Despite the ocean of ink that has been spilled in the last several months on the “religious right,” perhaps the most sensible comment about it, or at least about its journalistic coverage and political analysis, was penned by John F. Persinos in an article published in the magazine Campaigns and Elections last September. “When examined with a coldly nonpartisan eye,” wrote Mr. Persinos, “it turns out that much of the mainstream’s reportage on the Christian Right is a hodge-podge of cliches, regurgitated conventional wisdom, and fatuous analysis.” Of course, there is hardly any subject that mainstream political journalism in this country touches of which the exact same thing could not be said, but there seems to be something about the combination of “religious” and “right” that encourages the construction of veritable monuments of the very kind of “fatuous analysis” of which Mr. Persinos wrote. There are, in my mind, two main reasons why American journalists and analysts so smashingly succeed in making fools of themselves whenever they talk about the “religious right.”
First, with the Clinton administration in office, the political left needs an enemy against which it can rail for the purposes of raising money for its various causes, increasing the subscription levels of its magazines, and rallying the dozing voters to the tattered banners of liberal congressional candidates. The prospect of Falwell, Robertson, Buchanan, North, and Helms snooping into your bedroom, burning books in your local library, and outlawing lingerie advertisements in your local newspapers is probably enough to elicit a few dollars from even the most skin-flinted progressives, and, just as people on the political right have often resorted to similar tactics of scare and smear against their friends on the left, some liberal activists probably really believe their own propaganda about the religious right, a belief that contributes to the very kind of fatuity Mr. Persinos mentioned.
The other reason for the flood of rhetorical cow drop about the religious right is that, for a certain sort of mentality common on the left, the prospect of being persecuted is just too delicious to pass up. Leftism of all kinds often takes its moral energy from its own paranoia, its deeply rooted obsession that it stands alone against the forces of reaction and that those forces are on the eve of triumph, and while the left is invariably the first to head for the beaches when a real triumph of reaction actually takes place, to stand athwart the petty and usually harmless despots who try to close down local porno stores and to feel the nearly erotic stimulus that one is about to go to the stake oneself is always a lot of fun as well as immensely invigorating to the leftist ego.
We do not, therefore, need to look very far to find reasons for the yelling and screaming about the sinister emergence of the religious right to which the nation was obliged to listen last summer. Part of the hysteria was deliberately engineered for political and fund-raising purposes, and the engineering was successful precisely because most adherents of the left are both credulous enough to believe that an inquisitorial tide is about to engulf the country and self-important enough to imagine that they will be the first victims of the reaction.
It is not remarkable, then, that the emergence of a religious right excites people on the secular left; what is remarkable, however, is that the religious right exists at all. It is remarkable because not only is the United States today, like most economically developed societies everywhere, a largely secular culture but because the American right itself has not until fairly recently expressed much interest in religion. Prior to World War II, hardly any major figure on the American right was religious at all, and some were more or less outspoken enemies of religion in general and Christianity in particular. H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and most of the group that Justin Raimondo identifies as the “Old Right” of the anti-New Deal, anti-interventionist orientation were not in the least concerned with religion except to mock it. Robert A. Taft, who generally shared the political views of this movement as he led its political efforts, himself seems to have lived and died as a thoroughly conventional Episcopalian, a calling almost indistinguishable from outright heathenism. The considerably less libertarian persuasion grouped around the racialist right, including Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, was explicitly anti-Christian, while the “American fascist” Lawrence Dennis (as well as Ezra Pound) was also either uninterested in religion or hostile to it. Even in the I950’s, the founder of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch, was a professed atheist and admirer of the Transcendentalist shaman Ralph Waldo Emerson, while Welch’s one-time colleague, the late and brilliant Revilo P. Oliver, was as well-known for his bitterness toward what he called “Jesus juice” as he was for his animosity to Jews and their supposed conspiracy.
It was only in the post-World War II right, the right of William F. Buckley Jr. and the late Russell Kirk, that religion came to be closely linked with American conservatism. This development was partly due to the general revival of religion in the postwar era that gave us such mainstream icons of holiness as Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale and the cult of “civic religion” in the 1950’s, but also partly due to the emergence of anticommunism as a central issue of the right, as well as a dawning perception that what was occurring in the West as well as under communism was not simply a violation of the fundamental institutional categories of the civilization of the West but an implicit abandonment of and an ever more explicit attack on them. It is hardly surprising, given the victimization of Christianity and Christians by communists, that Christian clergymen and thinkers were in the forefront of anticommunist movements, that they imparted their theological commitments to their political and social commentary, and that their thought mainly identified the West and its survival with Christianity rather than with other staples of conservative concern such as property and the free market, constitutionalism and the rule of law, nationality, race, or social hierarchy.
But conservative intellectualism, whatever thoughts it entertained about religion, had little practical or political impact either before or after World War II, and the emergence of the religious right in the 1970’s owes little to the abstruse theology, obscure liturgical controversies, and head-spinning political theory with which so many conservative eggheads occupied themselves in the 1950’s and 60’s. What its emergence has to do with is a sociopolitical phenomenon that is far broader and far more significant as a world-historical force than either organized conservatism or the religious right itself perceives.
