Why the Religious Right is So Powerful

A modern phenomenon in the USA, which makes it unique for a Western Democracy is the sheer power of a religious organization to achieve the level of power that it has. While other Western countries have their own religous organizations which exert force within their own political structure, the United States stands alone as the one Western republic where a blatantly religious group  holds such sway, not only on the state level, but on the national stage as well.

But, where does this power come from and what can be done to counter it?

That’s a question many people on the Left have been asking for decades and there’s really no simple answer, but I’ll give it my best shot.

Historically speaking, the United States has always been a religious nation. Even today, the USA is the second-most churchgoing country in the Western World, second only to predominantl- Catholic Ireland.

Founded as a haven from the waves of religious persecutions in Europe, for a time groups such as the Quakers, Unitarians, Jews, Roman Catholics from predominantly Protestant countries and other groups found themselves a safe haven where while religion played a factor in everyday life, there were few instances of outright massacres of groups which were even minorities in the colonies or states in which they lived. Granted Catholics and Quakers weren’t exactly welcome in certain areas, but you didn’t find the state-sponsored street massacres of innocent civilians as had occurred in much of Europe. Even the historically-disliked Jews were never the victims of wholesale slaughter and pograms as had happened in Europe.

For a time, the Unitarian Church was one of the most powerful churches in America, with several of the Founding Fathers among its membership. George Washington, America’s first President, even sent a letter of assurance to the Jewish community that they would have nothing to fear from the government regarding their freedom of religion.

So, how did we get to where we are now?

Well, religious groups that flee from their native country to avoid persecution tend to be the most devoted follwers of that faith, so there was a concentration of religious fervor of all types in this country from early times.

This was coupled with the missionary zeal inherent in some churches, notably the Baptists, which energized the desire to convert the newcomers to the domestic churches in the USA at the time of their immigration. For some groups, they had no local branches of their churches in America, so they could either found their own church – a very difficult task, especially when they lacked clergy – or assimilate to a church in America that most closely resembled a faith they had left behind. For example Eastern Catholics from the Assyrian and Antiochan Churches, usually converted to Roman Catholicism. For a long time Eastern Orthodox Christians had a difficult time finding a church for themselves and sometimes became Catholics also. Still, others would abandon their old faith to join a local demonination in the effort to gain social acceptance in their new locale. The best example might be Irish Catholics converting to Baptist when moving to the Southern States pre-Civil War.

Over decades, Americans found themselves at war with people with whom they had religious differences, though these were not religious wars in the true sense. Catholic Spain and France, though they assisted America in its War of Independence, were strong regional powers and controlled much of the New World outside America’s borders. Native American tribes either followed their own religions or had a strong influence of Catholicism, due to missionary work from Spanish or French priests or monks. Even Great Britain, with its Church of England, was a major rival, oweing in part that its church had a pope-like figure in the King or Queen.

Independant, pastor-led denominations where congregations held more power than a college of cardinals or similar religious assembly, flourished in America and a spirit of religious independence took hold in this country. Local pastors became politically powerful, especially when there were no ccontrols from higher authorities to keep them in check.

Protestantism became entrenched and with its lack of oversight, the pastors held political power and could influence how people voted on election day. Pastors would exort their flocks for whom to vote and what type of ballot measures to approve.

Catholics had a similar experience in America and the Church often had to attempt to rein-in American priests and bishops who felt little need to adhere to the dictates of Rome. One notable example was Father Charles Edward Coughlin, who had a radio program a few years before World War Two, where he openly admired Adolph Hitler and railed against the Jews in to forty million listeners who tuned to his weekly broadcasts. The Church had to repeatedly admonish Coughlin to tone-down his rhetoric, with Coughlin often obeying for a time and then resuming his activities.

During the Cold War, where America found itself opposing the decidedly atheistic Soviet Union, Christian religious fervor reached a new peak. Despite the fact that Western Europe was similarly threatened, only in the USA did Christians feel that they had a special role to play in fighting both communism and, especially, secularism.

Conservative Christians see Secularism as a much more severe threat than communism. Most Americans would never accept the abolition of private property, so the very idea that America could ever have become a communist state was ludicrous. But, it could be very possible for a nation, such as the United States with its plethora of religious denominations all co-existing in relative harmony, to become a nation where, while the general populace could be very devoted chuchgoers, religion would play little part in deciding America’s foreign policy or how its educational curriculem would be selected. After all, that’s what happened in Western Europe, right?

