The Language & Logic of the Religious Right

In recent conversations with my more liberal and Democratic friends, they express a certain incredulity that anyone could find the platitudes and certainties of the Republican Party and, especially the Religious Right, persuasive. Of course, liberals have their own set of platitudes that these friends overlook with ease. Still, watching the GOP debates, I am reminded of how differently a large part of the GOP electorate views not just this issue or that, but the entire worldview they bring to their evaluation of policies and candidates.

As I tossed around ideas about this, I realized I had already set forth my main thoughts, and done so in a way that does not require much in the way of amendment. It is four years since I wrote these words below in the introduction to my biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I am heading off to a conference this morning, and so I share with the readership this analysis of Falwell whose legacy still shapes the Republican Party in fundamental (as well as fundamentalist) ways.

Most importantly, Falwell did not only identify key issues for his constituency and make them central planks in the GOP platform, he introduced the language and the logic of orthodoxy into politics. The religion he brought into the public square had nothing in common with the “civic religion” of earlier times, indeed, his fundamentalism was completely at odds with the generic, non-denominational religious references that had previously been the way religion found expression in the political life of the nation. Dwight Eisenhower gave voice to that civic religion perfectly when he stated, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Falwell cared what it is. He brought all the sense of certainty that he had found in his fundamentalist Christianity into the political realm, and he did so at a time when many Americans were afraid that the nation suffered from too much uncertainty. Many who did not share all of Falwell’s views nonetheless appreciated his commitment to stand as a bulwark against the self-doubt and malaise that plagued America in the late 1970s.

This language and logic of orthodoxy did not always fit well with American politics. Economic policy, for example, had normally been about the adjudication of interests. If liberals wanted to raise the minimum wage by one dollar, and conservatives did not want to raise it at all, they could reach compromise with a fifty cent increase. But, in Falwell’s view of the world, raising taxes and increasing the size and reach of government were evidence of creeping socialism, which was the kissin’ cousin of communism, and communism was evil. Falwell’s pro-capitalist stance, specifically his commitment to lower taxes and smaller government, a commitment he shared with Ronald Reagan, has become the most widely shared article of the Republican faith ever since. A preference for lower taxes became an ideological commitment which can never be compromised.

On the other hand, on an issue like abortion, which really did entail categorical distinctions, Falwell’s intervention brought a much-needed clarity to the debate. The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision had tried to balance a woman’s right to privacy with the state’s interest in protecting life, but Falwell recognized that such a formulation was inadequate. To him, the unborn baby was a baby nonetheless, and if it was a baby, then it deserved to have the full protection of the law. The issue of abortion, cast in such categorical terms, has become a perennial issue precisely because Falwell succeeded in re-defining it in categorical terms.

Falwell’s frequent claim that America was a “Christian nation,” was contentious to say the least. He developed the belief, still evident in conservative political circles, that America’s Founders were profoundly influenced by their faith, and that he and other religious believers could better appreciate what the Founders intended. Those who did not share their views were betraying the Founding. This overlooks the fact that the American Founding happened in the heyday of Deism, and a God who is uninvolved with human affairs is easier to keep out of the way of achieving political objectives. The Deist god that Thomas Jefferson acknowledged had little in common with the personal, miracle-producing God whom Jerry Falwell worshipped. The claim also overlooks the fact that different Founders wanted different things from their achievements, as evidenced by the fact that they immediately broke into parties contending for control of the country they had helped birth.

It is perhaps wrong to fault Falwell for failing to craft a more satisfying synthesis between the founding ideals of America and traditional Christianity. The “freedom of the children of God” of which St. Paul wrote bears little resemblance to the negative liberty, a freedom from government coercion, that was at the heart of the American founding. For Protestants, faith is private, a point on which the Founders would have agreed, but for the Founders, unlike Falwell, that point presumed a moral consensus that was dead by the time Falwell entered the public sphere. He wanted faith to be more than private, he wanted it to be public, and that is where the trouble begins.

The “Christian nation” claim also got Falwell into trouble with American Jews and, eventually, he abandoned the phrase. Falwell’s relationship with Jews and Israel is both more ironic and more decidedly positive than many of his other political activities. The irony is found in the twin facts that Falwell’s belief in the need to support Israel was rooted in the Bible, while the modern state of Israel was founded by thoroughly secular, European socialists, and was opposed by religiously Orthodox Jews. (Orthodox Jews viewed the man-made state as an infringement on the divine prerogative to reconstitute Israel by sending the Messiah.) Falwell himself never recognized the irony. This did not keep him from succeeding in removing the stain of anti-Semitism from conservative political circles and developing long-standing relationships with Jewish leaders both in America and Israel. Before Falwell, anti-Semitism was found almost exclusively among conservatives and after him, it was found almost exclusively in some liberal quarters.

Ultimately, although Falwell’s fundamentalist faith was the spur to his political activity, it also set a clear limit on the extent of his influence. For all the certainty it provided to a section of the electorate worried craving certainty, fundamentalism lacked the intellectual capability for an extended dialogue with those who did not share its presuppositions. The traditional Baptist belief in the authority of the individual soul, combined with the fundamentalist belief that the Bible was the only decisive guide, meant that fundamentalism lacked the kinds of intellectual traditions and schools of thought necessary to sustain political engagement. Fundamentalism provided the muscle of Falwell’s movement into politics, but that muscle was not limber and, just so, ill-suited for the task of crafting and sustaining political dialogue with those not in the fundamentalist fold.

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