On the Religious Right in the USA

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On the Religious Right in the USA

#1  Postby jerome » Feb 27, 2010 9:10 pm

I noted with interest the article on American Exceptionalism, a long term interest of mine. Some of you may know I am also interested in the area, and as my vague thoughts on astrology, ghosts and the paranormal were cheerfully received and sparked some debate i thought perhaps this analysis of "Christian America" might interest. It is only the opening chapter of a much longer work, but I will not ask you to read it all - however I felt perhaps the introduction might interest a few of you with patience to read off screen? Comments welcome!

Part One: The Religious Righ

"I am not ready to give this great nation over to one-world government extremists...radical, disease-carrying homosexuals...or anti-family lesbian feminists...or hate-mongering atheists who despise our religious beliefs...or the ACLU who would deny us our free speech rights...or anti-American U.N. globalists!"

--A February 2000 mailing from the Christian Action Network soliciting support to help conservatives keep control of Congress.

In this essay we seek to examine how the Religious Right in the USA seeks to understand America as a Christian Nation , and analyse the ideologies underlying their position. This is topical, as most commentators have credited the Christian Vote as the people who brought George W. Bush back for four more years in the Whitehouse in November 2004. I look at why the ideologies underlying the Religious Right political activity are both compelling and powerful, and attempt to analyse how these ideologies of America as a Christian Nation are constructed and used to create a Christian political influence..

To begin we must define our terms. I have made reference to a Christian Nation and the Christian Vote hat do I mean by Christian, as not all American Christians are trying to influence the government? Christian in this sense means a very specific type of Christian holding certain beliefs, the nature of which I hope to analyse in the rest of this study. Many of Christians are known as fundamentalists and are often referred to when engaging in political action as The Religious Right, but the Religious Right is broader than any one denomination, and contains some Catholic groups a well as many members of Protestant denominations.

So what is the composition of the Religious Right? The term is frequently used by journalists and commentators today without explanation. Assuming that the label is at all useful, which version Christian Right, Religious Right, Radical Right, Christian Conservative or any of many other terms used to describe this movement, should be applied is problematic. Frederick notes that polling by the Democrats indicated that attacks on the Christian Right had the potential to backfire, so they made a terminological shift to the “radical right"[1] The Democrats had no desire to dignify their opponents with the status of Christian.

Clarkson demonstrates that there are non-Christian religious groups associated with the Religious Right including those whose own theology is not in any way mainstream Christian. [2] Many times the Church of Latter Day Saints has supported Religious Right initiatives, yet it remains theologically, organisationally and often operationally distinct, and few Latter Day Saints are believed to have joined Religious Right organisations since the days of the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, although individual members and Church policy is often supportive of the same legislation as the Religious Right. The Religious Rights appeal is largely based on their Christian status, and to be seen to associate with theologically opposed groups is not therefore desirable. Noted Religious Right leader Pat Robertson has made a number of allegedly anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and supposedly even anti-Semitic remarks in particular, the latter remarkable in the light of his fervent support for Israel.

It is probably correct to think of the movement as the Christian Right yet here we must be careful; it is all too easy to then attribute the beliefs of these activists to the Christian community as a whole, making them seem ‘normal’ or descriptive of Christians as a whole.

I have used the term Religious Right in this study, to denote those Conservative Christians whose political and religious beliefs lead them to challenge the USA’s political system and US society, and work for what they see as a godly reformation of the morals and laws of that nation. I have used the term simply because it is current, and widely understood, and is the most common term employed to describe this social, theological and political phenomenon by news media and commentators. Those within the movement usually prefer ‘Conservative Christian’, ‘Traditional Christian’, ‘Bible Believing Christian’ or simply ‘Christian’, but that implies they speak for all Christians, where many Christians strongly disagree with their agenda and actions. Bruce Bawer in his book Stealing Jesus has noted how the very tem Christian has come to in the public sphere typify what he defines as vocal ‘Legalistic Christianity’ and the theologies associated with this, or what the media sometimes terms ‘Fundamentalist Christian’ He writes ‘The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Protestants has given the word an unpleasant flavour for many Americans ‘Christians included.’ [3] The Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council remarked in 1995

In certain parts of the world the word Christian has become an embarrassment because it has been aligned with movement that are contrary to the Loving Christ that is at the heart of our message. I hold my head in shame to hear Jesus’ name being affiliated with political movements that isolate, inhibit and breed hate and discontent between human beings. [4]

How large is the Religious Right? The potential appeal of the Religious Right is huge. The 1994 General Social Survey showed that 80% of U S citizens polled believed in God [5] .Evangelical Protestants comprised almost 28 million regular church attendees, compared with Mainline Protestants who comprised around 26 million regular attendees according to the Church and Church Membership in the United States, 1990 survey. [6] This survey divides the denominations by classifying members of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Lutheran- Missouri Synod, Southern Baptist Convention and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Churches as Evangelical Protestant. The Mainline Protestant denominations in the study were listed as the Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Lutheran (ECLA), American Baptists and Society of Friends. Sadly, this information is no longer really useful; Evangelical Protestant Churches have claimed greatly increased membership since 1990, while the Mainline denominations have diminished, and denominational membership is not necessarily representative of support of Religious right beliefs. Also the last decade has seen the rapid growth of the Non-denominational churches in the USA, who while not institutionally allied to any denomination, or each other, tend to share a Conservative Evangelical outlook.

