On the Road to Political Power and Theocracy

By Sara Diamond

The past two decades have seen a growing symbiosis between the mass movement of evangelical Christians and the Republican Party. Since the 1968 presidential election, when nearly 10 million Americans voted for segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, the Republicans have worked to broaden the class base of their party downward. That has meant following Wallace's lead in using issues of race, crime, and "morality" to attract white middle and lower middle class voters.

In the mid-1970s and 1980s, Gallup poll surveys showed that one-quarter to one-third of the US population identified itself as "born-again" evangelicals. Most of them have become politically active only since about 1980. Certainly not all are right-wing, but their numbers are large and numbers win elections. In June 1994, a New York Times poll revealed that about 9 percent of a national sample identified themselves as part of the Christian Right.

The handwriting was on the wall for anyone who cared to read. Since 1975, leaders of the Christian Right have built one organization after another, with the avowed purpose of winning state power, i.e. the power to influence, if not dictate, public policy. Leaders of the Christian Right worked hand-in-glove with the Reagan and Bush administrations to wage murderous wars on civilians in Central America and southern Africa. Meanwhile, the North American left cackled along with the rest of the country at the ridiculous TV preacher scandals, which diverted people's attention from the really important players in the Christian Right. While everyone else was laughing, the Christian Right grew into the most formidable mass movement on the political scene today. We will enter the new millennium with the Christian Right in positions of state power.

Exit poll data indicate that about 25 percent of the people who voted in November 1994 were white evangelical Christians. Among these, about two-thirds voted Republican. There was nothing "stealth" about it. The stated agenda of the Christian Right in 1994 was to help deliver the Senate and Congress to the Republicans-and to credibly claim credit for doing just that. Each time around, the Christian Right is doing a better job of getting its people to the polls. In the 1992 presidential election, about 18 percent of the voters were self-identified white evangelicals. The figure for the 1990 midterm election was 15 percent.

The trend began in the late 1970s when the Christian Right registered several million new voters to vote for Ronald Reagan. In 1980, when Reagan won with only 26 percent of the eligible electorate, white evangelical voters accounted for two-thirds of Reagan's ten-point lead over Jimmy Carter. Then in 1984, the Christian Right pulled out all the stops to re-elect Reagan. In 1992, despite Bush's defeat, exit poll data showed that there were only two constituencies consistently loyal to the Republican Party: people with incomes over $200,000 a year, who are few in number, and the Christian Right.

The single most important, though by no means the only, movement organization is the Christian Coalition. The Coalition's Annual Road to Victory conferences draw thousands of hard-core activists for two days of strategizing in Washington, DC. The Coalition claims more than a million members, which is probably a mailing list figure. More importantly, the Coalition, since its founding in 1989, has built 1,700 local chapters in all 50 states. Some chapters hold regular meetings with a couple hundred people. Many of the chapters are headed by women, as are some of the Coalition's state branches. Each chapter includes members of multiple charismatic and Baptist churches, meaning that the outreach capability of the Coalition goes well beyond its own numerical strength, which is phenomenal.

The Coalition's chapters are responsible for distributing voter guides by identifying sympathetic churches and by finding "pro-family" voters on a one-by-one basis. In the 1994 Congressional election, the Coalition sent voter registration packets to 250,000 churches. Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed explained that the voter guides allow candidates and campaigners to bypass "expensive and biased media." On one piece of paper, the Coalition makes a chart showing pictures of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate, Governor, and Congressional seats. The chart lists four to six issues phrased as the right sees them-in 1994 they included abortion on demand, homosexuals in the military, banning ownership of legal firearms, voluntary prayer in schools, parental choice in education-along with the words "supports" or "opposes" under each candidate's picture.

Finally, people on the left are talking about emulating the grassroots organizing tactics of the right. This idea is sensible, but one does not create a citizen lobbying apparatus overnight. For years, people in the Christian Right have learned to make their activism a regular habit. Not a week goes by that the movement's TV, radio stations, and scores of organizational newsletters aren't mobilizing people to call and write their elected officials. Here are people who believe in the efficacy of their own small but persistent actions. They believe their individual postcards and phone calls make a difference, and they do. After Clinton proposed allowing openly gay military personnel, Christian Right activists shut down the Congressional switchboard and deluged their representatives with mail. It worked, and it worked again in early 1994 when an amendment that would have required certification of home school teachers was attached to a federal education bill. Within a week, home schooling leader Mike Farris went on two nationally syndicated Christian radio talk shows and revved up the phone trees of his 37,000-member Home School Legal Defense Association. Eight hundred thousand phone calls later, only one member of Congress was willing to vote for the amendment.

Is this the kind of activity the left could or would emulate? Probably not, because these dramatic incidents do not occur in a vacuum. They are made possible by the day-in-and-day-out organizing the Christian Right does, and they are made possible by the network of institutions the movement has built over several decades. These institutions include a $2.5 billion per year religious broadcasting industry, a slew of independent book publishing companies, dozens of independent regional monthly newspapers, several dozen state-based think tanks that do legislative lobbying, and an array of legal firms devoted exclusively to Christian Right causes.

During the mid-1990s, some left media watchers focused on Rush Limbaugh, an important, though easy target. Limbaugh has millions of listeners and he has played an influential role in the Clinton-bashing of the early 1990s. Limbaugh attracts the left's attention because he allegedly lies with some regularity and because he's a loud-mouthed boor. He fits the image leftists have of people on the right. But to credit the Johnny-come-lately Rush Limbaugh with the mobilization of the right would be like claiming that the demagogic 1930s radio priest Father Charles Coughlin was responsible for the hundreds of pro-fascist organizations that flourished in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. Most of what goes on in right-wing broadcasting is not like the Limbaugh show. Limbaugh is a recent phenomenon, and long after his stardom passes, the Christian Right will continue to produce much subtler and effective programming.

