper sticker and that one could get around the December salutation issue by saying both "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" together, or simply choosing the greeting you feel more comfortable with. However, this personal freedom does not seem to satisfy Christian conservatives, as many of them wish to have their religious views become public policy. They use their religion to justify their political views and suggest that if you disagree with their views, you are somehow attacking their religion or are somehow "anti-God" and "anti-family."

Critics may say the left is guilty of the exact same thing--thinking they are right. But there are several obvious problems with this thinking.

First of all, there are many people who do not share the same faith. Rising immigration and changing demographics are changing this nation's religious balance. This does not mean that traditional Christianity is under attack. It just means that it's not the only game in town anymore. So using the Bible to justify a political view has little meaning to someone who does not read or follow the Bible at all. Using the Torah or the Koran to justify public policy would likely be met with scorn or outrage, so why should it be any different with Christianity?

Critics would predictably reply by saying the United States is a Christian nation. It was founded on Christian principles and has a majority Christian population. But there are several ways to refute this argument. To start, the "Christianity" on which this nation was founded included denying women the right to vote and allowing millions of Blacks to be torn apart from their families and forcibly held in chains for generations. (This is why the "Christian nation" argument doesn't work with people of color.)

This "Christian nation" also attacked and invaded a country under false pretenses, thus leading to the deaths of over 4,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. (This is why this argument doesn't work with liberals.) This "Christian nation" also dropped two atomic bombs on nonmilitary targets that killed or sickened tens of thousands of civilians. (This is why this argument doesn't work with immigrants and young people who didn't grow up with Vietnam, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the Cold War.) These are not my criticisms of the United States, but they are indeed facts that seem to contradict the tenets of Christianity.

Secondly, having a majority does not automatically make it right for this majority to do whatever it wants, regardless of how the minority is impacted. Slavery and Jim Crow laws (passed by presumably Christian politicians) are the most obvious examples, but there are other more recent examples of the tyranny of the majority. Majorities of Americans supported legalized segregation and bans on interracial marriage just a few decades ago. President Bush and congressional Republicans spent the first 6 years of the Bush presidency governing as if the minority (Democrats) did not matter, but the 2006 and 2008 election results showed that this was not wise. In an apparent contradiction, when it comes to abortion rights, the will of the majority apparently doesn't matter to the religious right. So why should it matter if the majority of Americans are Christians if the religious right wishes to overrule the majority of Americans when it comes to abortion rights? One cannot selectively cite majority opinion as the reason why certain policies should be adopted.

Third, this thinking assumes that this Christian majority is monolithic. And that leads to my next point. There are many people who interpret the same religion differently. There is a large percentage of Americans who do not attend church regularly. Some only attend it on religious holidays. Others consider themselves "believers," but do not attend church at all. There is even a growing number of people who consider themselves "spiritual, but not religious."

Christians who fall into these categories fear that their religion is being hijacked by the religious right and take offense to equating religion-based social conservatism with "Christian policies." This is why the Republican Party is virtually dead in the Northeast and dying in the Midwest. Social moderates who are more concerned with economic issues (i.e., country club, suburban, and Wall Street Republicans) are being pushed into the Democratic Party because of the religious right's emphasis on issues like gay marriage and the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance at the expense of pocketbook issues like jobs and health care.

Even worse, these Christian conservatives are now training their fire on their ideological allies. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck recently had an article pulled from the website of the conservative Focus on the Family because of his Mormon faith. Never mind the fact that Glenn Beck is far closer to the cultural and political right than the left. The fact that the path he chose to achieve spirituality differs from theirs is enough to warrant silencing him or attacking his faith as a "cult."

Of course, all political groups and constituencies are free to behave as they wish. But the same Christian right that brought Republicans to power in the 90s is now threatening to keep them locked out of it in the future. The Christian right is shrinking the GOP tent and making it less appealing to voters who may share some of their conservative sentiments even if they don't share the same interpretations of the same religion. This, combined with the fact that Republican Party officials are still boneheaded enough to create songs called "Barack the Magic Negro," practically ensures that Republicans will become increasingly irrelevant while cannibalizing themselves at the same time.