Perhaps more useful as a guide to the numerical strength of the Religious Right is the 1994 Gallup/Princeton Research Center [7] poll on Christians and those who self identify as ‘Born Again-Evangelical Christians’ 42% of those Christians polled described themselves as ‘Born Again-Evangelical’, with much higher percentages (in the South (58%), the Midwest (40%) and lower Born Again numbers in the East (28%) and West (33%)of the USA. This agrees with the finding of almost all subsequent research that the Religious Right is strongest in the South and Midwest, and is closely linked to the so called Bible Belt, and Church and Church Membership in the United States, 1990 showed 67.5% of Evangelicals (by their criteria) attended Church in the South, as compared to 4.7% in the Northeast, 8.8% in the West, and 19% in the Midwest. This is doubtless because historically these denominations have been based in the Southern states.

So what is the composition of the Religious Right? This is difficult to accurately measure. The term encompasses a social movement, with disparate members and varying ideologies and theologies, but who have come together on certain issues. For example, while Reconstructionists (those who wish to make America a theocracy modelled on Ancient Israel) are a tiny minority, their thinking is influential, yet apparently opposed to that of many Christian Republicans. Many Catholics join protests at abortion clinics and Women’s Health Centres yet would not agree with much of the theology of major Religious Right groups such as the Christian Coalition. Therefore, we might argue that membership of the movement is a function of participation in certain political agendas, not simple membership of organisations. Phrases such as ‘evangelicals’ and ‘fundamentalists’ used to describe the Religious Right are equally problematic ‘not all evangelicals or fundamentalist Christians embrace the ideologies exemplified by the Religious Right. Indeed, the aforementioned 1994 Gallup/Princeton Research Center survey which looked at self identified ‘Born Again ‘Evangelicals’ found that 21% of Roman Catholics polled identified with that label. [8]

If denomination is not an accurate reflection of the strength or allegiance of the Religious Right, what about the Christian Conservative organisations usually associated with this term? Today the main groups which comprise the Religious Right are The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and Coral Ridge Ministries. The actual size of the groups is hard to gauge; many critics have claimed that membership figures are inflated, and often membership is little more than receipt of a mailing. Such inflated figures are of course useful to the Religious Right in their ongoing courting of the Republican Party.

The Christian Coalition of America [9] claims to be ‘America’s largest Christian grassroots organization with more than two million supporters.’ [10] Unashamedly dedicated to influencing Congress and Senate by lobbying, the organisation was founded as a political lobbying tool by Pat Robertson, noted TV evangelist in 1989, ‘to give Christians a voice in government. We represent a growing group of over 2 million people of faith to have a voice in the conversation we call democracy.’ [11] The issues they are concerned with are almost entirely political.

The Religious Right are strong supporters of Israel [13], and generally sympathetic to the Neo-Conservative [14] position in American politics. Each week their website updates loyal supporters on the situation in Senate and Congress, and calls for political lobbying. Their agenda includes supporting tax cuts, opposing pornography, opposing rights for homosexuals, and supporting ‘patriotic’ and ‘traditional family’ legislation. They are also strong opponents of stem cell research, cloning and any other scientific research which is seen as demeaning the dignity of life, and are resolutely opposed to abortion.[15]

That they have set out to influence the political scene in Washington is beyond doubt ‘but to what extent are they successful? George W Bush is open in his espousal of his Born Again Christian beliefs, but does the Christian Coalition really have influence in the corridors of power? The answer appears to be yes according to most commentators.[16] There are dissenters from this view. Jennifer Stockman of the group Republican Majority for Choice claimed

Religious conservatives may have played a role in President Bush's re-election, but they are not representative of the Republican Party as a whole. They are a minority. In fact, most exit polls have indicated that 23% of the president's votes were from a social fundamentalist base.[17]

While the Moral Majority, an early Religious Right organisation managed to gain much support for the Republican Party, and to in many areas gain control of that Party, it was their policy of registering voters among conservative Christians and issuing ‘Voter Guides’ which effectively told churchgoers how to vote, and which were handed out in thousands of sympathetic churches, which proved decisive.

