The Christian right in the US has been a bulwark of reaction for decades. John Newsinger discusses its integration in the New Conservative agenda championed by former president Ronald Reagan.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the Christian right in the US had been content to act as cheerleaders for US capitalism against atheistic Communism abroad. This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s when social and political change threatened all they held dear.
The first great challenge was the Civil Rights Movement. It is ironic that the Christian right condemned the involvement of the likes of Martin Luther King in political campaigning on the grounds that the clergy should keep out of politics.
Desegregation in particular was a focus. Across the South there was a massive white exodus from newly integrated state schools into segregated Christian schools. An evangelical Christian subculture developed, embracing millions of white middle-class Americans. They sent their children to Christian schools or home-schooled them using Christian text books (the teaching of creationism was essential), went to Christian colleges and universities, listened to Christian radio, watched Christian TV channels, visited Christian theme parks, listened to Christian rock bands and read Christian fiction. In 1987 Christian broadcasting was a $2 billion industry with a thousand radio stations and over 200 TV stations.
The first big political success of the Christian right was the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The amendment read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged…on account of sex.” It was passed in the House of Representatives by 354 to 23 votes and in the Senate by 84 to 8 votes in 1971–72.
The Christian right mobilised against it, labelling it a potent feminist threat to the sanctity of the Christian family. They mobilised at a local level. The ERA had to be ratified by 38 states and a Stop ERA campaign was launched by Phyllis Schlafly, a right wing Christian activist, to prevent this. She was successful.
The Christian right’s measured response to feminism is perhaps best displayed by the insightful critique put forward by televangelist Pat Robertson, one of the movement’s most important leaders. In 1992, opposing equal rights legislation in Iowa, he denounced feminism as “a socialist anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”. Robertson had, at this time, millions of followers.
The most effective mobilising issue for the Christian right, however, was the Supreme Court’s legalisation of abortion in January 1973. Abortion rights, along with gay liberation, in particular gay marriage, became the great moral threats to America that had to be defeated. The Christian right’s influence within the Republican Party grew so powerful that they could not be ignored, but rather had to be appeased.
First, Jerry “Jesus was no Sissy” Falwell’s Moral Majority made the running. Later Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition came to the fore. And under Reagan there came into existence an unholy alliance between the so-called neocons and the theocons. Reagan promised to implement the Christian right’s cultural and moral agenda, but instead concentrated, with the support of the Christian right, on a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich, a dismantling of much of US welfare provision and attacking the trade unions.
Let us look a bit more closely at Robertson. He was a consummate scam artist, extracting millions of dollars in donations from his massive TV congregation on the pretext of spreading the word, but instead investing it in an expanding business empire, becoming a multimillionaire. He was a faith healer, claiming to have cured everything from cancer to headaches, and he claimed to have changed the course of hurricanes through prayer.
He became a major force in the Republican Party in the 1980s and 90s. Such was his business clout that he was invited onto the board of Laura Ashley, into partnerships with the Bank of Scotland, Rupert Murdoch and later with Disney. Protests against his vicious homophobia led to the collapse of the Laura Ashley and Bank of Scotland deals.
The Christian right involved itself heavily in the neocons’ foreign policy. Robertson, for example, championed Apartheid South Africa, raised money for the Nicaraguan Contras, enthusiastically supported the murderous Ríos Montt regime in Guatemala (one evangelical preacher claimed that the army did not massacre Indians but demons who had possessed Indians!) and called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez.
He did business with Mobutu in Zaire where he was given diamond concessions by the dictator. And, of course, he enthusiastically supported Zionism. As for 9/11, he agreed with Jerry Falwell that the attack was God’s punishment for feminism, abortion and gay marriage.
Their Christianity was always a vicious, bigoted vengeful affair that would, they believed, culminate in the genocide at the hands of Jesus of billions of Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, secularists, liberals, socialists and most Christians.
Both Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, however, were felt to have used the Christian right to get into power and then, at best, only partially implemented their agenda. They pray Trump will be different.