Christian Rightists and Neocons: A 25-Year Alliance
by Matthew Lyons
This talk was part of a panel entitled “War and the Christian Right.” The event took place on 27 October 2005 at the William Way Center in Philadelphia and was sponsored by the Philadelphia Anti-War Forum.
When we think about the Bush administration or the conservative movement in general, sometimes there’s a temptation to see them as a political monolith, with everyone faithfully walking in lockstep. But the Bush forces are not a monolith — they’re a coalition of several different political factions. That’s part of their strength, and it’s also — at least potentially — part of their weakness. If we want to organize effectively against the right, we need to study both the strengths and weaknesses of their coalition-building work. For at least 25 years, the alliance between the Christian Right and the neoconservatives has been at the center of right-wing coalition building efforts, and at the center of the whole conservative resurgence.
I’m going to offer a few general comments comparing the Christian Right and the neocons, and then give a very brief historical overview of their relationship, focusing on what brought them together and several pivotal moments in their shared history. It’s particularly impressive that Christian rightists and neocons have been able to work together more or less continuously for so long, because in a lot of ways, these are two very different political movements.
The Christian Right is a mass movement that has grown by actively involving millions of supporters — primarily middle-class suburbanites. The neocons aren’t a mass movement at all — they’re a small network of intellectuals who depend on elite patronage and who have always been pretty ambivalent about grassroots organizing. The bulk of Christian rightists are evangelical Protestants and their political ideology is rooted in a specific interpretation of Christianity. The neocons are disproportionately Jewish or Catholic, and although some of them are religious they’re united by a basically secular ideology that’s rooted in anticommunist liberalism. Many neocons — at least the older generation — are former Democrats or social democrats who moved to the right during the sixties and seventies. Some neocons held onto pieces of their former liberalism for a while, such as support for limited social programs, support for at least some labor unions, and relatively open immigration policies.
The Christian Right’s core agenda is to reassert compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance as part of the so-called traditional family. This is probably the first right-wing movement in U.S. history that’s placed gender and sexuality at the center of its program. The neocons’ core agenda is to reassert U.S. global dominance through an aggressive foreign and military policy. The neocons generally share the Christian Right’s hostility to feminism and gay rights and their call for a return to “traditional values,” but they don’t emphasize these themes as much or hold the same positions as consistently. For example, attacking abortion rights has always been a top priority for all Christian rightists, but it’s not clear to me that all of the neocons want to ban abortion.
Another difference is that the neocons are solidly committed to the United States’ core political and economic system, but Christian rightists are divided on this issue, between what we could call reformist and revolutionary wings. The larger and more moderate Christian Right faction includes the big organizations such as Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America. Their strategy has been to take power within the existing political system. The smaller and more hardline faction wants to overthrow the existing system and set up a theocratic dictatorship based on their interpretation of biblical law. This faction includes the most militant and terroristic branch of the anti-abortion movement. There’s give and take between these two factions of the Christian Right, and there’s the potential that the hardliners could pull the moderates in a more radical direction, but so far that hasn’t happened. When I talk about the Christian Right here, I will mostly be talking about the bigger faction.
Despite the differences between the Christian Right and the neoconservatives, there are several parallels in how the two movements originated, and these helped to bring them together. Both factions started as a backlash against the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The neocons were mainly a reaction to the antiwar movement, Black Power, and the leftward shift in the Democratic Party; the Christian Right started mobilizing mainly as a backlash against the growth of feminism and gay rights activism. Both the Christian Right and the neocons developed outside the traditional conservative movement, and they brought new constituencies and new strategies to help revitalize the Right after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the 1964 presidential election and Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandals a decade later.
Although they relied on profoundly different ideologies, in the 1970s and eighties the neocons and Christian rightists found several key areas where their politics converged. The most important of these was anticommunism — not just opposition to Marxism or the Soviet Union, but a vision of the Cold War as a transcendent struggle between Good and Evil. This anticommunism was tied in with an expansionist form of nationalism — a faith that “American free enterprise” was the greatest system in the world, and that the U.S. had both the right and the responsibility to project its power around the globe to repel and destroy the totalitarian Red menace. In terms of foreign policy, neocons and Christian rightists also shared a strong support for the state of Israel — for very different reasons — which I’ll talk about later.
In addition, both neocons and Christian rightists avoided some earlier conservative pitfalls. Both movements promoted a kind of cultural ethnocentrism that glorified Western Civilization and Euro-American culture — but disavowed explicit racism, nativism, and antisemitism. And in different ways, both movements avoided the failed strategy of Old rightists such as Goldwater, who directly attacked popular welfare state programs such as Social Security.
Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 was a turning point for the conservative movement. Both neocons and Christian rightists had close ties with the Reagan administration, and this was the period when the neocon-Christian Right alliance was really hammered out. One area where the teamwork between the two movements was particularly effective was in helping the Reagan administration promote anticommunist militarism in the 3rd World. Both neocon and Christian Right groups strongly supported right-wing death squad governments in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Philippines, and right-wing insurgencies in places such as Nicaragua and Angola. This support involved a combination of lobbying, fundraising, propaganda work, and direct involvement through the Reagan administration.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a different kind of turning point for the Right. Throughout the Cold War, anticommunism had been a crucial point of unity among several different conservative factions. When the Soviet bloc collapsed, this anticommunist glue no longer held and the conservative coalition started to fall apart — especially around foreign policy. The neocons argued that the U.S. should continue to have a strong interventionist policy to “promote democracy” around the world. But other rightists, who called themselves paleoconservatives, disagreed. Paleocons such as Pat Buchanan argued that the U.S. should now avoid foreign entanglements, oppose free trade, stop supporting Israel, and sharply limit immigration from non-European countries. Paleocons also promoted an explicitly Christian form of moral traditionalism with strong White nationalist undertones. They accused the neocons of being empire builders and closet liberals. Neocons accused the paleocons of being isolationists and antisemites. This conflict started in the 1980s and erupted strongly in 1990-1991 with the buildup to the first U.S.-Iraq war.