The Christian Coalition took on this role, and to great effect. They state

This clearly tells us that Christian conservatives showed up at the polls in unprecedented numbers on Election Day, that they were educated about where candidates stood on the issues and that they were motivated to vote based on those issues. In short, Christian voter-education - specifically voter guides - made the difference! [18]

They assert they managed to distribute ‘millions’ of voter guides, in both the English language and Spanish. Hard figures are hard to attain, but there seems little reason to disbelieve that ‘voter education’ is shaping the future of the USA in to a ‘Christian Nation’, that is one broadly in line with the aims and beliefs of the Religious Right, by making it necessary for a candidate to endorse ‘Biblical Values’ to achieve election success.

Another prominent Religious Right group are Concerned Women for America[19], also directly concerned in political lobbying and are the heirs of the Eagle Forum of Phyllis Schlafly and the origins of the Religious Right in the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. In many ways they act as a sort of female auxiliary to the Christian Coalition, and there is probably a significant membership overlap, as with Focus on the Family[20], the organisation of radio psychologist and counsellor Dr James Dobson. Dobson has a very popular syndicated radio show in the US whose ‘daily audience reportedly tops five million listeners’21]. However, the organisation is concerned with ‘Family Values’ and does not openly espouse political causes, yet the influence of the group is clearly behind the same set of political and moral values.

In terms of defining the Religious Right understanding of America’s ‘Christian Heritage’ WallBuilders is possibly the most important group, though numerically much weaker than the three giants of the Religious Right discussed before. Wallbuilders is the organisation of the historian David Barton, whose work I discuss in Chapter Two. It’s primary aim is the ‘the restoration of the constitutional, moral, and religious foundation on which America was built’ [22] but it’s methods are clearly political…

WallBuilders has been privileged to bring ministers from across the nation to Washington, DC, for intimate briefing sessions with some of the top Christian Senators and Representatives now serving in Congress. The Members brief pastors on a variety of issues related to Biblical values and share their hearts regarding their personal faith and its application in public office. Additionally, the Members impart practical information for pastors to carry home and implement in their communities and congregations. [23]

So what are the main areas of concern in which the Religious Right are active? Utter lists their main areas of concern as preserving America’s Christian Heritage, promoting biblically based moral and family values, and defending against what they perceives as the onslaught of Secular Humanism, and it’s attendant evils –homosexual marriage, abortion, feminism and pluralism.

The history of the Religious Right is complex. The link between the political Right and Conservative Christians is a lengthy one, dating back to anti-communist preaching of the 1950’s at least. It was however in most historians eyes the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1960’s and 70’s which turned the Religious Right in to a political lobby. The proposed amendment to the Constitution, usually referred to by its initials, the ERA was in fact fairly innocuous; it merely wished to enshrine in law equal rights for women. However, among religious conservatives their developed a strong opposition, mainly headed by women who felt this was an attack on traditional family roles and the God given place of women in the home. Growing out of the work of housewife Phyllis Schlafly and the wives of other rightwing politicians and ministers, this group according to religion writer Ruth Murray Brown actually represented a genuine grass roots movement.[24]

So successful was this move in to the political sphere that soon other Christian organisations realised they could have a direct impact on US politics. The defining moment in the life of the Religious Right was the creation in 1979 of a new organisation, The Moral Majority, headed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. The Moral Majority was to pave the way for the Religious Right

‘The strategy adopted by the Moral Majority involved the full range of political activities. They distributed information through newsletter, seminars, and the broadcast ministries. They registered voters and lobbied Congress. And they trained and encouraged conservatives in the fine art of running for office.’25]

The Moral Majority was to endure for ten years. It suffered a turbulent history, being attacked for its attempts to dominate the Republican Party, the fact it’s opinions were not representative of many Christians, and for the various scandals which befell prominent members who displayed less than moral behaviour in their private lives, leading to the joke that the Moral Majority was ‘neither moral nor a majority’ Finally Jerry Falwell disbanded the organisation, and this was seen by many as the end of the Religious Right. Despite the fact it is often referred to as no longer extant, in fact the Moral Majority exists again at the time of writing ‘now as ‘The Moral Majority Coalition’ [26]. Jerry Falwell writes of his time with the Moral Majority

‘At that time, God burdened my heart to mobilize religious conservatives around a pro-life, pro-family, strong national defense and pro-Israel platform, designed to return America to her Judeo-Christian heritage. And I distinctively feel that burden again. Our nation simply cannot continue as we know it if we allow out-of-control lawmakers and radical judges working at the whims of society to alter the moral foundations of America.[27]

We have already noted the importance of the Moral Majority in creating ‘voter education’ as a strategy, and there can be little doubt of their success in influencing the Republican Party to further their aims for a ‘Christian America.’ The process of infiltration of the Republican Party was to continue over the next twenty five years, and is a matter of public record; the Religious Right are proud of their success in winning the Republican Party for Jesus, and it has been recounted many times. [28]

After the collapse of the Moral Majority following a number of scandals in 1989 veteran televangelist Pat Robertson created the Christian Coalition, and the organisations which today front the Religious Right came in to being.

