Where Does the Christian Right Get Its Politics From?
by Matthew Lyons
Speech to the Annual Brunch of the Broome County Coalition for Free Choice, Binghamton, New York, 12 February 1995
I’m going to offer you a few brief thoughts about the Christian Right. The primary focus of my work over the past two or three years has been on the history of ultraconservative, fascist, and right-wing populist movements in the U.S. When I think about what’s dangerous about the Christian Right today, a lot of what I think about is how this movement has built on the work of past right-wing movements, but has moved beyond them in important ways.
There is a long tradition of right-wing Christian political activism in the United States. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux-Klan, which at that time included millions of members, was very closely tied to various Protestant churches. In the 1930s, Father Coughlin’s “Social Justice” movement, which was led by a Catholic priest and had special appeal for many Catholics, was the largest pro-fascist movement in this country at the time. In the 1950s and 60s, there were a number of Christian anti-Communist organizations.
And yet the Christian Right of today has built a social base which is broader and more cohesive than any of these earlier movements. It has done a lot to set aside sectarian theological disputes between different factions. It has brought millions of Christians into political activism for the first time, including major groups such as Pentecostals and charismatics, who traditionally have avoided political activism. And the Christian Right has been working hard to build political unity between evangelical Protestants and right-wing Catholics — especially using issues such as abortion and homophobia to recruit Catholic support. These are major political changes.
The Christian Right has also pulled itself out of the trap that many of its predecessors faced, of simply reacting against secularism and liberalism in society. Since the 1970s and 80s, the movement has presented itself as working for an active, positive program. A major unifying principle of the Christian Right today is “Dominion Theology” — the belief that Christians should exercise “dominion” over all spheres of society. The most frightening form of Dominion Theology is a doctrine called Christian Reconstructionism, which has been very influential within the movement. Reconstructionists advocate a totalitarian, explicitly patriarchal theocracy based on their interpretation of Biblical law. In their vision, for example, only men from Biblically correct churches could vote or hold office. And the death penalty could be applicable as punishment for: homosexuality, adultery, heresy, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and in the case of women, having an abortion or “unchastity before marriage.”
Reconstructionism has not been universally accepted within the Christian Right, but it has become a defining ideological pole which everyone else responds to in one way or another. Paul Hill, the anti-abortion terrorist who murdered two people in Pensacola, Florida in 1994, was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which is run by Reconstructionists. Reconstructionists also head the group Missionaries to the Preborn, one of the most militaristic of the anti-abortion groups, whose leaders have endorsed the killing of abortion providers.
The Christian Right has borrowed a lot of ideas from secular ultra-conservatism, but has given these themes greater force by presenting them in religious terms. The Reconstructionist conception of Biblical law, for example, includes abolishing the welfare state and all public social services (including public schools), abolishing labor unions, abolishing laws protecting civil rights, the environment, and workplace health and safety. Their vision of a Christian republic would be based on an extreme form of laissez faire capitalism.
Traditional right-wing conspiracy theories have also been woven into Christian Right doctrine. Many leading Reconstructionists have had close ties with the John Birch Society, and have echoed the Birchers’ warnings about sinister plots linking Freemasons, Communists, the Eastern establishment, the Council on Foreign Relations, the UN, and so on. A lot of these conspiracy theories include veiled or indirect references to antisemitic themes — for example they often scapegoat bankers such as the Rothschilds who just “happen” to be Jewish. What the Reconstructionists do is say that all of these human conspiracies are reflections of Satan’s master conspiracy. And you see exactly the same kind of conspiracy thinking in Pat Robertson’s bestselling book, The New World Order.
One place that Christian Rightists and secular ultra-conservatives have come together recently is in the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which brings together Howard Phillips’s Conservative Caucus, the remnants of George Wallace’s American Independent Party, and anti-abortion activists such as Randall Terry, and Matthew Trewhella of Missionaries to the Preborn. At a USTP meeting last summer, Trewhella urged formation of armed citizens militias, while another leader called for abortion providers to be put to death.
In a strange way, the Christian Right has also borrowed — in parasitic fashion — from progressive political traditions. This is one of its most insidious characteristics, which doesn’t get confronted very much. When we see the Christian Right’s attacks on multiculturalism, we need to recognize that the movement has also developed its own form of multiculturalism. This is not the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which was restricted to Protestant, native-US-born, White men. Certainly, the Christian Right’s multiculturalism is shallow and tokenistic — but then that is also sometimes true of liberal multiculturalism as well.
The Christian Right is a movement which constantly invokes the anti-slavery abolitionist struggle and Martin Luther King as inspiration for its campaign against abortion rights. It’s a movement which has actively sought to forge alliances with conservative Black, Latino, and Asian churches and community groups, and has had some successes in that — notably in the New York City school curriculum fight a couple of years ago. The flip side of this is the movement’s celebration of “Western Civilization” against “barbarism.” What I think has happened here and in some other right-wing movements is a shift away from old-style segregationism and biological racism toward a more sophisticated cultural racism, which is happy to include a few people of color, as long as they are loyal to the values of “Western civilization.” At the same time, some Christian Right leaders have voiced explicitly racist views, and sections of the movement, including some anti-abortion activists, have made common cause with Klan and neonazi organizations.
You see a similar kind of stance toward Jews. Some Christian Right organizations have expressed open anti-Jewish bigotry — such as Human Life International. On a more basic level, the whole concept of “Christianizing” America is antisemitic by definition — just as it also anti-Muslim, anti-Buddhist, anti-Hindu, anti-agnostic and anti-atheist. And yet the Christian Right has been fairly successful in publicly dissociating itself from the long history of Christian antisemitism. It has welcomed a handful of Jews as members and supporters, and it has presented itself as the champion of “Judeo-Christian” values — a phrase which reduces Jewish culture to a prefix on somebody else’s noun. A big help to the movement’s image has been the fact that many evangelical Christian leaders have expressed strong support for the state of Israel, for both political and theological reasons. This has made many pro-Zionist Jews think twice about sharply criticizing the Christian Right.
Maybe the strangest part of the Christian Right’s pseudo-progressivism is the way it has taken on some of the trappings of feminism in the service of a program of misogyny and male dominance. Thus we find propaganda campaigns about how abortion “exploits women.” Thus right-wing opponents of pornography often say that pornography is sinful — and it objectifies women. Thus the Christian Right has encouraged women to become politically active, to develop leadership skills and professional qualifications — at the same time that it’s told them to embrace their supposedly “traditional” family role of subservience and passivity.
The movement’s views on homosexuality, however, have none of this ambiguity. As far as I know, Christian Rightists have not sought to include any lesbian or gay members. Nor have they tried to mask their belief that homosexuality should be utterly suppressed. I suppose their version of inclusiveness in this case is that gay and lesbian people can be “saved” and that one should “hate the sin but love the sinner.”
The last point I want to make is about the relationship between the Christian Right and U.S. society as a whole. A lot of people have tried to portray the Christian Right as some kind of “radical extremist” movement which is outside the so-called “democratic mainstream.” I think that way of thinking fosters a dangerous complacency about the mainstream. The kinds of oppression and bigotry that the Christian Right stands for are rooted in U.S. society’s long and continuing history of male dominance, racism, class hierarchy, and so on. To a large extent, we also see these oppressions perpetuated today in moderate and liberal politics — whether it’s the bipartisan consensus on dismantling welfare rights, the bipartisan attacks on so-called “illegal aliens,” or the fact that in the United States today, millions of low-income women do not have genuine full access to reproductive freedom. One of the great dangers of movements such as the Christian Right is that they help make “mainstream” forms of brutality and injustice look respectable by comparison.