In the faction fight between neocons and paleocons, the Christian Right was caught in the middle. The Christian Right was closer to the paleocons on social policy issues, and a lot of rank-and-file Christian rightists shared the paleocons’ critique of immigration, globalization, and free trade. Some big Christian Right groups opposed corporate globalization measures such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but others supported them — and none of them backed Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns. This was partly a pragmatic decision — Christian Right leaders didn’t want to alienate big business. But Christian Right leaders themselves also supported a strong U.S. global presence and — like the neocons — they were strongly committed to the state of Israel.
This last point needs some explanation. Christian rightists support Israel — specifically, right-wing Zionism — because they believe that a strong Jewish state is part of God’s plan for the End Times — the final struggle against Satan. As part of this apocalyptic vision, most Christian rightists believe that all Jews and other unbelievers will be killed unless they convert to Christianity, the “true” faith. This means that the Christian Right is both pro-Zionist and antisemitic. Neoconservatives, many of whom are Jewish, have generally overlooked the Christian Right’s antisemitism because they consider its practical support for Israel to be more important.
This became something of a public issue after Pat Robertson’s book The New World Order came out in 1991. Robertson headed the Christian Coalition, one of the most important Christian Right organizations. In The New World Order, Robertson warned that an evil globalist elite was plotting to destroy American sovereignty and freedom. This position echoed the paleocons’ anti-globalism and borrowed heavily from John Birch Society conspiracy theories. Robertson’s book also used standard antisemitic themes, such as the specter of international bankers as a center of evil, and some of the sources he cited were explicitly anti-Jewish books. At first, neocons ignored The New World Order. In 1994 and 1995, the neocon-oriented Anti-Defamation League and former neocon Michael Lind published exposes of Christian Right antisemitism and they cited Robertson’s book among other examples. To some extent, these exposes reflected fears about the Christian Right’s growing electoral power, which helped the Republicans take control of Congress in 1994. Leading Jewish neocons responded by defending the Christian Right as a staunch friend of Israel.
George W. Bush’s election to the White House in 2000 marked another shift. Both neocons and Christian rightists had been mostly excluded from the administration of George Bush Senior (and of course that of Bill Clinton), but George W. Bush welcomed them. Neocons were appointed to several key second-tier posts in the Defense Department and other agencies. The Christian Right’s main representative in the Bush administration was Attorney General John Ashcroft, who left office in early 2005.
The most recent turning point in the neocon-Christian Right alliance that I want to mention is the September 11th attacks in 2001. On one level, the two movements responded in similar ways — both of them embraced the Bush administration’s so-called war on terrorism and the decision to invade Afghanistan. But there were significant differences below the surface. After September 11, neocons presented an idealized picture of the United States as united, determined, and virtuous, with a strength rooted in our glorious free enterprise system. They dismissed any criticism of the war on terrorism as unpatriotic. For the neocons, September 11 provided the new global enemy they’d been looking for since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Christian Right’s response was more complex. While the neocons rigidly focused on American virtues, many Christian rightists declared that the 9-11 attacks happened because the U.S. had turned away from God. They cited abortion, homosexuality, and secularism as examples of American sinfulness — but also consumerism and greed. Some Christian Right groups criticized repressive measures such as the USA PATRIOT Act. While all Christian rightists rejected Islam as a false religion, some of them discussed Islam in relatively nuanced terms and warned against stereotyping Muslims, and some Christian rightists acknowledged that they agreed with a lot of Islamic fundamentalist criticisms of secular U.S. society. In contrast, neocons demonized “radical Islam” as the embodiment of pure evil. (In recent years, some Christian rightists have forged tentative alliances with Islamic groups around a conservative social agenda in international forums.)
In looking at this brief historical overview, I have a couple of general thoughts. First, although the Christian Right has focused on domestic social issues in building a mass movement, the Christian Right leadership has also put a lot of emphasis on foreign policy, and foreign policy has been key to their alliance with the neocons. Second, although the Christian Right and the neconservatives are both strongly ideological in their outlook, they have overlooked significant differences of outlook in building their alliance. They’ve done this to further their core goals, and to amass political power.
I’m not going to make any predictions about the future of the Christian Right-neoconservative alliance. The leaders of both movements probably still agree that they have much more to gain than to lose by working together. But this is a relatively difficult time for Bush and his supporters. The “liberation” of Iraq is an obvious fiasco, the president’s big push to privatize Social Security seems completely dead, Hurricane Katrina blew away the rhetoric around “homeland security,” and the scandals around top Republicans seem to be multiplying. In this situation, the neocons are in a more vulnerable position than the Christian Right, partly because the neocons are more closely identified with the push to invade Iraq. Also, while the neocons hold more powerful positions in the Bush administration, they’re heavily dependent on elite patronage. In contrast, the Christian Right has a solid mass base, a large, independent funding stream, and lots of power within the Republican Party organization. If the neocons fall from favor, it may not weaken their alliance with the Christian Right, but it could certainly shift the balance of power between them.