Notes for Part One

[1] Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997,, p.14

2 Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997,, p.45-75 inclusive.

3 Bawer, Bruce, Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, (Three Rivers Press, New York, 1997), p.13

4 cited in Bawer, Bruce, Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, (Three Rivers Press, New York, 1997), p.13

5 Utter, Glenn, and Storey, John The Religious Right; A Reference Handbook, ABC-CLIO, Oxford, 1995, Table 1, p.78

6 reproduced in Utter, Glenn, and Storey, John The Religious Right; A Reference Handbook, ABC-CLIO, Oxford, 1995, Table 3, p.78

7 reproduced in Utter, Glenn, and Storey, John The Religious Right; A Reference Handbook, ABC-CLIO, Oxford, 1995, Table 2, p.77

8 reproduced in Utter, Glenn, and Storey, John The Religious Right; A Reference Handbook, ABC-CLIO, Oxford, 1995, Table 2, p.77

9 The Christian Coalition maintain a website at http://www.cc.org/ (12/12/04)

10 http://www.cc.org/content.cfm?id=173, Press Release, dated November 3rd 2004. (11/12/04)

11 http://www.cc.org/mission.cfm ‘Our Mission’ (05/01/05)

13 The concern with Israel is largely due to their Dispensationalist theology, and Israel’s perceived role in the End Times.

14 ‘Compared to other U.S. conservatives, neoconservatives are characterized by an aggressive stance on foreign policy, a lesser social conservatism, and weaker dedication to a policy of minimal government. The "newness" refers either to being new to American conservatism (often coming from liberal or socialist backgrounds) or to being part of a "new wave" of conservative thought and political organization.’ Taken from the internet encyclopaedia wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoconserv ... ted_States) (10/12/04)

The influential Reconstructionist thinker Gary North offers an interesting and fairly positive examination of Neo-Conservatism at http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north180.html (10/01/05)

15 The issues concerning The Christian Coalition for 2005 are outlined on their website at http://www.cc.org/issues.cfm (10/01/05)

16 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4013053.stm (16/11/04)

17 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4013053.stm (16/11/04) She is not the first or the last Republican to denounce the Christian Conservatives as in no way representative of mainstream Republicanism; for example see http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/02/ ... rchStories

(16/11/04) where candidate McCain labelled Pat Robertson an intolerant extremist

18 http://www.cc.org/ (5/01/05)

19 Concerned Women for America maintain a website at http://www.cwfa.org/main.asp (12/12/04)

20 Focus On The Family maintain a website at http://www.family.org/ (12/12/04)

21 Boston, Robert, Close Encounters With the Religious Right, (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2000)

22 http://www.wallbuilders.com/aboutus/index.htm (12/12/04)

23 http://www.wallbuilders.com/events/Past ... iefing.htm (12/12/04)

24 Murray Brown, Ruth, For A Christian America; A History of the Religious Right, (Prometheus Books, New York, 2002)

25 Marty, Martin E., and Appleby, R. Scott, The Fundamentalism Project: Fundamentalisms Observed, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1991), p.44

26The Moral Majority Coalition maintain a website at http://www.faithandvalues.us/ (30/10/04)

27 http://www.faithandvalues.us/ (30/10/04)

28 for example see Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997), page 70
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Re: On the Religious Right in the USA

#2  Postby jerome » Feb 27, 2010 9:12 pm

Part Two: Church & State

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

The central concern of the Religious Right is the issue of separation of Church and State, and resistance to that separation. The idea of America as a ‘Christian Nation’ runs directly counter to this separation, which is based on the idea of America as a secular nation. The declared enemy of the Religious Right are the forces of “Secular Humanism", especially those who attempt to enforce this separation of Church and State in law. The main objection to the idea of America as being a ‘Christian Nation’ therefore lies within the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It is one of the ten amendments to the Constitution designed to avoid the possibility of government tyranny, and is known as the Bill of Rights, being ratified on December 15th, 1791. The religion referred to is probably Christianity by implication, and yet it was a bold step. While the amendment doesn’t directly state that there is a separation of Church and State, the implication is still there. The amendment is stating that there will be no established Church of America, Establishment meaning a state church such as the Church of England. The amendment is also assumed to mean that no public body will endorse a specific religion. Here the new US government at one stroke abolished all idea of the USA ever having a National Church.

It is easy, as Hughes [29] does, to demonstrate Deist ideas and a commitment to a secular State in the writings of the Founding Fathers. To give one example he cites the work of William G. McLoughlin, describing how the USA during the Presidency of John Adams concluded a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli, part of which read ‘As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian Religion’’ and pointing out that that Treaty was ratified by over two thirds of the US Senate and signed by John Adams himself. [30] Hughes however goes on to argue that such an idea, of a Nation without a State Church, (or one might add being subject to the ecclesiastical authority of the international Roman Catholic Church), was revolutionary, and while pioneered by some of the Colonies, the idea of ‘Christian America’ arose in opposition to this, in the early National period.

