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Wednesday, 24 November 2010 00:24

The Religious Right and the GOP: Joined at the Hip, but Who's Calling the Shots?

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Republicans and the Religious Right need each other.  Neither group has much political or social power without the other's support.  The corporatist agenda of the GOP would not win elections itself; Republicans' success at the polls depends on them portraying themselves as the party of the socially-conservative, religious worldview.  The Religious Right can only advance their social agenda by demanding influence in Republican policy-making in return for support at the polls.  Without this relationship, Republicans would be a fringe party of big business leaders and a few wealthy individuals, while religious fundamentalists wouldn't have a channel into the political arena for their worldview.  Which partner is the dominant one in this relationship in 2010?

The relationship between big business interests and Religious Right is nothing new.  As early as the latter 19th century, leaders of big business recognized that a relationship with fundamentalists was a way to counter the growing social gospel/anti-poverty movement that was taking hold in Catholic and progressive Protestant churches, that threatened the vision of limitless profits for big business.  Fundamentalists of the early 20 century were supported by business leaders, particularly those in the oil business, to spread the gospel of free market, greed-is-good, God loves rich people, organized-labor is of the devil religion.

The relationship reached new levels in the late 1960s, when the Republicans adopted their Southern Strategy and targeted an angry white population who perceived themselves and their way of life as victims of Civil Rights movement and civil rights legislation of the Johnson-led Democratic government. Over a few election cycles, the segregationist white South moved from being a solid Democratic voting block to being a solid Republican voting block, and by doing so, it adopted the corporatist agenda of the Republican Party.

The overlap between white supremacists and white religious fundamentalists in the US has historically been large, particularly during the Civil Rights era. When big business Republicans targeted southern white segregationist voters, they also adopted the agenda of religious conservatives.  While the two groups have successfully focused on the common enemy of progressive ideology, the fight for the soul of the party has never been far from the surface.  The successful election of Jimmy Carter, a progressive Southern Baptist, had as much to do with the internal power struggles in the Republican Party as it did with Carter's own appeal.  It is no coincidence that Gerald Ford was the last Republican candidate for president who didn't run as an openly-evangelical Christian.  In the 2008 primary campaign, John McCain declared that he was a Baptist, after 72 years of being an Episcopalian.  McCain's declaration made it clear that the Episcopal Church, the traditional denomination of the white male Republican ruling class, once a mandatory credential for consideration for high office, was no longer "religious enough" for a Republican candidate.  Look at the field of Republican candidates for president in 2008.  They were uniformly white, uniformly male, and other than Rudy Giuliani, they were uniformly overtly-religious, anti-gay rights, apocalyptic, anti-abortion, and several of them were creationists.  Debates quickly degenerated into competitions of whose evangelical religious credentials were truer.

Ronald Reagan became president largely because of the southern strategy.  At the urging of Trent Lott, Reagan kicked off his campaign in 1980 outside Philadelphia Mississippi, where three Civil Rights workers were murdered in 1964.  Reagan touted his support for "states rights," well-known code language for opposing the Civil Rights movement in his speech to white Dixiecrats. Once elected, Reagan tried to overturn the withdrawal of tax-exempt status from private schools that discriminated on the basis of race.  This was the issue that got Jimmy Carter into trouble and was the real catalyst for organizing the Religious Right.

After four years of a relatively progressive Carter administration that was a disappointment for religious conservatives who expected Carter's personal religious beliefs to result in more right wing policies; evangelical white southern segregationists once again coalesced around a Republican candidate, this time an openly religious one, and Reagan coasted to victory in the primaries and in the election.   In 1980, however, Reagan had open support of the emerging Religious Right, most notably Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and for the first time the gospel of conservative Republican politics became a religious cause, and the wall of separation was irreversibly damaged.

In 1988, as head of the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell chose to endorse George H. W. Bush over fellow televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican presidential primaries.  The Republican establishment believed that Falwell's choice was made in deference to Ronald Reagan, but students of theology believe that Falwell wanted to stop the growing power of Charismatic evangelicals such as Robertson. Falwell wa an old school fundamentalist and had no use for Charismatics and their high profile scandals of the 1980s. He would later make peace with Charismatics like John Hagee, who now dominate much of the Religious Right.  (Charismatics differ from other evangelicals in that they believe you not only have to be "born again" but also have a secondary conversion experience in which you receive "spiritual gifts" like speaking and tongues and which could also include supernatural ability to heal, ability to receive prophecies from God, ability to cast out demons, etc.)

This divide in the conservative religious community would come back to haunt Republicans in 1992.  Just one-and-a-half years after then end of the Gulf War, which had wide popular support, a young southern governor soundly defeated George HW Bush.  A weak economy, a well-funded (self-funded) pro-business third-party candidate, and weak support of the Religious Right all contributed to Bill Clinton's success in 1992, which included a strong showing in the south (it should also be noted that Clinton ran a brilliant populist campaign - his success was a result of his own leadership ability as well as the failures of Republicans).  Eight years later, conservative Christians in the south, largely motivated by what they saw as the amoral Clinton years, helped George W. Bush win his one-vote victory in 2000.  It goes without saying that W's reelection would not have been possible without a large turnout of Religious Right voters in 2004.

