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The Right's use of outrage

29 August 2007

The Religious Right is flexing its muscles, but only on selected issues. Its political ambition is unadulterated however, suggests Stephen Bates

Church and state: President Bush talks with the Revd Luis Leon after a morning service at St John’s, in Washington

Church and state: President Bush talks with the Revd Luis Leon after a morning service at St John’s, in Washington

THERE IS a fringe group known as the Christian Reconstructionists, who believe in the creation of a theocratic state (“Pluralism is a myth. God and his law must rule all Nations”), no tolerance for other faiths, and the restoration of biblical punishments for malefactors (death by stoning for homosexuals, people who carry out abortions, even recalcitrant children), and it is no nearer coming to fruition now than it was 20 years ago.

But what makes such talk worrying is not only that Reconstructionism has been paid lip-service by some extremely wealthy conservative sponsors and prominent telly-evangelists, such as Pat Robertson, but it has also had some traction with influential advisers to the Bush administration, including Marvin Olasky, inventer of the term Compassionate Conservatism.

It is not the sort of language that gets much play in front of broader audiences. But it is certainly used at meetings and conferences of True Believers. And George W. Bush has not been averse to giving the Faithful a nod and a wink in that direction to show that he is with them really.

While waiting for the joyful day when such a country will come to pass, the Religious Right has focused tactically on more immediate goals: targeting particular issues to galvanise their constituency and keep it onside.

The issues they have chosen have a degree of calculation and selectivity about them that appears designed to drive a wedge between the elect of the electorate and the rest, to politicise them and to polarise voters. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage have not generally been considered suitable for partisan debate in the UK, or across much of Continental Europe (or, at least, to nothing like the same extent they have been in the USA). Fastidious Europeans view such US debates from afar with distaste and incredulity — as do many Americans, of course.

If these are issues that play directly into the so-called culture wars in US society, they are, on the face of it, peripheral matters to choose. If the concern is the promotion of family life and the avoidance of breakdown in relationships, why target gays who want to register the permanence of their partnership and who form a tiny minority within a small section of the population, rather than those who divorce?

Divorce, after all, affects millions — the rate has doubled since 1960 and the number of single-parent families has tripled — and it is the cause of much more heartache and damage to relations between adults, and between parents and their children, than is the small number of gays who want to express their commitment to their partners.

Furthermore, divorce is even more roundly condemned in the Bible: Jesus never mentioned homosexuality (or, if he did, his disciples did not trouble to note the fact) but, just a few verses farther on from his city-on-a-hill rhetoric during the Sermon on the Mount, he specifically anathematised divorce, and equated it with adultery.

Surprisingly, this is rather glossed over. Evangelicals who devote considerable energy and exegesis to the scattered biblical references to homosexuality, find they can quite easily dismiss the unambiguous message of Christ. Leo Giovinetti, pastor of the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship, who led a campaign to secure the prohibition of a gay-pride festival in Jerusalem in 2005, can also be found telling his congregation that Jesus’s pronouncement in Matthew 5.32 “doesn’t mean that divorce sometimes isn’t a good idea. There are some very good reasons for divorce.”

Surely it cannot be, can it, that divorce affects many more members of the Religious Right’s target constituency than homosexual partnerships do, and so is a much more inconvenient and uncomfortable issue?

It strikes rather too close to home for their target supporters. Or, in the words of Dr Jim Tonkowich, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, one of the Christian lobbying groups in Washington that makes gay marriage but not divorce a campaigning issue: “We have to prioritise. We don’t have the resources to tackle everything.”

After all, it is at least possible that many of those who take moral issues as their lodestars in deciding how to vote have met or even know people who have been divorced — members of their own family, possibly even themselves — whereas that may not be the case with homosexuals. By and large, those who are related to gays or have them as friends are noticeably more tolerant of them.

The selectivity is stark. The 2000-odd mentions of the poor in the Bible never get much of a priority. As Randall Balmer, an Evangelical liberal — it is perfectly possible to be both — and as professor of American religious history at Columbia University, says with heavy irony in his book Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s lament: “I went to Sunday school nearly every week of my childhood . . . but I must have been absent the day they told us that the followers of Jesus were obliged to secure even greater economic advantages for the affluent, to deny those Jesus called ‘the least of these’ a living wage, and to despoil the environment by sacrificing it on the altar of free enterprise. I missed the lesson telling me that I should turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even those designated as my enemies.”

THE OTHER defining feature of these wedge issues is that they are never quite won. They create an atmosphere of outrage which is left simmering, to keep the constituency motivated. Somehow, despite the rhetoric, despite the majorities in Congress, despite the incumbents in the White House, abortions continue, gays don’t go away, affirmative action is not dropped, stem-cell research continues.

This is put down to the hidden power of liberals, or at least to a supposedly liberal majority on the Supreme Court, rather than to a more general and pragmatic consensus among the population at large.

The themes that currently drive the Religious Right and the manner of campaigning are recurrent ones throughout the nation’s history. They exploit the fear of outsiders and acknowledge the potency of moral panic. They promote the demand for interventionist action from a government whose powers are otherwise both constrained and regarded with suspicion, particularly by people on the Right.

And, not least, they attempt to win control, or at least supremacy, for a particular religious constituency.

In the US, it is true to say that many, even among those who are devout in their religious observance, find the Religious Right’s agenda irksome, with its assumption of moral superiority, its casual contempt for those who do not share its philosophy and its blithe disregard for inconvenient truths.

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about much of its campaigning — not that that would be unique in political life, but the religious do claim to adhere to higher virtues.

Those who do not share the Religious Right’s self-righteousness occasionally find themselves constrained to point out that, in the supposedly superior red (Republican) states, it is objectively true that rates of murder, illegitimacy, and teenage pregnancies are all higher than in the supposedly decadent and effete blue (Democrat) states of New England and the far West.

And that the supposedly corrupt and spiritually dying blue states subsidise the dynamic and righteous red ones to the tune of $90 billion a year through federal funding.

WHAT MAKES this current debate in the US different is the skill with which the Religious Right constituency has been mobilised and pointed in one direction to vote, and the ostentatious readiness of this president and this administration to accommodate it.

For the religious agenda appears to be winning: it would be unthinkable now for a candidate for election not to profess some religious affiliation or allegiance, certainly if they hope to win. The drift to the Right has been scrupulously tracked by the American Conservative Union (ACU) since 1972, basing its statistical analysis on how each member of Congress votes each year, awarding points out of 100 largely on the basis of (ACU-defined) moral issues of the sort that obsess the religious constituency.

In 1972, the average Republican score was 63 per cent. By 2002 that figure had climbed to 91 per cent.

This is an extract from God’s Own Country: Tales from the Bible Belt by Stephen Bates (Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99 (CT Bookshop special price: £10); 978-0340-909263).

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To order this book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop

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