Hughes charts its origin as arising in opposition to the Constitution’s radical idea of a Secular State, where religious freedom meant no Established Church and what he describes as a vague Deist underpinning of those moral principles which were held in common by most Americans, regardless of specific denomination. The older idea of a specifically Christian colony, which acted as a model society, and was governed by religious principle and was in some ways theocratic, in that the rules created by men should mirror the perceived truths of God’s Law, was set aside in a bold attempt to unite different colonies with different denominational and religious attitudes. Freedom from religious persecution and tolerance were to prevail over sectarian aspirations to create godly societies. It was the conflict of these two ideologies, that of the secular State, and that of the Christian Nation, which led to one of the most controversial and hotly contested elections of American history, that which eventually led to the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Frederick Clarkson begins his analysis of the struggle between those who believe in the ideology of the Christian Nation, and the Secularists in his book Eternal Hostility [31] with this event. Clarkson writes’

Numerous sermons were preached’ warning that if Jefferson were elected he would discredit religion, overthrow the church and destroy the Bible’ These preachers, aligned with the Federalists, warned that electing a ‘“deist or infidel’to the presidency would be no less than ‘“rebellion against God’’[32]

Yet it was an election which led to the victory of Jefferson, and the triumph of separation of Church and State. State legislatures followed the spirit of the Second Amendment and by 1833 the last to do so, Massachusetts, disestablished. The modern USA had firmly committed to separation of Church and State, and while the scope of that separation has increased over the years, the basis for all subsequent legislation is the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. It was the Constitution, the first Ten Amendments today known as The Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence which brought the USA in to existence. Those documents have in themselves taken on an almost sacred value to Americans, and it is over the interpretation of those documents that the dispute between those who believe in a ‘Christian Nation’, and those who desire a separation of Church and Sate, primarily clash. Frederick Clarkson sees the ongoing struggle between the Religious Right and ‘“Secular Humanists’as a conflict between these two ideologies; between two varying ‘myths’ of what America means.

One is the ‘City upon a Hill’, the Pilgrim Father’s America; an America which was established as a radical new religious community with a direct responsibility to God, as an example to the in their eyes corrupt religious ways of Europe, and between the Jeffersonian republic where religion was no longer to take a central place in government or political discourse.

Oddly, both approaches were designed to actually protect religious freedom and liberty. In Europe, the State Churches had established doctrinal correctness, just as the Catholic Church had always done, and to practice religion in a different manner was both heretical and an affront to the law and government. For reasons briefly discussed in Part Three religious minorities were often seen as persecuted, and therefore the Pilgrims and other early religious colonists were concerned with allowing freedom of conscience in the new colonies ‘they were in fact refugees from religious intolerance. However, as any examination of early Colonial North America soon shows, they could be equally guilty of religious persecution themselves, if the ideas were considered too radical ‘many Quakers suffered persecution, including hanging for their practices. By the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the religious composition of the colonies was diverse, including Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, Anglicans in Virginia and Congregationalists and Presbyterians in New England, as well as a sizeable Jewish population. The new nation, the United States of America could easily have been torn apart on religious issues, and so the creation of a State where no one religion was recognised was an eminently practical way of ensuring full religious liberty and uniting the colonies.

To claim that the idea of America as a Christian Nation was the Founders of 1776 intent is extraordinarily difficult, yet it is precisely that work of reinterpreting the past and the Second Amendment which is required if the idea of the ‘Christian Nation’ is to be considered valid, and it is a work which the Religious Right have undertaken enthusiastically. It is much easier to demonstrate the deep piety and theocratic leanings of many in the early Colonial Period, and the story of the Pilgrim Fathers has been enshrined in many ways beyond its significance, as the story of the USA. This idea of God fearing folk fleeing persecution to find true freedom and to live pious lives in a new paradise is engrained in American national mythology; as has the idea of the Divine mandate which led to the overthrow of the British in 1776- 1783 and the creation of the USA as a nation free from the tyranny of the ‘Evil Empire’, and blessed by God.

Theologian J Denny Weaver has commented

This founding myth becomes the story of every American, even recent immigrants sworn in as citizens, who learn that their newly acquired freedom comes from George Washington’s defeat of the evil British in 1776. A central feature emerging from this myth is the idea of the nation’s chosenness. [33]

When an excited crowd chants ‘USA, USA’’ or someone yells ‘We’re the greatest country in the world!’ this patriotic chorus in fact embodies a peculiarly US myth ‘that the USA was founded by God’s hand, and that in some sense the country is not just a Christian Nation, but like Israel of Old, a ‘Chosen Nation’. The theological underpinnings for this are discussed in Part Three, as is the extreme embodiment of this idea, Secular Religion, where the Flag, Constitution and Nation itself become elevated to a scared dimension, items worthy of worship. The Chosen Nation rhetoric and the idea that America is in some way a unique nation with a special destiny or role is called American Exceptionalism, and is a belief that is often found in Religious Right writings, even if often denied. It is discussed in Part Five, American Myths.

