Religion is generally conservative, not that it has to be. Liberation theology, for instance, is a radical form in Latin American that places its focus on economic and social freedom for the poor. But in the United States it has been a force for conservatism, and dates back at the very latest to 1909 with the publication of The Fundamentals, a series of essays that denounced liberalism, Marxism, evolution, and many other topics we continue to debate today. Perhaps a new Protestant Reformation is needed that would ask where in the Bible it says that social welfare is evil, though Jesus asked us to be anti-wealth and give to the poor. Atheism and Marxism have generally gone had in hand, which is undoubtedly why it is rejected so by the Christian right.
Despite publication in the Progressive Era, we don’t see Fundamentalist Christians making an impact on politics until the 1970s. After half a century of losing court cases, like the Scopes Trial (1925), Engel v. Vitale (1962), and Roe v. Wade (1973), which diminished conservative Christian values in the mainstream of the U.S., as well as demonstrated their lack of efficacy in the federal government, Fundamentalist Christians began to exert their power on their state governments where they maintained majorities. They lobbied to fill positions such as the Texas Board of Education and continue to push for conservative Christian judges on the federal courts in order to prevent cases going against their favor. This is another reason why we see the Republican Party champion states’ rights; they do not want the federal government to remove their bans on gay marriage, their restrictions on abortion, or lessons on creationism in the classroom. What the Christian right wants is a Christian society; they want the laws of the land to reflect Christian values, even if it breaks the barrier between church and state, because the only thing for them more important than the Constitution is their interpretation of the Bible, which is literal.
It is worthwhile to note that the U.S. was in part founded on religious extremism. I don’t use this word lightly. Puritans were mocked in English society as extreme, and many saw their zeal as a mental illness. In fact, Puritans are still mocked in England to great effect, as recently, to my knowledge, as Blackadder II. The Founding Fathers themselves were deists, which if one were being honest, is atheism. Voltaire used to hide behind the label. The reason for our beloved separation of church and state is not because each sect of Christianity in the United States was equal in each other’s eyes, and so as a means of respecting one another they would not adopt one official religion; it was because each sect feared persecution at the hands of the other, should one become dominant and enforce its worship on the populace. Thomas Jefferson cleverly played on this fear in creating the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
If one looks for state sponsored religion, one will indubitably find persecution. England is one of the most laughable, depressingly so. Under Thomas More’s office, Protestants and those in possession of the Tyndale Bible were tortured and killed. And then Catholic monasteries and the religion itself abolished, and Catholics were persecuted. Then when Bloody Mary took over the blood of Protestants spilled again until Elizabeth I took reign, after which Catholics were banned from holding office. A great example of how divisive this was at the personal level is Lady Falkland, the author of the little known The Tragedy of Miriam, and her husband Lord Falkland, who remained Protestant and consequently separated from her. In response, Elizabeth Cary stole her own children from him and shipped them off to France so they could grow up Catholic.
Speaking of which, it is also of great interest to note the Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey’s progressive reforms. He created a progressive tax that lifted the burden of taxation from the poor, bought up surplus grain when there was a bad harvest and sold it to the poor at a reduced rate, and closed down inefficient, poorly performing monasteries that ill-educated its monks in order to found two universities, one of which survives today as Christ Church, University of Oxford. A progressive tax, food stamps, and an emphasis on higher education in the early 16th century under a Catholic, feudal reign.
My point in this article, other than illustrating the rise of the Christian right, is that the Christians need not be to the right. But it is understandable why Fundamentalist Christians are. Their base in America is in rural areas, but especially in the South. Awfully, racism has commingled with religion by being embodied in the same people. We should not forget how racism was justified by readings of the Bible in the same way that it is used to justify homophobia (which, to be honest, is much more explicitly denounced in the Old Testament). Since the Protestant Reformation was a movement to get the Bible in the hands of all Christians in their own vernacular, and well as a means of uprooting the aristocratic and abusive clergy by the burgeoning middle class – this is why I believe business continues to be so important for Christians in the U.S. – many readers, and importantly many uneducated readers, took the Bible literally. Evolution, therefore, challenges their entire world view. Homosexuality and abortion are sins, and should not be tolerated. Marx, by referring to it as the “opiate of the masses,” became an enemy. The apocalypse being nigh is another issue that is thrown into the mix of American politics.
The right, we can see, represents the interest of the business-oriented, the racists, and the religious. Not that a conservative necessary be an entrepreneur, white supremacist, or a Fundamentalism Christian, only that the GOP serves these issues whether its supporters realize it or not. Its propaganda (I use this term because it is more honest than public relations), is what draws so many diverse voters to its tent. It is the appeal of good old-fashioned America, unplagued by issues of growing minority groups, homosexuality, explicit sexuality, political correctness, or other “threats” to our society. Halcyon days when Americans didn’t ask what their government could do for them and were men of action. Of course this America never existed. The post-New Deal America we clamor for had its own share of problems, like red scare, extremely violent and overt institutional racism, and the threat of nuclear war. But more importantly, that time in America had the strongest safety net we’ve ever had, lowest income inequality we’ve ever had, and the strongest union workforce we’ve ever had. Minimum wage in the past has been as high as $11 in 2013 money, according to one graph on Wikipedia. If it kept pace with worker productivity it would be as high as $22. There is a reason why this illusioned past does not appeal to minority and female voters as much as it does to white males (the majority of the Republican Party); because it was much worse for them.