Fundamentalist Political Power in America
James A. Haught
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 2.
Bizarrely, the 2004 U.S. presidential election was decided by voters who
oppose the theory of evolution or await the Rapture or speak in the “unknown
tongue” or seek faith-healing or send money to television preachers or think
Satan is a real spirit stalking America.
White evangelicals and fundamentalists—mostly puritanical people who hate
homosexuality, abortion, stem-cell research, Hollywood, etc. and who tend to
favor guns and the death penalty— tipped the ballot balance to their hero,
President Bush. The “three Gs”—God, guns, and gays—were a crucial factor in the
squeaker election. Exit polls credited born-again voters who ranked “moral
values” as their chief concern, more important than the Iraq war, job losses, or
“There are roughly 70 million people in America who do not believe in
evolution, and those are Bush supporters,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
Seymour Hersh said just before the election when asked to explain the
president’s mammoth backing. Other estimates of what has been called the Bigoted
Christian Redneck realm range as high as 100 million, counting narrow-minded
members of mainline churches. This segment of the U.S. population isn’t
monolithic, either denominationally or politically. Nonetheless, it’s a mighty
force in the electorate.
How did the Religious Right rise to power? It’s a long story, involving
America’s amazing moral change over the past half-century. Ponder this social
Back in the 1950s, when I was young, moral values were oppressive: You could
be jailed for looking at the equivalent of today’s R-rated movies or Playboy
magazine; gays were sent to prison for “sodomy”; it was a crime to buy a
cocktail or a lottery ticket in most states; blacks were forbidden to enter
white schools, restaurants, hotels, theaters, pools, etc.; it was a crime for
interracial couples to marry; Jews were banned from some clubs; birth control
was still a crime in some states; “blue laws” made it illegal for stores to open
on Sunday; divorce or unwed pregnancy were hush-hush; police might jail an
unmarried couple for sharing a bedroom; a doctor who performed an abortion faced
prison; schoolchildren were led in government-mandated prayers every morning;
Of course, there was “sin” in the 1950s. Bootleggers furtively supplied
illegal booze, pornography circulated illicitly, some unwed couples hid away,
and so forth. But it was generally an era of narrow taboos.
Then came the historic Civil Rights movement and the youth rebellion, mostly
in the 1960s, America’s liberal heyday. Young protesters fought the Vietnam
draft, blacks marched for equality, courts struck down censorship, and human
rights laws were passed. The sexual revolution snowballed. Bigotry became
unlawful. Despite the adolescent excesses of the 1960s, it was a time of moral
improvement, in my view. Many old prejudices were swept aside.
Then a backlash occurred in the 1970s and 80s. Fundamentalists, who
previously had seemed a mere fringe group, began mobilizing against the wave of
“wickedness” that had arrived. The historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1962
and 1963 against government-led school prayer, plus the 1973 opinion legalizing
a woman’s right to choose abortion, along with the easing of social stigmas
against gays and the like, all convinced them that Satan was gaining control of
Evangelist Jerry Falwell coalesced this group by forming the Moral Majority.
He demanded restoration of school prayer, crackdowns on porn,
recriminalization of abortion, and the ostracism of gays. This group yearned for
a return to the “moral” 1950s—seemingly unaware that it had been a time of harsh
prejudice. It was more proof of the age-old axiom that the most intolerant
people in any society are religious hard-liners.
Although fundamentalists are mostly blue-collar folks and previously had
tended to be Democrats, they began finding an ally in the Republican Party. In
1980, they were instrumental in electing Ronald Reagan president. When the Moral
Majority faded, it was replaced by evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian
Coalition, again solidly Republican.
Gradually, white evangelicals and fundamentalists became a wing of the
GOP—anchoring the “base” that strategist Karl Rove milks for votes. The group is
especially devoted to George W. Bush because he underwent an emotional
conversion after years of heavy drinking, which makes him their hero, “one of
us.” Conservative Catholics joined this base.
Meanwhile, liberal mainline Protestant churches—which advocate somewhat more
tolerant and humane values—have shrunk in America, losing millions of members.
The national tide has flowed toward fundamentalism and narrow morality.
Today, some in the latter camp even say born-again President Jimmy Carter
isn’t a real Christian because he doesn’t embrace the Religious Right’s
political agenda. He quit the Southern Baptist Church in protest of its
hidebound outlook. Oddly, Carter’s piety would have galled many U.S. voters
around 1970, but by 1976 the evangelical upsurge buoyed him. Yet now he’s
reviled by the same group. A cycle has been completed.
So, today, born-again whites are a potent political element in the United
States. Over the past decade, many researchers have found that Americans who
attend church more than once a week are the most ardent Republican voters—while
those who don’t worship generally vote Democratic. This gives the GOP a huge
power base, because America is more religious than other advanced nations.
Is this lineup permanent? I hope not. Although the future is unforeseeable,
thinking people should hope that America gradually will follow Europe,
Australia, and other societies where churchgoing has faded. U.S. secularism is
rising. In 1993, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of
Chicago found that only 9 percent of U.S. respondents said they have no
religion, but this group rose to 14 percent by 2002. During the same period, the
ratio of Americans identifying themselves as Protestants fell from 63 to 52
Two 2004 reports—by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the
Institute for Jewish and Community Research—both raise the “none” group to 16
percent of the U.S. population. This trend toward rationality, away from
supernaturalism, someday may weaken the Religious Right.
Right now, however, America must endure a political powerhouse of
mean-spirited believers who can sway elections. For the good of the nation,
let’s hope that 2004 was the nadir and that an upward path lies ahead.
James A. Haught is the editor of the Charleston Gazette in West