So how does the Religious Right respond to the First Amendment, a clause which seems to explicitly deny the idea of a ‘Christian Nation’?

Most in the Religious Right will agree that this amendment means that there is to be no Established national church. However most leaders, such as Pat Robertson, deny that the state cannot endorse a religion. Because the literal phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not found in the Constitution, they say that no separation exists.

Their argument is based on two principles, firstly that while no Established denomination was to be instituted, the assumption was that America would be a Christian country. Certainly there were Jews in America, and perhaps some avowed sceptics, but largely the population at the time of the drafting of the Constitution belonged to one of the denominations of Christianity.

Some, perhaps many Americans have a strong affection for their country’s history and its founders, especially those who are dubbed ‘The Founding Fathers’. They are the people who attended the First Continental Congress and were involved in the drafting of The Constitution of the United States of America. These men (for no women were involved in the framing of the Constitution) are held in a certain reverence, a sort of hero worship and are regarded as ‘Great Americans’. It is almost unthinkable to criticise them; the more famous are studied in all American schools.

It is this affection and honour for these ‘American National Heroes’ which those in the Religious Right are attempting to use as their second major argument to convince the public of their position. They claim that their views are in accordance with those of the nation’s founders, and that the Founding Fathers, heroes of the national myth, wanted America to be set up as a ‘Christian Nation.’, for they were, in the majority, pious Christians themselves. Some Religious Right leaders, who will be discussed in this chapter, have gone as far as falsifying quotes from the founders in order to support the Christian Nation claims. Some comments are merely dubious or misleading such as ‘There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore.’[34]

One of the reasons the dispute is so sharp is that in some sense the ‘original intent’ of the creators of the nation is held to give authority to political solutions now; so great is the respect for the Founding Fathers and Constitution, that much US political debate discusses around whether an idea is ‘unconstitutional’; that is illegal; but there is also a definite feeling that the Constitution is more than a mere set of laws ‘it is a sacred document. [35] Such elevation of patriotism to the religious sphere, at least in language if not in practice, is referred to by sociologists of religion as ‘American Secular Religion’ ‘where the state usurps the role of God.

What is at issue here is not a dry question of history; it is the very mythology of the ‘Christian Nation’. So how does the Religious Right respond?

In response to ‘liberal historians’ various Christian authors have released their own versions of history. In books like Tim LaHaye’s Faith of Our Founding Fathers, [36] the idea of a Christian America with Christian Founders is strongly defended, by reference to historical documents and biographies. He attempts to demonstrate that while there were a few Deists involved, overwhelmingly the Founding Fathers would today be identified as men in sympathy with the ideals and aspirations of ‘The Religious Right.’ It is more than a matter of dull historical debate ‘to LaHaye, it is a call to action, and a battle to preserve the true meaning (as he sees it) of the US Constitution’

If we sit back and let the secularisers continue to dominate the government, the courts, the media, and education, those guarantees will be lost. Fortunately a groundswell of concerned citizens is getting involved. They.. will wrest control of this nation from the hands of the secularisers, and place it back in to the hand of those who founded this nation, citizens who had a personal and abiding faith in the god of the Bible. [37]

The most notorious of these authors is David Barton. Barton is the founder of Wallbuilders[38], an organization dedicated to keeping the idea of America’s Christian History alive. When Religious Right leaders discuss the founding of America they will inevitably quote Barton’s works. Unfortunately, it has been discovered that not all of Barton’s works were completely true. Author Robert Boston comments

In its original 1989 version, The Myth of Separation was a classic example of slipshod research, the type of thing common among Religious Right books. In the book, Barton attempts to prove that separation of church and state is a myth that was never intended by the framers’ the back cover contained a long list of quotations allegedly uttered by the Founding Fathers ‘ nearly all of which turned out to be bogus, as Barton himself admitted in 1996. [39]

Despite these shortcomings, David Barton and his WallBuilders organisation remains a very influential group, if the claims on the organisations website to hold regular meetings between pastors and Congressmen and Senators are to be believed. He has certainly in the past been invited to many political functions, appearing alongside prominent Republican politicians[40] and he is also extremely influential as a source for other Religious Right authors, like Tim LaHaye, when writing on American History.