The “religious right” is merely the current incarnation of the ongoing Middle American Revolution, a cultural and political movement that has underlain the political efforts of the American right since the end of World War II. Despite what many right-wing sages would like to believe, that movement never had much to do with their perennial holy cow, the free market, but rather with the perception that the white middleclass core of American society and culture was being evicted from its historic position of cultural and political dominance and becoming an exploited and repressed proletariat. It was this perception, rudimentary as it was, that largely underlay the political movements involving Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and similar figures in the Depression and later Senator McCarthy, whose anticommunist radicalism is explicable only as a vehicle for Middle American resistance to the ruling class that had by the 1950’s displaced the traditional bourgeois elite of the nation.
Since the end of World War II, the American right as a mass political force in the United States has been driven by three successive causes. The first, anticommunism, carried not only McCarthy but also Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in the 1950’s, though Eisenhower merely piggy-backed on the synthesis of anticommunism and Middle American class and ethnic consciousness that Nixon and McCarthy had so brilliantly forged. The second, opposition to the civil rights revolution based mainly in the South and later in northern white working-class suburbs, carried Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and (again) Richard Nixon, though Mr. Goldwater never understood what he was leading and continues to this day to imagine that it was a movement for “individual freedom” (a delusion that helped him lose the support of northern working-class voters) rather than a social convulsion for the preservation of class, ethnic, and cultural dominance.
The third cause of the right is now and has been what was called in the 1970’s the “social issue” and in the 90’s the “cultural war,” and, far more explicitly and effectively than the earlier anticommunism and bourgeois individualism espoused by the right of the 50’s and 60’s, it focuses on resisting the erosion of traditional morality and the traditional middle-class social and economic dominance the morality codified. “Cultural” issues were indeed present in but remained largely tangential to the right-wing efforts of the earlier decades and emerged as prevalent concerns only in reaction to the cultural assaults of the 1960’s and afterwards. The most obvious way to defend a moral code is through religion, and the most obvious people to defend it are religious leaders and their followers. Hence, religion emerged logically as the appropriate vehicle for the expression of Middle American moral, social, and cultural counterrevolution.
What follows from this analysis of the religious right as it exists today is that what ultimately drives its adherents is not religion in the ordinary sense. What drives them is the perception—accurate in my view—that the culture their religion reflects and defends is withering and that withering portends a disaster for themselves, their class, their country, and their civilization. Religion happens to be a convenient vehicle for their otherwise unarticulated and well-founded fears. But while it is a convenient vehicle and a more effective one than those that carried the right in earlier days, it is not the most effective vehicle the right could have.
This is not to say that the religious right is composed of hypocrites who use religion for political ends. With the possible exception of most of its more prominent leaders, it is not. Most adherents of the religious right are sincerely and seriously religious; but you can be sincerely and seriously religious without being political and without being political in the fashion of the religious right. It is not religion that drives; it is the legitimate frustrations of a social class that has been bludgeoned and betrayed by its established leaders for more than 50 years.
Religion is not the most effective political and ideological vehicle for expressing and publicly vindicating the frustrations that animate the Middle American Revolution because the Christianity of the right simply does not encompass very many Middle American interests. While the religious right is effectively armed with an ideology and a worldview that enhances its militancy, its energy in mounting effective political and cultural opposition at the local level, and its alienation from the dominant elite and the elite’s regime in the leviathan state, the movement’s aims remain too limited. The real problem with the religious right is that, in the long run, its religious vehicle will not carry it home. If they ever ended abortion, restored school prayer, outlawed sodomy, and banned pornography, I suspect most of its followers would simply declare victory and retire. But having accomplished all of that, the Christian right would have done absolutely nothing to strip the federal government of the power it has seized throughout this century, restore a proper understanding and enforcement of the Constitution and of republican government, prevent the inundation of the country by anti-Western immigrants, stop the cultural and racial dispossession of the historic American people, or resist the absorption of the American nation into a multicultural and multiracial globalist regime. Indeed, the Christian Right for the most part does not care about these issues or even perceive them as issues, and insofar as it does, it often lines up on the wrong side of them.
Yet these are the principal lines of conflict in the Middle American Revolution, and it is by winning on them, rather than on school prayer and creationism, that Middle American interests will be served and the incumbent ruling class and its power apparatus will be overthrown. While the purely religious perspective of the Christian Right helps to radicalize it more than anticommunism, libertarianism, or other and older ideologies of the right did, it also narrows the vision of what really demands a challenge from the right—the domination by a hostile ruling class that uses state power to entrench itself and to wreck the country, the culture, and the middle class as well. Thus, the religious orientation of the Christian Right serves to create what Marxists like to call a “false consciousness” for Middle Americans, an ideology that appeals to and mobilizes a sociopolitical class but which does not accurately codify the interests and needs of the class and in the end only deflects its political action and works to buttress and reinforce the dominant regime.
What is needed now is not a vehicle that will trap the right into a large but limited cultural and political ghetto but one that can steer it toward an authentic and serious understanding of the real needs of the Middle Americans who are attracted to the Christian Right as well as others who are repelled by it but who increasingly perceive how they are exploited and misruled by the elite. If a movement should appear that could articulate that kind of vision, religious or not in focus, it could successfully mobilize and lead the core of the nation and the civilization as it needs to be and ought to be led.