Fundamentalism springs eternal for GOP

Becky Burch AP Lori Sheridan, left, Carol Helm and Naomi Kohen, all of Tulsa, Okla., stand outside of the Bartlesville … Continued

Becky Burch


Lori Sheridan, left, Carol Helm and Naomi Kohen, all of Tulsa, Okla., stand outside of the Bartlesville Community Center in Bartlesville, Okla in December 2010. The conservative activists were protesting the Republican party’s placing the state’s struggling economy ahead of social issues such as abortion.

On Faith asks “What do the religious controversies surrounding the leading Republican candidates tell us about the state of the social conservative movement? What do social conservatives want in 2012?”

Sharlet: On the one hand, social conservatives, particularly of the Protestant variety, want out of 2012 what they’ve wanted since H.L. Mencken handed them a shellacking at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925: respectability. Christian conservatives have either dominated American politics or shouted loudest in opposition for three decades, but the movement’s inferiority complex runs deep. Eighteen years after the fact, fundamentalist pundits still cite a description of fundamentalists in The Washington Post as “largely poor, uneducated, and easily led.” That the characterization is snobby — and inaccurate. It’s also old. But as a movement, these religious social conservatives can’t seem to win enough validation – also known as power – to make them feel better. Exhibit A: The sense of wounded grievance fueling Michele Bachmann’s campaign.

On the other hand, things are changing. The Christian Right has consolidated, fractured, rebuilt, refractured, and revived itself many times now since it became an explicit electoral force in the late 1970s. There’s no longer the same sense of now or never. Activists – and many in the rank and file – understand that they’re part of the American scene, and that means there’ll always be a second act. Sarah Palin flames out? Enter: Michelle Bachmann.

But that also means politicians such as Bachmann and Rick Perry can’t harness the same urgency once drawn on by Christian Right leaders. As David French writes abortion remains the wedge issue it was back in the 1970s, when one of Bachmann’s intellectual heroes, the late Francis Schaeffer, dragged evangelicals into battle over what had once been considered a Catholic issue. But a politician’s stance on that one issue is not enough to get him elected – or even to scuttle a health bill, as we saw in 2010. Anti-abortion activists know they face a long fight. They’re fighting their battles – and winning more of them than most liberals realize – at the state and even local level.

Homosexuality no longer looms quite as large in the Christian conservative imagination. The rank and file are catching up with former leaders like Pastor Ted Haggard, who told me back in 2005, when he was still president of the National Association of Evangelicals, that the conservative fight against gay marriage had already been lost. Of course, he had more of a stake in such matters than we knew back then.

There’s always Islam, still a boogeyman for millions of Christian conservatives who understand it not as a religious rival – many won’t grant Islam the status of a religion – but as an almost intimate threat to Christian families. The logic doesn’t track, but, then, it never does when it comes to bigotry. And yet, in the wake of the Oslo murders, for which killer Anders Breivik drew inspiration from a number of prominent American conservatives, putting Islam front and center in a social crusade is just too ugly. (Indeed, the anti-Islam campaigner Pamela Geller may have jumped the shark when she called Rick Perry “the stealth Jihad candidate.”) And banning mosques never really sat right with the rank and file of fundamentalism, anyway – the movement has deep democratic roots in the American tradition of freedom of religion, or “liberty of conscience,” as the most fervently devout of the colonial founders, Roger Williams, put it.

What does that leave the aspiring social conservative activist? Easy: economic conservatism. I don’t think the term “teavangelicalism,” as David Brody at the Christian Broadcasting Network put it, is going to catch on. Still, the compound word captures the convergence of social and economic ideas that has been slowly overtaking populist fundamentalism for decades. That’s not new: As I’ve written elsewhere, the Family, or the Fellowship, which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, began putting laissez-faire economics at the heart of their gospel back in 1935. Even then they were merely picking up a strand of American evangelicalism strung from the “Businessmen’s Revival” of the 19th century.

The Family maintained a powerful sense of paternalism, the idea of “top men,” anointed by Jesus, deciding what’s best for rest of us. The so-called “teavangelicals” are stripping some of that away as they elevate Ayn Rand to apostle status; “Atlas Hugged,” as former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, a family man and potential Tea Party favorite before his famous flame-out, put it.

For all of these reasons, the social conservative movement is facing the possibility of a schism. In 2008, that played out through Christian conservative anxiety over Mike Huckabee, who struck a slightly more compassionate — and “big government” — note than many religious libertarians could abide. Establishment religious conservatives bridled, too – -an overlooked factor in Huckabee’s electoral demise was the investigation into his televangelist backers proposed by Senator Chuck Grassley.