The fact that Christmas is over means that the "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays" debate will now lose its salience until next December. But South Carolina's budget cuts still exist and will affect millions of South Carolinians for months or years to come. Where is the Christian conservatives' outrage regarding this issue? Do they have any solutions? The fact that voters around the country are looking for political leadership and solutions in these times of crisis make these cultural issues seem very small and unimportant. Republicans would be wise to focus their attention on issues that actually matter to people's lives. And unfortunately for the Christian right, their agenda is not it.

5 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

The religious right and Republicans entered into a marriage of convenience on the occasion of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. (That, BTW, kicked off in Philadelphia, Miss., where a few years earlier three "freedom riders" from the Chicago area had been slain.) Like most marriages of convenience, it's fraught with perils for both partners.

In one respect, though, it's a good fit. Religious fundamentalists are absolutists, and not just in matters of faith. They are about dogma and harvesting and wielding power, in society, using political power whenever they can get it.

As I've mentioned before, Republicans behave more like a political pressure group than a big-tent (or omnibus) political party. In their way, they too are absolutists, dogmatic and thoroughly devoted to gaining, wielding and retaining political power. When in power, Republicans rule, as opposed to governing in the traditional sense of American politics, always with emphasis on rewarding their friend$, punishing their enemies — as opposed to the opposition — and keeping the levers of power in their own hands.

So, there's a same-wavelength quality to the relationship.

Re: those license plates. I would dearly love to debate Lt. Gov. Bauer about those, not only on the basis of church-state separation, but also on religious grounds. If, as I suspect, he's a Protestant Christian, it would be interesting to know if he ever heard the one about going into a room, quietly and alone, to pray, unlike those who beat their chest, wail and pray loudly in the streets. Humility and sincerity in faith, as opposed to shallowness and being ostentatious.

It doesn't take a doctorate in theology to figure out which take on religion those license plates appeal to.

King Politics said...

Anthony and S.W. are right. The bigger problem for Republicans is that the electoral system is designed to have just two political parties. Someone has to take the evangelicals, but they're so unyielding in their beliefs that they'd rather lose than compromise. Hard to sustain a majority with supporters like this.

DB said...

My of my, you have illustrated this point so well. Though this all implies they understand that this country is a country of diverse views, backgrounds, beliefs and traditions. Not to mention you also assume they want minority support as the racist stereotype persists and is being reenforced everyday (RNC CD thing). The religious right is not concerned with that diversity, rather themselves, and they feel minorities only threaten their beliefs and traditions. They want to preserve what they think were the traditions of this country in the past, but fail to realize the truth of these traditions. Yes, a return to a time where people stay married is ideal (not for everyone, but I digress that point for the broader point), but to forget that at that time women were considered second class and had no rights. This is just one example of an entire platform plagued with such fallacies.

And King: "so unyielding in their beliefs that they'd rather lose than compromise. Hard to sustain a majority with supporters like this." That is a brilliant thought and will ultimately be their downfall (well, at least until they yield as they always do).

DB said...

Happy New Year guys

Anthony Palmer said...


Because the Democrats have not been particularly successful at winning presidential elections over the past 40 years, I'm not sure if I can think of any particular liberal constituency that has as much sway as the religious right does for conservatives. The gay left is quite vocal, but I don't think it's a large enough part of the base to have that sway. Could it be Black voters? Obama has shown that he is willing to stand up to them (especially when it comes to Black fathers), so perhaps that's not the group either (Illinois politics aside).


Dr. King,

That is a very powerful, succinct comment. Thanks for using two sentences to say what I tried to say using a bunch of paragraphs.



Do you remember Reagan talking about how life in the 1950s was really good and that we should return to that way of life? I think that was when he launched his 1980 campaign in Mississippi. America is changing. That genie is out of the bottle. People are going to have to accept that you'll never get rid of all the gays, atheists, immigrants, non-English speakers, feminists, nonvirgins, or people of ethnic group X. So rather than continue a tribalistic war against them, why not just find areas of common ground? It seems that this inability to put the toothpaste back in the tube will continue to dog the religious right and further marginalize them.

Happy New Year everyone.

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