While Europe’s churches once held great power, the tide shifted around the time of the French Revolution, where the Catholic Church was deposed from its place of guaranteed power and never assumed it again. As much of Europe moved away from church-dominated monarchies and toward more secular forms of government, the days of a church-dominated government came to an end. Mostly, this change happened peacefully in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, the most direct cause was the Soviet expansion after World War 2, where churches were closed and clergy either killed or imprisoned.

Either way, the effect was the same: the power of  the Christian Church was primarily limited to the pulpit.

However, the United States proved itself unique. While Christian ministers could influence elections on the local level, there was no national movement to effect the imposition of a particular theology or political view.

That is, until television came along and certain Protestant ministers began to view themselves as having an agenda that could, and should, be imposed on a national level.

One of the first was Pastor Jerry Falwell, who led the Moral Majority for a long time. His influence is credited with helping Ronald Reagan become President in 1980 and re-electing him in 1984. After over 200 years without a unified conservative Christian front in the USA, the Left was off-guard and severely misjudged how much power the Religious Right could and would attain in a very short time. The effect on the nation was palpable and the United States seemed doomed to fall into an ideological quagmire from which it would take a long time to extricate itself from.

However, the leaders of the Religious Right overstated their sense of self-importance. When even conservative Republicans began to resist the influence of the very pastors who had led much of the movement that got them elected, the Religious Right soon found itself relegated to the fringe. Scandals rocked the Religious Right as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were engulfed in sex scandals that ended their position of power on the national stage.

The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper. ran a series of articles authored by Michael Stephen  Clark that exposed the strong influences of the Falwell-led Moral Marority upon the Republican Party. The organization dissolved in 1989 and was succeeded by the Christian Coalition, led by Reverend Pat Robertson.

While the Coalition enjoyed a heyday of power for many years, it couldn’t escape from the Taxman. The Internal Revenue Service repeatedly butted heads with the Coalition over back taxes and its tax-exempt status. Fortunes declined and the organization was essentially bankrupt in 2004, which is quite a fall from its having $26.5 million in 1996 to only $1.3 million in 2004. The power of a pastor-led political movement seemed on the decline. Pat Robertson even ran for President of the United States in 1988 and did well in some primaries, but ended-up leaving the race.

While the Coalition claims to have 1.2 million members, according to its list of contributors and former employees, it has about 30,000.

Plus, there were added image problems for the Religious Right when Falwell and Robertson made outlandish public comments. Falwell in blaming the 9/11 attacks on liberals and homosexuals; and Robertson predicted natural disasters occuring in the United States in 2006 and terror attacks in 2007; neither of which happened, despite his claiming that G-d told him that they would. Public comments like those embarrassed the Religious Right and caused many of their adherents to shy away from them, at least publicly.

The Religious Right had an epiphany: Americans might be the second-most church-going populace in the Western World, but they are more than a little uncomfortable with megachurch pastors running for political office or holding great sway over elected officials, especially in light of the effects of clergy-led governments in Iran and Afghanistan, whom the United States condemned for their religious fanaticism and intolerance of religious minorities.

A new crop of leaders had to be chosen and they couldn’t be ministers. They had to be secularly-employed or business owners, but still devout Christians. The sledgehammer tactics of openly campaigning for political and social causes had to be abandoned for more covert means, where they would get people elected to public office and then those people would move their respective legislative bodies toward a position the Religious Right approved of. Large money contributors were found to fund their campaigns and ties had to be as obscure as possible to avoid public revelations from derailing their efforts. Churches could still be used to recruit campaign workers and church mailing lists could be exploited in the search for donations.

Certain issues had to be exploited for maximum gain and they had to be issues which could get the most support across denominational lines. These issue were old ones which were dusted-off and used to maximum effect. Pushing the Panic Button became a frequent tactic, where people were warned that if a certain group took power or if something wasn’t stopped, the United States of America would be destroyed from within.

Of course, many people don’t really know too much about American history. For a nation that survived events like its own war of independence, a civil war, the Great Depression, two World Wars in less than 35 years and the nuclear escalation of the Cold War to be destroyed unless Same Sex marriage was outlawed from coast to coast or unless abortion was criminalized or unless Bill Clinton was impeached, etc is perposterous to even comprehend for anyone who knows anything about American history. There have ben attempts by groups to actually turn the United States into a dictatorship, such as the Officers’ Plot near the end of the Revolution or the Business Plot in the 1930s. None of these plots succeeded and the United States remains the oldest surviving republic in the Modern World.