The threat of fracture may bode well for Rick Perry. Policy-wise, he differs little from Michele Bachmann, but where she’s typecast (inaccurately) as nothing but a raving social conservative, stalking gay rights rallies from behind Minnesota bushes, Perry presents as a triple threat. The Texas governor is a business conservative, a social conservative, and, oh yeah, a man.

Let’s not let the rise of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann blind us to that last “qualification” – as passions ebb and tide within the social conservative movement, one commitment remains constant: “male headship,” God the father, and even, as an increasing number of homeschoolers are coming to call it – favorably – The Patriarchy. The movement’s increasingly religious economic conservatism is cast in gender terms, as a quest for the restoration of masculine dignity, a revival of breadwinning in an era of genuinely humiliating economic conditions. What do social conservatives want in 2012? Same thing they’ve always wanted. “One man, one woman,” and a passel of kids. A family, narrowly defined, daddy in charge, with maybe some gentle wisecracks about how the wife is really in control. It’s the relative modesty of that ambition that justifies the extremes of social conservatism in the public square, the Bachmanns and the Perrys who pop up every four years, each crop a little more potent than the last. The candidate who understands this passion play best will always steal the show; and maybe, this time, the nomination.

Jeff Sharlet is the bestselling author of The Family and C Street. His new book is Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between

Read the Washington Post’s review of Sharlet’s new book.

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  • cma61

    Far left Radicalism springs eternal at the Washington Post.

  • bpai_99

    I have no objection to religion per se, what I do object to is how so many intolerant, power-hungry people use it to justify their hatreds and actions. Christian fundamentalists in America are as a great a danger to our country as Islamic fundamentalists.

    “As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.” – Adolf Hitler

  • WmarkW

    Religion is an expression of one’s assumptions about the world and society are supposed to work. The 1980s Religious Right came about when civil rights, feminism, and youth culture (e.g. tolerance of pre-marital sex and some kinds of drug use) became an accepted part of the American mainstream, turning a lot of people’s implicit expectations upside-down.

    The call for patriarchy is largely a call to reject the more strident claims of feminism; for example, the 20% overall wage gap is prima facie evidence of widespread discrimination in the labor force. There are differences in attitudes and skills between males and females that mostly would make men better economic actors. Even among those with high levels of education, women spend fewer years in the full-time workforce than men do.

    The call for economic conservatism similarly reflects the view that too many children are being born into poverty because the welfare state empowers the poor to have more children than their own means would be able to support. Visit a neighborhood that could be fairly called a ghetto, and you won’t find the word “dad” in too many everyday vocabularies.

  • genecarr100

    Is there even a teeny weeney shred of evidence that the heartland is aching for a restoration of ‘patriarchy’. One would imagine that the ascendency of someone like Sarah Palin (lets face it Bauchman is a flash in the pan) suggeests the direct opposite.

  • genecarr100

    As anybody knows who has perused what Hitler repeatedly said in the Tabletalk, Hitler hated Christianity. He particularly hated the Roman Catholic Church. One should be careful concerning his public utterances during his rise to power. The Table Talk captures his real attitudes and in respect of Christianity they are close to contemporary Liberalism than they are to Conservatism.

  • Carstonio

    Excellent entry. What Sharlet describes is a political movement and not a religious one. Although it has its roots in fundamentalist dogma, it doesn’t include most evangelicals or even many fundamentalists.

    Where does that sense of wounded grievance come from? The religious right basically arose as a reaction to the changes in the 1960s, when the social privilege enjoyed by whites and males and Christians began to decline. (Unlike economic privilege, social privilege is where certain personal characteristics are treated as property or capital.) The Patriarchy concept that Sharlet references may superficially be about economics but it’s really about male privilege.

  • ghostcommander1

    Those people that cannot see past labels are doomed forever to listen to the dogmatic voices of the Demagogues,Charlatans, and Archetypes that use them for their own benefit.

    Those that wear the Republican label are not Republicans. Some of those that wear the Christian label are not Christian.

    Judge them by their Hypocrisy, Judge them by their deeds.

  • YEAL9

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Herman Cain, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    (The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.)

  • jckdoors

    The “freedom and liberty” crowd is always planning ways to deprive others of their freedom and liberty. Don’t trust anyone, or any movement that uses “liberty”, freedom”, or “patriot” in it’s title.

  • arb061

    You apparently have no idea what “far left radicalism” actually looks like.