The phenomenal success of Barack Obama in 2008, the result of a campaign as brilliantly-organized as any in history, and the unique appeal of the candidate himself, had other contributing factors.  First and foremost, even the best effort to mobilize Religious Right voters couldn't overcome the resentment that the country felt after 8 years of corrupt and incompetent Republican leadership.  John McCain lacked religious credentials despite his late, "I'm a Baptist" plea.  His selection of a ditzy Charismatic running mate may have launched Sarah Palin's media career, but it failed to gain him the support of conservative Christians that he had sought.  The 2008 campaign, with the very prominent presence of a Charismatic prayer warrior as the Republican vice presidential candidate, also exposed the chasm between fundamentalists and Charismatic evangelicals, which may have contributed to weak support of the Republican ticket and a strong performance by President Obama in the south. (Many evangelicals have become concerned Charismatics infiltrating and taking control of other churches and religious organizations)

The 2008 election campaign had other affects on the relationship between the Religious Right and Republicans.  The emergence of Charismatic Southern Baptist (Southern Baptists have historically rejected Charismatics) leader Rick Warren  as an influential voice in American politics, the endorsement of John McCain by prominent Charismatic and apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee (an endorsement that was later rejected by McCain thanks to the relentless research of Bruce Wilson and Rachel Tabachnick of Talk2Action.org, exposing Hagee's anti-Semitic rants to the many media outlets that disseminated their work), and the emergence of Sarah Palin, a Charismatic prayer warrior, as the new face of the Republican party, all showed that Charismatic evangelicals had taken control of the religious side of the Republican party.   (As a side note, the results of 2008 also showed how ignorant of theological trends John McCain and his advisors were.  His statement, "I'm not an Episcopalian, I'm a Baptist," showed that McCain was not aware of the shift in power in the evangelical world.  A more generic, "I'm an evangelical Christian" statement wouldn't have alienated either fundamentalists or Charismatics while still making it known that he had abandoned his rational-intellectual religious roots).

All of this brings us to 2010; the mid-term elections; and the state of the relationship between Republicans and their Religious Right base.   The failure of Republicans at the polls in 2008 made the Republicans more dependent than ever on evangelicals if they were to ever regain power. The Republican Party in 2010 endorsed overt religiosity as a campaign strategy. In addition to the recognized culture wars issues, such as gay rights, reproductive rights, school choice, public prayer, etc., the 2010 campaigns, particularly of the Tea Partiers exploited the anti-government, anti-regulatory, and anti-tax worldview that has been taught in religious books and media for many decades. The government's role in the welfare of the people, in issues such as health care, social security, welfare and unemployment protection, were spun by Republicans as anti-Christian policies of Democrats because in the right-wing religious teachings, these functions should be church-run and biblically-based.

The leading secular Republican strategists of the last 20 years have traded their fiscally conservative personas for openly religious ones.  Karl Rove, known for having referred to Bush's evangelical supporters as "crazies" and "nut cases" became a frequent headliner at Charismatic evangelical events in 2010.  Newt Gingrich, for years the antithesis of a pious, conservative religious political figure, has become a champion of the Religious Right. (In June 2009, Gingrich was broadcast internationally at an event called "Rediscovering God in America" which included International Charismatic leader Lou Engle laying hands on Gingrich and praying over him, a ceremony which, in this belief system, "imparts" supernatural spiritual gifts to the receiver.)

The Tea Party movement, which is, in my opinion, a response to the election of an African American president, is also heavily influenced by Charismatic evangelical religion. The prominent display of Christian rhetoric at Tea Party events, in words and signs, are indications of the evangelical roots of the movement and their anti-government rhetoric has been a staple of many religious fundamentalists for decades.  The August Glenn Back event in Washington DC, which was little more than a hyped-up Republican campaign event intended to meld Tea Partiers and evangelicals into a Republican campaign organization, had a completely evangelical Christian theme and was preceded by extensive organizing of Charismatic "prayer warriors."

In the post-2008 election era of the Republican Party, the Religious right is in charge.  Almost all Republicans embed religious terminology into their campaign rhetoric, which is invisible to the non-evangelical world (their religious rhetoric is often referred to as "dog whistles").  It was difficult to find a Republican candidate who didn't openly pursue the support of the conservative religious base. It was almost as difficult to find a Republican candidate for any office who didn't wear his religion on his sleeve.  The rampant Islamophobia in the Republican Party, which has gained much exposure because of the recently-proposed Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, close to the 9/11 Ground Zero site, shows the need that Republicans have to satisfy conservative Christians, even at the risk of appearing like hate-mongers to the rest of the world.

Rudy Giuliani, a serial philanderer who can challenge Newt Gingrich as the champion of family values hypocrisy, can "feel the spirit of God" in a Charismatic Hispanic church. David Vitter, John Ensign, Larry Craig, and a host of other prominent evangelical Republicans who were tarnished by sex scandals in the last few years, seem to have been able to retain their religious credentials. The resilience of these discredited politicians proves that Charismatic religion, which is more interested in its worldview than in personal piety, is in charge. Right-wing media outlets such as FOX News and a plethora of right-wing talk radio hosts, have become overtly religious in their programming and commentary, echoing the Republican rhetoric.

The current Republican Party's success rests solely in the hands of its Religious Right base. Big business Republicans have had to become religious Republicans to survive. They have lost control of their own party to religious extremists and anti-intellectual demagogues who rabble rouse against secular democracy and religious pluralism. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had a name for a form of authoritarian and nationalist government in which the interests of business, the church and the state came together; he called it fascism.  European fascists could never have gained power without the support of organized religions.  That fact should send every person who values democracy and pluralism running away from the Republican Party, as far and as fast as possible.

*Protect Democracy is the pseudonym for a blog contributor to BuzzFlash.