However, as I said, the Religious Right realizes that most Americans don’t really know much about their own history and exploits the “do something about (insert political cause of the day here) or America is doomed!” to great effect.

Let’s be honest and admit that the fight against gay rights has been one of the most successful ploys of the Religious Right. Most heterosexuals don’t like homosexuals, for whatever reason. I have gay friends and I long ago realized that they have many of the same problems as straight people, including paying their bills on-time and making ends meet from week-to-week, but most Americans don’t have many gay friends and haven’t really taken an interest in their lives beyond what they do in the privacy of their own homes. Circulating mass-mailings about some “Gay Plot” to subvert the American family and oft-repeated stories of how gay people are actively trying to recruit more Americans to become gay have caused too many people to view gays with suspicion and loathing. If you don’t know some one, you can be easily motivated into believing something bad about them, especially if it’s coming from people that you trust, like the people you go to church with. Dislike and open hatred of gays and lesbians cuts across all racial and religious lines, so has been a very successful tactic of the Religious Right.

Fear of the collapse of American morality is one reason why so many Christians oppose the teaching of evolution in our public schools. If people think that they are only the end result of a cosmic accident (the Big Bang) and not the result of the direct intervention and creation of an omnipotent creator, then it is feared that people across America will lapse into the most antisocial behavior, such as murder, robbery, rape, etc. feeling that there is no one to answer to and no afterlife to have to worry about receiving eternal punishment in. All this ignores that fact that, even in pagan societies, murder, rape, theft, etc were crimes. Even if you could find an entire society where no one believed in a god, murder would still be illegal, due to the fact that no society could exist for very long if such behaviors were legal. An entire society would collapse in all the chaos that would ensue. So, laws against murder, theft, rape and other antisocial behaviors would still have to be enforced to protect the social fabric. But, most people don’t think three dimentionaly. People often think in simple terms and science isn’t something most people understand or know much about. Real science is difficult, at best, for the layman to comprehend and the Religious Right uses that ignorance to full effect.

To further their war on science, the Religious Right has organizations, such as the Discovery Institute, that produces books and videos that can be easily distributed by mail or over the Internet. They also have lecturers who will travel across the  country to speak at events and before legislative bodies, all paid for from sales of their materials and by donations given from wealthy contributors and devoted legions of devout Christians. People who support evolution being taught usually do not have similar resources at their disposal and they lack a devoted following of similar magnitude. There is no pro-evolution (actually, Pro-science) organization that can dispatch speakers at the drop of a hat to testify at a hearing on the other side of the country. Sheer manpower and financial resources give the Religious Right an edge that they can, and do, exploit.

Abortion is a cause that has had a limited amount of success for the Religious Right. Most Americans want abortion legal, even those for whom may not consider having an abortion themselves. The Religious Right uses fear tactics and frequent comparisons to Nazi Germany or Communist China to further their goals, without admitting that making accurate sex eduacation available and allowing access to birth control does more to reduce the number of abortions than speeches given by any pastor or TV/radio show host ever could. It is no coincidence that teen pregnancy rates are higher in locales where sex education is either limited or nonexistant. By the way, the rates of teen preganancy and abortion went down during Bill Clinton’s Presidency, much against the predictions of the Religious Right.

Nevertheless, the anti-abortion lobby has such a devoted following, that they can have a protest rally set-up in only a few hours, with dozens of people carrying ready-made signs. They are devoted and, in some cases, fanatical to the point of being willing to commit violence. John Eric Rudoplh is only one example. Remember that physicians have actually been murdered by people like this, with little in the way of condemnation from Religious Right leadership, aside from “Well, we certainly don’t approve of violence. But, Dr (insert name here) was responsible for the killing of thousands of unborn children.”. How many times did you hear that?

So, how do we fight an organization that is so well-funded and has a large base of devoted followers?

Well, as with any political and societal organization, the Religious Right has earned the power they have right now. If you work hard and are dilligent, you deserve your place of power on the American political landscape. So, to fight them, you have to earn your position of power, as they did. One bad thing to try to do is try to do it all by yourself. Don’t. You’ll burnout and give-up.

More on this topic in a future blog.

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One Response to “Why the Religious Right is So Powerful”

  1. rhemasolteria Says:

    Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” True power comes from God – not politics – and it flows to those who believe in Him; obey Him and walk in His ways. I would not waste your energy in fighting God. You will not win. To understand this better you might try reading the book of John.

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