The key concept lying behind this struggle is the idea that America was once a uniquely Christian Nation, and was founded upon Christian values, and that role must be resumed. Recent struggles have erupted over the abolition of School Prayer, attempts to have the phrase ‘One Nation Under God’ removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and over attempts to remove religious monuments from court rooms and government buildings. [41] The American Civil Liberties Union and judges who have made rulings which are seen as overly enforcing this separation of Church and State are seen as anti-Christian, and repeatedly the imagery used is militaristic. There is a to them a war going on, as David Limbaugh states

‘what remains is the bald conclusion that that the object of the seperationist’s desire is not to preserve religious liberty by limiting governments involvement in ‘“religion.’Rather, it is to remove, piece by piece, every vestige of Christianity in our culture and replace it with values they deem preferable[42]

The Religious Right seek to restore what they see as America’s heritage, and to assert their vision of American history as being that of heroic Christian men forging a mighty nation free from tyranny, as truth. They are in fact quite right in pointing to the Christian emphasis and beliefs of many of the early settlers, and in particular those who in the Colonial era comprised the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yet the Puritans were not the only American forefathers, and while the Puritans have come to embody a special place in America’s heart, and are commemorated every fourth Thursday in November, they are not necessarily representative. However the pre-Colonial emphasis on a godly nation has had a dramatic influence on the thinking of the Religious Right, and to them America is a Christian Nation by history, perverted by misinterpretation of the First Amendment.

Part Two Notes

29Hughes, R.T, Myths America Lives By, University of Illinois Press, 2004,, p.66

30 ibid, p.66

31 Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997

37 ibid, p.6

38 Weaver, J Denny ‘“Responding to September 11 ‘and October 7 and January 29: which Religion shall we follow?’ in Conrad Grebel Review Vol. 20; No. 2, Spring 2002, p.80

39 Pat Robertson, November 1993 during an address to the American Centre for Law and Justice

40 For examples, see http://www.logcabinwa.com/archive/200402111514.shtml, http://www.zionsbest.com/glorious.html, ... tyBell.htm, etc. A brief search on the web will produce thousands of examples of the term ‘sacred’ applied to the US Constitution, elevating it to the status of a religious or divinely inspired text.

41 LaHaye, Tim, Faith of Our Founding Fathers, Master Books, Green Forest, AZ, 1990

42 ibid, p.15

43 Wallbuilders maintains a website at http://www.wallbuilders.com/ (01/11/04)

44Boston, Robert, Close Encounters With the Religious Right, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2000 p.230

45Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997, p.17

46 This is covered by many Religious Right authors, but in particular by Limbaugh, David, Persecution; How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, (Regnery, Washington, DC, 2003) and Robertson, Pat, The Ten Offenses; Reclaim the Blessings of the Ten Commandments, (Integrity, Brentwood, TN, 2004). See also Jerry Falwell, who wrote ‘Modern U.S. Supreme Courts have raped the Constitution and raped the Christian faith and raped the churches by misinterpreting what the founders had in mind in the First Amendment of the Constitution... [W]e must fight against those radical minorities who are trying to remove God from our textbooks, Christ from our nation. We must never allow our children to forget that this is a Christian nation. We must take back what is rightfully ours.’ in a March 1993 sermon

47 Limbaugh, David, Persecution; How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, (Regnery, Washington, DC, 2003), p.235
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Re: On the Religious Right in the USA

#3  Postby jerome » Feb 27, 2010 9:14 pm

Part Three: Reconstructionism: Towards Theocracy…

"When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil."
--Gary Potter, president of Catholics for Christian Political Action

As we have already seen, the Religious Right is engaged in a very specific programme of attempting to render the USA a ‘Christian Nation’, largely by participating in existing democratic structures. There are however a number of influential American Christians who desire to go much further, in to full theocracy – the Reconstructionists.

Reconstructionism is the term applied to those Christians whose vision of a 'Christian Nation' goes beyond granting Christianity a 'special role' in American government and politics, but rather who wish to entirely replace the existing political structure with one modelled upon Biblical Law; that is upon the law codes found in the Hebrew Bible. Such a radical programme would result in a system of 'Godly Government'; in short a Theocracy. Obviously there would be no place for secularism, sexual minorities or dissidents in such a new society; the death penalty is much debated among Reconstructionists, but the majority of Reconstructionist writings declare in favour of stoning and the death penalty for offences which are currently not even misdemeanours, but acceptable practices in American society. Homosexuals, adulterers, those of other faiths, and rebellious children are among those who could be executed if a Reconstructionist nation came in to existence. Democracy and the current understanding of Civil Rights would be overthrown.