It is the coherence of the Christian Right's cultural institutions and ideological message that makes millions of people want to participate. This is a political movement built on the foundation of some very tightly held religious views. We need to understand the religious sentiments of our fellow citizens. For evangelical Christians, one of the most politically relevant tenets is the idea that they are being persecuted by secular society. Sacrifice and martyrdom are essential themes of the Christian faith. Translated into right-wing politics, the theme enables people to claim that queers and other minorities are somehow attacking the dominant culture when they demand equality. We have the most powerful political movement in the country continually claiming to be persecuted by "the left," which the right defines as the Clinton Administration and centrist lobbies like People for the American Way. It is illogical, but the religious persecution theme keeps activists mobilized and enables them to feel comfortable about trying to deprive other people of their civil rights.

Average people active in the Christian Right genuinely feel that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, which is true. The problem is that through a long process of ideological formation most have arrived at a distorted view of their own best interests. They look at the stagnant economy and see "illegal aliens," not runaway capitalism, which they generally support. They look at teenage delinquency and then blame teachers' unions instead of the consumer culture that trains young people to shop and not think.

What people in the Christian Right want is pretty basic. They want laws to outlaw abortion, which they consider a form of infanticide. They want to change the tax code to encourage married mothers to stay home and raise good kids. They want queers to get back in the closet and pretend not to exist. They want high quality schools; they think the public schools are failing not for lack of resources but because kids can't pray or read Genesis in biology class.

The Christian Right wants these and related things so badly that they organized to win the political power necessary to change the direction of public policy. Early on, the Republican Party realized that it could become the majority party by hitching its sails to the evangelical mass movement. For two decades, the Democrats stood idly by, unwilling and unable to respond because Democrats will challenge neither the prerogatives of big business nor the ideological premises that keep people from challenging class, racial, and gender inequality. As the Christian Right continues to march steadily, though less noisily, toward assuming political power, movement leaders are now debating their future as unyielding moral crusaders, as rank-and-file Republicans, or as some combination of both. Opponents of the Christian Right stand to lose if they do not recognize that, while the movement indeed has some wild policy goals, the agenda is supported by millions of people as common as the neighbors next door.

Unfortunately, the real left, battered down by external repression and its own internal foibles, has not responded either. The left has been unidimensionally focused on the atrocities waged at the highest levels of state power, and has been unwilling to recognize that significant numbers of our fellow citizens are decidedly reactionary. In places where fascism has taken hold, it has been through a convergence of state and corporate power with a mass base of reaction. We saw this vividly in Chile in the 1970s. I am not suggesting that our country will face a military coup. In the era of "democracy," from Nicaragua to the former Soviet republics, elections are the primary means through which the right takes power.

While the Christian Right stands to mature in the process of charting its own course, liberal centrist critics of the movement seem to be wearing blinders; they continue to depict politically active evangelicals as "extremists" somehow outside of or not belonging to "mainstream" culture, let alone everyday party politics. Liberal centrists delight in labeling the Christian Right the "radical right," a misnomer if there ever was one. Liberal centrists have an interest in policing the margins of political dissent and analysis so that rotten apples-right and left-can be exposed, while the rules of the system escape scrutiny.

The idea of a radical right full of extremists was first popularized during the 1950s and 1960s when prominent political scientists, in dutiful service to the liberal wing of the Cold War establishment, labeled Senator Joseph McCarthy and his admirers as paranoid "radicals," alien to the American body politic. In reality, McCarthy drew his support from the same Republican faithfuls who had elected President Dwight Eisenhower. Popular right-wing groups like the John Birch Society emerged only in the late 1950s, well after political elites had turned the pursuit of "communist subversion" into a national religion. By then, polite society was keen to depict wild-eyed Birchers as "extremists," even as they played by democratic rules and helped win the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater. Academia's warnings about "radical right extremism" held influence when the massive Christian right mobilized in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and continuing now, centrist outfits like People for the American Way have promoted a view of dangerous "radical right" Christians as something separate from the US political and economic system itself.

But there is nothing particularly "radical" about most politically active evangelical Christians. To be "radical" is to seize the roots of a problem and to advocate and work for profound social change. The Christian Right, on the contrary, supports existing conditions that effectively maintain inequality between rich and poor, white and black, men and women. The Christian Right supports capitalism in all its forms and effects and seeks to uphold traditional hierarchies between the genders and, less overtly, between races. What is "radical" about a movement that, throughout the 1980s, worked hand-in-glove with the Reagan-Bush White House to wage war on revolutionaries and civilian populations from one end of the globe to the next? Through its close ties with political and economic elites, the Christian Right flourished and, now, has turned its attention against the least powerful in our own country.

Like other political forces before it-such as the civil rights, women's, and environmental movements-the Christian Right is evolving an organizational style geared for success. At the same time, the Christian Coalition's hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists are the same people who harass women's health clinics and spread lies about homosexuality. The right's elite-oriented and mass-based contingents are autonomous but mutually dependent on each other. To call them names like "radicals" or "fascists" will not stop them. To understand them and organize against them just might.

Sara Diamond holds a doctorate in sociology, and teaches that subject and journalism at several California colleges. She is the author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press, 1989), and Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (Guilford, 1995). Portions of this chapter previously appeared in different form in her columns in Z Magazine and The Humanist. © 1995, Sara Diamond.

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This article is adapted from:
Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash

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