The Rabbi Writes: The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 3

The Religious Right 

Today in America there is a powerful mobilized voter constituency which is called the Religious Right.  Their most aggressive political organization is the Christian Coalition.  And their new and most visible leader is Ralph Reed.  In San Diego they took over the Republican Party platform. 

The Religious Right has its roots in the agricultural past, which is the foundation of traditional conservatism.  Before capitalism and urbanization most people were peasants and farmers, living in small villages.  The fundamental social unit was the extended family.  In that world bearing children was the easiest way to provide a cheap and obedient labor force.  Women obeyed their husbands.  Children obeyed and revered their parents.  Female significance lay in the raising of offspring.  Since the struggle for survival was harsh, pain and suffering were accepted as part of normal living.  The answer to suffering lay in religion which promised happiness after death. 

The ruling class of this milieu consisted of warriors and clergy.  Soldiers and priests were the familiar authority figures.  Honor and morality were identified with their virtues.  Money, commerce, and merchants were viewed with hostility.  They were too unfamiliar and thiswordly (sic) to be fully acceptable.  The source of ethical living lay in farms and small towns.  Reverence for the land and God was the pillar of the social order. 

When the industrial and capitalist revolutions came, the social upheavals produced an opposition to the tight control of family, church, and military government. These people were called “liberals” because they wanted to substitute personal freedom for social control.  The traditional people who wanted to preserve the old order were appropriately called “conservatives.”  In time the problems of capitalism produced an even more radical opposition.  These radicals sometimes chose to call themselves “socialists.” 

The liberals of the nineteenth century fought the social conservatives.  They wanted freedom from tradition, family control, and government.  They proposed the alternative of the autonomous individual and individual rights.  Every person had the right to choose his work, his residence, his religion, and his lifestyle.  Free speech, free assembly, and free enterprise supported these rights.  The “classic liberal” was no conservative.  What he was proposing was a radical departure from tradition.  Today, when free enterprise appears “traditional,” many defenders of laissez-faire capitalism call themselves “conservative.”  It is very important to make a distinction between “economic conservatives” who champion individual freedom and the genuine conservatives who champion social control. 

Social conservatism thrives on patriotism.  After all, the clan, the tribe, and the ethnic nation are simply extensions of the traditional family.  Loyalty to them has deep roots in the old world of agriculture.  Modern capitalism, like the big mixed cities it produces, tends to be international.  The consumer culture knows no boundaries.  In its mind choice should be as broad as possible.  Ironically, capitalism fostered nationalism because it needed the resources of a strong state and because it sponsored literacy in native languages.  But extreme nationalism is inimical to the spirit of free enterprise. 

Pat Buchanan is a powerful example of the conflict between chauvinism and free enterprise.  His strident opposition to free trade in the name of American patriotism rests ultimately on the parochial value of a tribal system.  Strangers are to be feared and excluded.  No foreign goods and no immigrants are the slogans of the Traditional Right. 

Buchanan’s constituency is not the upper classes.  It is the working class and the lower middle class who “tune in” to his message.  These people are only one, two, or three generations away from the farm.  They confront uncertain employment, disintegrating families, and violent cities.  The standard of living to which they had grown accustomed is “up for grabs.”  Capitalism and urban life are not as kind to them as they are to the professional classes.  Scapegoats for their misery are attractive.  Populist leaders like Huey Long, Charles Coughlin, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan know how to cultivate the paranoia of ruthless enemies. 

Social conservatism feeds on peasant and farmer nostalgia for small towns, tight families, group conformity, patriotic sacrifice, ancestral religion, and dangerous outsiders.  The dilemma of traditionalists is that the world they want is a function of an agricultural society of scarcity.  In order to return to it, they would have to forgo the lifestyle of the consumer culture.  For most of them, that is a price they are not prepared to pay. 

The Religious Right is a response to the discomforts, dislocations, violence, and uncertainty of modern urban culture.  In the  Muslim world it attacks capitalism, the consumer culture, and the freedom which stems from both of them.  In America such a strategy is not feasible.  Conservative anxieties avoid the basic economic anxieties: (with the exception of Buchanan) and focus on the lifestyle that a free consumer culture of choice cllows.  Abortion, hoosexuality, pornography, and feminism become the enemies.  All of them are seen as the manifestations of a sinister secularism.  Only  a return to the old religion and the values it sponsored will push back this secular tide. 

The part of America with the closest time connection to rural life and with the highest percentage of native Anglosaxons is the center of the Religious Right.  The South is the natural home of this political movement.  The money and “troops” of the fundamentalists come from all over America but are essentially Southern.  Churches of Southern origin are the mobilizers of the “faithful.” 

The aim of the Religious Right is political power.  While they cannot bring back the old values without blowing up the present economic system, they can create repression, turn patriotism into dangerous chauvinism, and undermine the integrity of our scientific institutions.  To say the least, they are dangerous. 

Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition are determined to control the machinery of the Republican Party.  Historically, the Republicans were the party that promoted industrialization, urbanization, and immigration There were much closer to classical liberals than they were to social conservatives.  Their Eastern establishment sponsored both liberal religion and planned parenthood.  Moreover, they were overwhelmingly Northern.  It is ironic that the “last cry” of Southern rural America has now become a controlling force in this Yankee reaction.  The base of both the Religious Right and the Republicans is now the South. 

School prayer will not bring back the old values, nor will it reverse the surge of the new individualism.  Social discipline and social responsibility demand a new values strategy for realists.  What is especially annoying about the Religious Right is their ideological bankruptcy.  They want to “have their cake and eat it.”  They want the comforts of urban capitalism together with all the asceticism of the old farm. 

Only the Republicans can give the Religious Right the power they want.  We must make sure that they do not.