Reconstructionism was born out of a small group of theologians working in the 1960s and 1970s. The theology is born out of the Covenant Theology we addressed in the previous chapter, and pioneered by The Institutes of Biblical Law, his 1973 exegesis of the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament Law of Israel as it could be applied to America today, by Rousas John Rushdooney. To Rushdooney all law is religious in nature, and therefore any non-Christian law must be inherently ‘an anti-Christian religion.’[43]

His son-in-law Gary North became a leading Reconstructionist writer, theorist and authority, and Rushdooney and North effectively created modern Reconstructionism out of their interpretation of how a Godly Theocracy could work in today's America. Both Rushdooney and another Reconstructionist theologian, the Rev. Greg Bahnsen were students of the theologian Cornelius Van Til, and while Van Til never joined the Reconstructionists his thought and writings were highly influential upon there outlook and he is still regarded with great respect.[44]

Van Til's influence was greatest in the concept of Presuppositionalism, which holds that no knowledge is possible of anything by philosophical or rational enquiry, except by the revealed Word of God; the Bible. Reconstructionism is completely and unashamedly bibliocentric, testing all claims to truth and moral authority against the Bible, and finding within the bible a legal and governmental set of principles which should in their minds be binding upon all communities even in this modern age. Because the history of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament shows a number of differing governmental structures, for example such as that between the reign of the Judges and the Kingship, and at times apparently conflicting legal rulings, such as those on the subject of marrying ones brother's wife, it was necessary to construct a consistent and logical set of case laws based on Old Testament principle, and this was the ambitious undertaking of Rushdooney in The Institutes of Biblical Law.

So what is the proposed model of government for the Reconstructionists? They advocate theonomy, a three part system, which identifies the three centres of governance as Family, Church and Civil Government.

Frederick Clarkson has argued extensively that while the Christian Coalition and other groups such as Focus on the Family represent the mainstream of Religious Right political activity, the ideology which underlies these groups is heavily influenced by Reconstructionist ideas. He writes
The significance of the Reconstructionist Movement is not in its numbers but in the power of its ideas and their surprisingly rapid acceptance. Many on the Christian Right are unaware that they hold Reconstructionist ideas. Many who are consciously influenced by Reconstructionism avoid the label because it is controversial, even in the Evangelical community. [45]

Gary Scott Smith has identified the extent to which Reconstructionist ideologies have spread. The ideology has become popular among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, particularly the independent Baptists, Charismatics, and smaller Reformed denominations. Home schoolers, libertarians, and the Religious Right have also have also been identified as influenced by the movement. Reconstructionism is similar in some ways to the theocratic forms of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan which attempt to do away entirely with the difference between church and state, and secular and religious law. The same period has also seen right wing religious theocrats gaining political influence within BJP Hindu nationalism in India and within Judaism, right wing fundamentalists in the state of Israel.[46]

Reconstructionism is the Christian face of a global phenomenon which looks toward establishing fundamentalist theocratic governments and maybe a response to the rapid secularisation and technological change of the 20th century. How influential is it really on the mainstream Religious Right, and groups such as the Christian Coalition?

The Coalition on Revival [47] is the organisation which acts as the major meeting point for the ‘mainstream’ Religious Right and the Reconstructionists. For reasons discussed in the next chapter, there are theological differences between the Religious Right as represented by the larger organisations, and the Reconstructionists, yet the Coalition on Revival represented a serious attempt to overcome that distance. The tension between the Reconstructionists, and those in the Religious Right who do not advocate theocracy, is not born out of political idealism – it is born out of theological differences. The Coalition on Revival which includes in its membership a dazzling array of Religious Right luminaries and Reconstructionist Thinkers has created a set of policy documents which are designed to heal those rifts – to cite Clarkson

…has sought in this way to forge a trans-denominational theology—a process which has included the creation of 17 “worldview documents”, a Manifesto of the Christian Church, and a set of theological tenets called the 25 Articles.[48]

These fascinating documents can be viewed easily on the internet[49], and contain a very strong Reconstructionist agenda, which is hardly surprising when you learn their authors include Gary North and RJ Rushdooney, both of whom have also significantly lectured at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

It is necessary to briefly mention the influence of the Reconstructionist’s Theology on the American Patriot Movement, or as it is better known, the Militia Movement. [50] Some (but not all) of the Militias have avowedly Christian aims, and sympathize strongly with Rushdooney who is regarded as a hero by these libertarian Americans. Rushdooney himself, and the Reconstructionists generally, have repeatedly denied that they are interested in violence, and it is their influence on the thinking of the Religious Right’s more mainstream adherents as the Religious Right move towards influence in Washington which is perhaps of greater significance in the long run. The question remains – why would those who promote the idea of ‘Christian America’ wish to identify themselves with extremists such as the Reconstructionists? The answer lies in a theological issue, which we will now turn to…

Chapter Three Notes

43 Rushdooney, J.R, Institutes of Biblical Law, (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1973), p.74

44 Ammerman, Nancy T, ‘North American Protestant Fundamentalism’ in Marty, Martin E., and Appleby, R. Scott, ed. The Fundamentalism Project: Fundamentalisms Observed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1991, p51

45 Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997, p.77

46 Marty, Martin E., and Appleby, R. Scott, The Fundamentalism Project: Fundamentalisms Observed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1991

47 The Coalition on Revival maintains a website at http://www.reformation.net/ (21/12/04)

48 Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997, p.97

49 http://www.angelfire.com/ca4/cor/ (12/01/05)

50 Clarkson, Frederick Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, 1997, p.103
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