Nothing brings religion in to focus quite like the Republican primaries. Each of the eight major candidates have done their best to burnish their Christian credentials before the electorate. Now the field is down to four. With the South Carolina primary hanging in the balance today (polls close in 10 minutes), the GOP contenders for the presidency continue to attempt to out-Jesus their competition – this is the key to winning Red.
Despite what some may think, it wasn’t always this way. The latest strange marriage of religion and politics didn’t emerge until the 1970’s. I say the latest due to the fact that during the 1950’s and the Red Scare of communism, the country was staunchly Christian, not wanting anyone to mistake the fact that God was on our side in the war of blood and ideologies.
It was in the 50’s that we adopted “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance; that we added “In God We Trust” to our money as well as our nation’s motto. Back in the day, differences between Democrats and Republicans were not starkly highlighted by the quality of faith or belief – they were left to policy issues.
The 60’s and 70’s changed that model. Vietnam, Watergate, Integration (and the Civil Rights Act), and Roe versus Wade changed the social dynamic of the country and the political climate.
The Democratic Party evolved as the champion of personal liberties – an often uncomfortable marriage that tied support of unions, working class whites along with support to poor blacks attempting to emerge from the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow.
Republicans of that era believed in less government interference, pro-business policies that would spur employment and the economy. These were Romney Republicans – no, not Mitt – his father George, who, as CEO of a large business declined a $250k bonus claiming that no one needed that much money. The marginal tax rate through the 60’s and 70’s hovered between 50-70 percent. The disparity between CEO compensation and average workers was ridiculously low compared to today.
The resignation of Richard Nixon on the heels of the 1972 Supreme Court decision on the matter of abortion energized evangelicals to play a larger role in politics. This was the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. It is absolutely telling that the evangelical movement made a calculated decision to support the candidacy of a once-divorced Ronald Reagan over the Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Whether or not evangelical support decided the final vote tally, the marriage of religion and politics was sealed in that 1980 election.
Ronald Reagan understood the power of evangelical support and courted it often; however, during his presidency, conservative evangelicals were more often than not frustrated by Reagan’s refusal to push legislation that would reverse Roe v. Wade along with other social issues near and dear to the conservative heart. Reagan arrived at the White House a Goldwater/Romney republican and never changed his stripes.
In the following elections, evangelicals doubled down. The elder Bush’s election in 1988 was nearly unavoidable – an 8 year sitting Vice President to a man that many would love to see emblazoned on Mount Rushmore, could not be denied by evangelicals,although Pat Buchanan did try.
The Republican party attempted to return to its’ roots during the 1990’s through the nomination of the Bob Dole/Jack Kemp ticket in 1996, but the real turn came in 2000 with the nomination of George W. Bush – a president not as savvy as Reagan in terms of understanding how to manipulate the evangelicals to his advantage.
The presidencies of Clinton and Obama have fueled evangelical hatred toward democratic policies, which are (and were) characterized as destroying this country. Evangelical voters demand candidates that are not only “right with God” but that are committed to restore America to God. Therefore, in order to come out of the GOP nomination process, candidates not only have to profess their faith, they literally have to announce that God told them to run for the nation’s highest office!
This is where the marriage of religion and politics has run a muck. Since evangelicals have become ensconced in the political process, the number of Americans affiliating with religion has been on a strong decline. Not just the number of non-believers, but the number of Christians that no longer feel represented by their religious denominations. Politics have always been ugly business. The election that made Thomas Jefferson our nation’s third president was a bitter battle between John Adams, the sitting president and Jefferson’s proxies (an early 19th century version of Swift Boating). Today is no different – in order to win elections you must demonize your opponent.
Placing religion front and center of this process demands that evangelicals, and their religious beliefs, get just as dirty as the candidates seeking the nomination – something that many Americans find distasteful and abhorrent. It’s a classic case of careful what you wish for, you just may get it. If evangelicals are successful in nominating Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to be the party nominee and somehow to be President of the United States, it may well be in the end a Pyrrhic victory. In the short term it may lead to public policy changes evangelicals will cheer for, but in the longer run, it very well could lead to a backlash, not only to the policies themselves, but the religion that drove the policies in the first place. It could usher in a generation of progressive policies that conservatives cannot stand for.
The Republican candidates are not just about expressing their faith for everyone to see, they throw their disdain on the alternative – secularism, giving the crowds of supporters red meat to feast on. In their own words:
Speaking at the National Catholic Prayer breakfast, Newt Gingrich on Wednesday warned Catholics that Europe’s “crisis of secularism” — spawning a “government-favored culture to replace Christianity” — has seized the United States. “The American elites are guided by their desire to emulate the European elites and, as a result, anti-religious values and principles are coming to dominate the academic, news media and judicial class in America.” Link
“I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it. I think that it is a very dangerous threat to anybody who believes in traditional religion.” Link
“Ultimately Kennedy’s attempt to reassure Protestants that the Catholic Church would not control the government and suborn its independence advanced a philosophy of strict separation that would create a purely secular public square cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths. He laid the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left and its political arms like the ACLU and the People for the American Way. This has and will continue to create dissension and division in this country as people of faith increasingly feel like second-class citizens.” Link
“We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution.” Link
“The notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers. On the contrary, our Founders’ political views were strongly informed by their religious beliefs.” Link
“Through perverse court decisions and years of cultural indoctrination, the elitist, secular Left has managed to convince many in our nation that religion must be driven from public view. The justification is always that someone, somewhere, might possibly be offended or feel uncomfortable living in the midst of a largely Christian society, so all must yield to the fragile sensibilities of the few. The ultimate goal of the anti-religious elites is to transform America into a completely secular nation, a nation that is legally and culturally biased against Christianity.” Link
“I support the repeal of the New Hampshire law,” Romney said. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s my view.” Link
“We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism.” Link
Then there is this interesting quote by the Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who could basically serve as a speechwriter for any of the top four Republican candidates:
“What motivates these elitists is anti-Christianism and anti-historic Americanism. But to destroy America one must first destroy serious Protestantism, for the Judeo-Christian ethic is America’s founding rock. And to destroy America’s unique brand of Christianity, one must first destroy the specific American ethos that spawned it. Secularists have been successful for, apparently, they are more zealous in their crusade than we have been in our beliefs. Their religion is left/liberalism, fanatic liberalism: today’s neo-paganism. Animated by the fervor of paganism, they have managed, through intimidation, to disparage and squelch true public religiosity while spreading – missionary-like – their creed of secularism, hedonism.” Rabbi Aryeh Spero
It is important to see how secularism is being distorted by the religious right in this country. Just as the word “liberal” was made a dirty word during the Reagan-Bush era, secularism is now equated with fascism (Gingrich/Santorum) and neo-paganism (the good Christian Rabbi Spero). Romney and Paul refrain from direct attacks but they play along because this is what the Coliseum attendees are looking for – blood and sand!
American democracy is designed for gradual change built on compromise, ensuring the majority does not radically alter the fabric or course of the nation. We’ve lost sight of this aspect of politics, instead viewing it as a sport where there are winners and losers – clear cut victories. If conservatives win in the upcoming election, the desire to change the course of this country from its’ current trajectory will be too great to slow down and evaluate the repercussions from doing so. Lyndon Johnson understood the big picture in 1964 following the signing of the Civil Rights Act. A great moment for America, but one Johnson saw as surrendering the South to the Republican party for generations. Johnson knew the what the cost was to Democrats, but carried it through because he put the nation above party – sadly, those days are long gone. Politics are no longer concerned about what’s best for the country – only what’s best for the party, and what’s best for the next election – unfortunately, for all of us – religion is being dragged through this muck as well.