The Jewish Humanist, October 1994, Vol. XXXI, Number 3
A doctor performing abortions is killed in Florida. A full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times accuses Bill Clinton of arranging the murder of his good friend and assistant Vincent Foster. Irangate villain Oliver North wins the Republican primary for the United States Senate seat from Virginia and proposes to restore Christian values in America.
Together with thousands of other events these three provocations are evidence of the continuing presence and power of the Religious Right. Emerging in 1980 during the first Reagan campaign, as a major political force, the Religious Right is still alive and well and determined to win the victory that has so far eluded them. Their leaders are by now familiar – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Donald Wildman, Paul Wyrich. The Moral Majority may have yielded to the Christian Coalition. But the agenda remains the same.
The agenda is very clear and very frightening. It is the use of government power to impose a Christian fundamentalist moral code of behavior on all the American people. Before 1980 the fundamentalists shunned national politics. Now they are the masters of it. Although they represent only 15-20% of the American public they act as though they are the voice of America and of American values.
The Religious Right has its roots in the traditional conservative movement. Traditional conservatives are different from economic conservatives. Economic conservatives liked to be called liberals in the nineteenth century. They opposed the government control of private life and championed the right of individuals to personal and economic freedom. When they first emerged they were on the Left. Only the movement of many classical liberals to egalitarian and socialist ideas turned them into “conservatives.” Economic conservatives do not want to use the government. They want to avoid the government.
Traditional conservatives are the real conservatives. They come out of the agricultural world that preceded capitalism. Their role model for the organization of society is the authoritarian family. The government is like a good father, guiding and protecting his children. Good fathers make demands, impose discipline and control behavior. Religion features an authoritarian God who behaves in the same way and who is a reflection of what good fathers and good governments do. The primary role of society is reproduction. Therefore abortion and homosexuality are forbidden. And the basic role of women is to have babies and to serve their husbands.
Although capitalism and personal freedom have been around for a long time in America, there are many Americans who still belong to or yearn to return to this old conservative world. Their numbers have increased in recent years because American life has been traumatized by family decline, lifestyle change, economic uncertainty and crime. Traditional conservatives have placed the responsibility for these changes on the doorstep of unbridled freedom and its ally secular humanism.
If the Religious Right were to achieve political power in America, they would put prayers, Bible readings and Bible theology into the public schools. They would use tax money to pay for private religious education. They would censor books and newspapers. They would outlaw abortion and homosexuality. They would pass laws to encourage women to bear children and to stay at home.
For many years traditional conservatives were too divided to be effective. White fundamentalists hated Black fundamentalists. Charismatics hated fundamentalists. Protestants hated Catholics. All of them hated Jews. Many conservative Protestants were in favor of the separation of religion and government because they did not want state money going to Catholic parochial schools. But all of that has changed. The civil rights movement has ironically brought White and Black fundamentalists together. Communism and abortion have sealed the union between conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. And the growing number of Jewish fundamentalists has bizarrely recruited Jewish allies for a Christian America. What was divided is now united against their shared enemy – a free society.
The strategy of the Religious Right is to take over the Republican Party. Since they are a distinct minority, they cannot win power unless they hang onto the coattails of a major political institution. Unfortunately, they have been very successful in their campaign. Hundreds of Republican precincts have fallen under their control. Hundreds of their devotees have been nominated as Republican candidates. The 1992 Republican Convention was dominated by their agenda and by their ideology. Most Republican leaders are afraid of them and seek their approval and support.
The consequence is the vicious assault on Bill Clinton. Clinton has many faults. But he is not a sex maniac and murderer. But hundreds of thousands of Americans now believe that he is. They do not read the liberal press. They listen to the tapes circulated by Robertson and Falwell which give credibility to these accusations.
The campaign by the Religious Right ought to frighten us into action. We, as humanists, are, in their eyes, the ultimate enemy. But, in offering resistance, we need to keep in mind certain basic realities.
The first basic reality is that most Republicans are economic conservatives, not traditional conservatives. The only way to fight the Religious Right is to mobilize the Republican (sic) who also hate them. Economic freedom goes together with personal freedom and with the separation of religion from government. Rational Republicans know that.
The second basic reality is that morality is a stronger argument than a peevish defense of personal choice. The Religious Right derives its power from its presentation of itself as the defender of ethics and morality. If, indeed, their point of view is the moral one, they have the moral authority to impose their will on us. The way to fight the Religious Right is to take the moral monopoly away from the (sic). Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice. It is the moral choice in an overcrowded world as Society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice.It is the moral choice. In an overcrowded world a society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not simply an individual right. It is, above all, a social and ethical necessity.
The Religious Right will be a chronic and continuous political force in American life. We have to be on the alert to resist them. When we offer our resistance, we must remember that many people who call themselves conservatives are our national allies – and that the defense of individual freedom is also the defense of social morality.