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The fall and rise of the religious right

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted August 24, 2009

It doesn't take much culture expertise to see that the Religious Right remains a perennial target. Anyone with a hankering for putdowns learns quickly that it's acceptable in so-called polite society to put the Religious Right down; particularly, the Christian variety. Anyone who's lonely in the big city can fit into the urbanite mold by claiming the Religious Right is intolerant, self-righteous, repressive, anti-intellectual, censorious by nature, control freaks of other people's bodies, etc., etc.

Many in the Religious Right are inured to it, although some use it as a good reason to sign up for the culture wars. It's commonplace to believe that Religious Right'ers are like the old Puritans, enforcers of orthodoxy and hunters of witches. However, there's a resemblance to another group that's not often mentioned because the two groups don't have that much in common otherwise.

About a century ago, there was another easy entry mode into what was then called polite society. It was putting down the working class. Claiming that workers were lesser beings, good for physical labor but not much else, was mainstream in those circles. Anyone that said working people were better off without access to higher education, because the higher learnings would only give them a bad case of the vainglories, would have said it to a receptive audience. It was daring, but not out of bounds, to claim that workers were in some respects subhuman. The intellectual mainstream back then was quite tolerant of claims that working people were: improvident by nature; permanent children; unfit for self-improvement; brutes; bullies; unable to take care of themselves in a modern economy; inferior. Yes, the antecedents to today's liberal do-gooders believed it too; some, however, added some mother henning. The supposed rowdiness of the working class was one of the arguments used by the eugenicists to promote their patent panacea.

When you consider what was considered acceptable back then, it's no wonder that the term "middle class" acquired a taint. Suffice it to say that anyone with today's normal attitude would have been sized up in educated circles as either a smelly radical or a self-deluded fool back then.

The Similarities

Rather than linger over how mutable the mainstream is, let me point out the similarities between today's Religious Right and the labor-union movement a century ago. The differences are easy to spot, as the two movements had different political goals. Although "Catholic Labor" organizations sprung up, the mainstream union movement didn't turn away atheist help. Their goals were secular, and largely driven by group interest or plain patriotism. The Religious Right's specific goals differ.

However, the two movements entered politics largely to right wrongs suffered by their members. Both movements also have a passion for fighting encroachments: automation or cheapened labor for unions; abortion or government-enforced secularism for the Religious Right. The former group called attention to flouting of safety; the latter group calls attention to flouting of Judeo-Christian morals. Interestingly, the opponents of both groups use a narrative of individual rights. What's called the rights of the individual has changed profoundly in the ensuing century, but the label used is the same.

There's even some similarity in the development of the two movements. The ill-fated Moral Majority is not dissimilar to the ill-fated Knights of Labor: both even attracted the same retread-Voltaire witticism. [Here's the cookie cutter version: "They're not _____ and they are certainly not the ________."]  Both groups' disappearance hailed a more moderate tone for a while. Granted that the Religious Right has not yet produced a Sam Gompers, who publicly sent the hard radicals packing, but they might. Just as the labor unions did before they came into their own politically, the Religious Right is largely waiting its turn while learning the political ropes.

These parallels may sound abstract, but there is one that's strikingly concrete: Waco. It's the Religious Right's Haymarket Square.

The Future

Prediction is always an art, and typically uses conditionals. That's because we can't control each other's behaviors, let alone predict them. I'm assuming that the above parallels are sufficiently close to herald the Religious Right coming into its own in about a generation or so. The crucial similarity in this regard is the putdowns. A group of people can only be picked on for so long before it occurs to the silent majority that they're simply being bullied. This leads to that group being seen as the beset-upon underdog.

This reordering of the moral mainstream isn't sufficient to bring an underfooted movement into the political mainstream. That takes a crisis where the formerly-disparaged groups prove to be crucial in responding to it. A lot of the mainstream clout of the labor unions came from working people's service in both World Wars, particularly the Second. Should the Religious Right prove to be a lifesaver in the next mass war, they will earn a similar clout.

Will it happen? There are already alarums being raised about the evangelicalization of the American military. Evangelicals have shown an increasingly obvious desire to serve, and will likely be the most eager to do so if all-out war ensues. This attention to duty doesn't translate into much political clout with a professionalized all-volunteer army, but it will if conscription has to be resorted to again. I'm not the only one to note the parallel between the easy victories enjoyed by the U.S. military now and the easy victories enjoyed by H.M.'s Imperial Forces before World War 1. All it takes is engaging a new enemy that proves to be shockingly hard to beat.

I grant that my quasi-prediction is based upon an obvious if-then. There's no inevitability about a new mass war – call it Mass War IV, or III if Vietnam doesn't count – because American foreign policy isn't that bad in picking its spots. Americans also lack the John-Bull bellicosity that Britain had on the eve of World War 1. The United States may well not go to war against a much tougher and more resourceful foe, like (say) the People's Republic of China. Trade treaties make that course of action even harder, unless America itself is attacked by such a foe. Any attack from that kind of foe is unlikely at this time. My suspicion that there will be another mass war within a generation does seem unfounded for these reasons. The foreseeable future only shows limited wars, like the War on Terror has been.

History, though, has its surprises. There was a widespread belief a century ago that war was becoming obsolete, and that war itself was an atavism. World War 1 was even advertised as the "war that would end war." We all know that it didn't turn out the way it was expected to.

If the Religious Right does come into its own, there will likely be a rear-guard action designed to put evangelicals and their non-Protestant equivalents "back in their place." It may succeed, but not for long; the targets eventually become inured to even cruel words and deeds. Ordinary people remember service above and beyond the call of duty, including by stigmatized people who nevertheless pull the needed load.

I'd give it about a generation before we start hearing this characteristic bat-back from a formerly stigmatized interest group:

"How would you like to see it?" ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.


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